FILM REVIEW – BLACK PANTHER. With Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright. Written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture. 134 minutes.
Some superhero movies are fun, and some are chores. Some are a showcase for a star or director, as with last year’s “Wonder Woman,” even if the movie itself covers a lot of familiar territory. And then there’s BLACK PANTHER.
Director Ryan Coogler has taken the Marvel Comics characters – along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole – and come up with a story that dazzles and surprises while not skimping on character or theme. Often these movies get so caught up in their special effects that you’re left wondering if the actors playing the parts were even present during the climactic battles. Not so here. As with very few in the genre, this is a game-changer.
The film quickly sketches in the background we need to know although not revealing everything at first. The fictional African nation of Wakanda is the only known source of “vibranium,” the strongest substance on Earth. As far as the world is concerned, Wakanda is a poor and difficult-to-reach place, and the locals prefer it that way because they are actually a super-advanced civilization. Their new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is, through technology, able to transform himself into the superhero Black Panther. T’Challa has a tendency to be cautious, and so very much needs the help of the strong women around him including his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his mother (Angela Bassett), the fierce General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and best of all, his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is a brilliant scientist with a sassy sense of humor.
The story begins with T’Challa on the track of the evil Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has been stealing vibranium and knows the secret of Wakanda. Klaue is wanted for numerous crimes, but with the help of the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has managed to evade justice. It becomes more complicated, but that’s all the plot summary you get here. Coogler has a strong narrative sense so that we don’t have trouble following the action despite reverses and characters meeting unexpected ends. You just have to hang on for the ride.
And what a ride it is. Black Panther was the first African superhero in American comic books, being introduced in 1966 (and apparently predating the Black Panther Party). Coogler has fully embraced the African heritage here with colorful costumes, and some characters engaged in tattooing or ritual scarring of their bodies, letting us know this isn’t Gotham City. Others have noted that having a black superhero be center stage – and surrounded by a cast that includes those mentioned plus Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Martin Freeman – is an important statement. It also shows that diversity works for us all: those who have not been previously exposed to these images and traditions should find them fascinating and engrossing.
As T’Challa, Boseman racks up yet another outstanding performance, increasing his star power. Look, too, to Jordan, who deals with the complex motivations for his character’s actions. While we’re rooting for T’Challa, Killmonger is an adversary for whom a case can be made. Indeed, one could go through the cast noting outstanding moments big and small for all of them.
The glut of superhero movies isn’t going to end anytime soon, and we’re already promised that Black Panther will return in “Avengers: Infinity War” later this year. Suffice to say “Black Panther” is the best movie of its kind since “Batman Begins.” The bar has been set high.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.