This is a major and impressive change of focus in the MCU. Black Panther avoids many of the cliché plot devices, archetypes and formulas of standard comic book blockbusters. Calling a moratorium on planet-devastating villains, maverick heroes, romance-free story lines and people of color exclusively viewed as sidekicks, this well crafted stand-alone takes viewers on a voyage of discovery.
While it doesn’t arrive at the promised land of cinema excellence pledged by its massive pre-release hype, it is an inventive, enjoyable trip. Similar to Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther leans onto a familiar genre in a good new direction.
To begin with, the protagonist isn’t an authority-mocking bad boy with a talent for one-liners. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler has higher emotional standards and talent suiting those ambitions. Having knocked his tragic real story debut movie “Fruitvale Station” out of the park and then releasing the Rocky Balboa franchise to new heights with his African-American sequel “Creed,” Coogler adds similar levels of sorrow, hatred and compassion to this project. This isn’t the first film about a black superhero, but it’s the first in a very long time.
After his father’s death, the hero, T’Challa, is the new king of Wakanda, a hidden sanctuary kingdom where Earth’s most advanced technology and traditional African ways coexist. He’s also the nation’s globe-trotting crime fighter, keeping both roles in a challenging balance. As played by Chadwick Boseman, he’s dignified, restrained and decisive. He’s also watched by a group of spear-wielding female guards when he’s not wearing his indestructible combat suit.
T’Challa is the sort of regal futuristic leader that Iron Man’s Tony Stark might be if he’d attended a good finishing school. His main mission is to lead his nation with wisdom and bravery, keeping Wakanda’s advanced society and its reserve of precious vibranium ore with its energy-manipulating qualities hidden by the nation’s pose as Africa’s most impoverished territory. That puts him in immediate conflict with evil South African smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, in a rare non-CGI character performance that he clearly relishes).
After a long session of world-building, back story and character-introducing in the early scenes, the movie makes a second-act shift into James Bond territory. T’Challa, his unerring female bodyguard Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira) and idealistic spy/love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) set off to stop Klaue’s deal to sell stolen vibranium at an extravagant South Korean casino. This evokes the kind of shoot/furious chase/crash spectacle that we often see. The action is improved by the color-rich cinematography of Rachel Morrison (Oscar-nominated for her camera work in “Mudbound”).
Having never been colonized, Wakanda is determined to fend off oppressive control. A surprise threat to its freedom comes in the form of Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). He is a deadly American military combat veteran with surprising connections to the throne and its intrigue, and even more unexpected plans for the vibranium.
By keeping earthlings as the tale’s the bad ones, Cloogler provides a great measure of social commentary. The baddie is, at his core, a scarred antihero, and the looming conflict is an international race instead of intergalactic strife. Those cultural themes which are not hidden subtexts make Black Panther film less a black superhero’s flick than a black movie about a superhero.
Because the plot unfolds at an unhurried pace, the acting ensemble has time to build intriguing supporting characters. More about the scene-stealing turns made by Gurira (The Walking Dead) and Lupita Nyong’o (“Twelve Years a Slave”), there is marvelous work by future A-list celebrity Letitia Wright as the new king’s tech genius kid sister, as well as screen veterans Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as respected elders.
Following Black Panther comic rule book, the tale builds up to a climax where a crowded battlefield finds the laws of physics violated and characters showing up on and off as digital cartoons. Still, like last year’s Wonder Woman, this is a good if imperfect film that takes a revolutionary stance on how we should recognize heroes. As Jordan’s Killmonger exclaims as his dreams is about to be realized, “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this. The world’s going to start over.”
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