Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I am, overall, exhausted by the superhero genre, and the never-ending, extended universe(s) that come(s) with it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the occasional example, such as Thor: Ragnarok or Wonder Woman. I grew up preferring DC to Marvel, but most of the comic-book adaptations I like – when I like them – come from the latter franchise, which offers greater variety of characters and stories, sometimes straying enough from the generic formula to generate something of interest. Too often, these overblown, overhyped CGI fests raise their stakes so high – here comes the end of the world, once more! – as to be virtually meaningless. I am more than happy to report, then, that not only is Black Panther a superlative representative of the Marvel model, in terms of acting and script, but also a film where the central conflict is more human-scale, with social relevance that resonates beyond the confines of the narrative.
Chadwick Boseman (42) plays T’Challa, Crown Prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. As we learn in an opening expositional voiceover (never my favorite method of delivering information), a meteorite made of “vibranium” (strongest element on earth!) crashed into the present-day site of Wakanda eons ago, leaving a massive deposit of ore that, ever since, has powered that nation’s development of a technology far beyond any other on the planet. The management of that secret treasure falls to T’Challa, as the eldest, at the death of his father, the King, though his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) – a brilliant scientist – oversees the gadgets and gizmos. Part of the family’s legacy is that whoever rules also holds the power of the mystical “black panther,” which grants superhuman strength, and more. And so T’Challa settles into his new role – after surviving a ritual challenge from a local chieftain – and prepares to rule his kingdom.
Unfortunately, trouble arrives quickly on his doorstep, in the form of a rival named Erik Killmonger, played by a magnetic Michael B. Jordan (Creed), an American mercenary in league with a vicious South African named Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis (normally a motion-capture actor known for roles like Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films). Together, they hope to steal the Wakandan technology and take over the world, although it soon turns out that Killmonger, though violent, has a more noble agenda. Killmonger has long been disturbed by the fact that Wakanda does nothing with its fantastical science other than protect its own and hide from the world. Millions of Africans suffer, and have suffered in the past, while this tiny country could have, with a fraction of its power, saved them. This has to change, he says.
Part of what makes Black Panther such a compelling film is its complicated villain. Killmonger is not wrong to long for a better world for his brothers and sisters. His methods are flawed, and his unstable personality makes him an imperfect vehicle for the message, but he has a point against which it is hard to argue. Boseman, equally strong as T’Challa, wrestles with this moral dilemma, worried about what exposure might mean to his homeland. Of such complex conflict is worthy drama made.
The rest of the cast easily hold their own against the two leads, including Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as Nakia, a warrior princess who is T’Challa’s main love interest; Danai Gurira (Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead) as Okoye, the head of Wakandan security; Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as W’Kabi, a disgruntled prince; the aforementioned Wright and Serkis; and Martin Freeman (Bilbo in the recent Hobbit films) as a CIA officer who unexpectedly finds himself fighting alongside T’Challa and his family. Everyone has talent on full display, and their easy rapport – whether as friends or enemies – is a joy to watch.
Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) does a fine job creating a cinematic world that makes sense within the rules established in its first scenes. He and his cinematographer, Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), give us images of great beauty, with a consistent design, throughout. The film, at 140 minutes, is long, though it only rarely feels so (as when it gives in to exposition). Instead, most of the time Black Panther delivers a masterful new take on the superhero origin story, fresh in its perspective and energetic in its plotting. I highly recommend.