'Black Panther': Film Review

This panther lands its prey: the audience.
2/16/2018

Ryan Coogler's eagerly awaited film based on the Marvel Comics character stars Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya.

With uncanny timing, Marvel takes its superheroes into a domain they've never inhabited before and is all the better for it in Black Panther.

There's no mistaking you're still in the Marvel universe here, but this entry sweeps you off to a part of it you've never seen: a hidden lost world in Africa defined by royal traditions and technological wonders that open up refreshing new dramatic, visual and casting possibilities. Getting it right where other studios and franchises — they know who they are — get it wrong, Marvel and Disney have another commercial leviathan here, although it will be interesting to see how it plays in certain overseas markets, where industry traditionalists say black-dominated fare sometimes underperforms.

Thinking way ahead, producer Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust introduced Black Panther into their superhero mix in 2016's all-star Captain America: Civil War, with the intention of building yet another franchise. This seems like a natural idea now, but back in July 1966, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby birthed the character in Fantastic Four No. 52, he was the first African superhero to appear in American comics. (Historical footnote: the Black Panther character debuted three months before the Black Panther Party came into existence.)

Although director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) sets his framing action in Oakland, California, the film's heart lies in Africa. In one of the tale's beguiling inventions, the beclouded land of Wakanda keeps the world away by posing as one of the planet's poorest countries and restricting visitors. In fact, it possesses ultra-advanced technology and has a gleaming metropolis that co-exists with a bustling street life and natural wonders on par with anything in the world. What makes this possible is a mined substance called vibranium, a source of power akin to nuclear that Wakanda has always seen fit to keep to itself.

The wonder and novelties of the society are fun to behold, the streets full of life, the inhabitants happy. All the same, this enlightened land remains a monarchy, and with his father's death, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king in a spectacular coronation ceremony. There to support him are his noble mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a smart-mouthed scientist who's next in line for the throne; chief counsel W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), head of security for a tough border tribe; mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the king's valued spiritual leader; and the Dora Milaje, an independent-minded security force comprising shaved-headed women, notably its best fighter Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the rebellious-minded Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o).

Then there's M'Baku (Winston Duke), who's opposed to T'Challa's technological beliefs and challenges him to a mano-a-mano slugfest, which takes place in a lagoon surrounded on one side by towering rocks from which concerned citizens can watch and a sheer cliff on the other. The physical contest is intense and, while the outcome cannot be in doubt, it effectively sets up another such match later on.

Does this sound like your everyday Marvel film so far?

It certainly doesn't look like one. Along with the color of nearly everyone's skin, there are vistas, costumes and settings that keep the images popping off the screen, even though this Marvel offering is not in 3D.

Black Panther also sets itself apart via an ideological divide between two camps within the Wakandan leadership. The royals and traditionalists, including T'Challa, insist that vibranium must remain exclusively in their own possession, as it's been the secret of their success since time immemorial. A minority believes that this extraordinary substance should be shared with the world, or at least with the kingdom's struggling African neighbors, in the interest of the common good. It's a potent community and political dispute that will presumably continue to inform the series in further installments.

In the meantime, a deliciously nasty bad guy, a white South African gangster and arms dealer named Klaue (Andy Serkis, in a role he introduced three years ago in Avengers: Age of Ultron), is keen to get his hands on some vibranium himself, which involves an unexpected side trip to Busan, South Korea, for a prolonged sequence heavy on chases and tough-guy action but rather more conventional than the rest of the film. The other Caucasian of any note is Martin Freeman's CIA agent Ross, who's actually a self-deprecating good guy.

But the biggest threat to T'Challa and Wakandian stability comes from another mercenary, an imposing African with the conspicuously on-the-nose name of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, the lead actor in both of Coogler's previous films), who is strongly convinced that vibranium should be available to all people (and that he should profit by dispensing it).

Much intense drama and action follow; there's a real and sustained sense of jeopardy for the kingdom, and the fighting significantly involves the female warriors, who are very cool indeed. Just as he staged the boxing in Creed with intensity and invention, Jordan handles the more extensive face-off stuff here with freshness and brio, building to a tensely stirring climax. For such an action-packed modern film, it's surprising how little blood figures into this combat epic. A brief return to Oakland at the end brings things full circle, while the usual Marvel post-credits teaser reminds us that its next offering will be Avengers: Infinity War, coming May 4 and in which T'Challa/Black Panther also appears.

The actors are all seen to very good advantage. Boseman certainly holds his own, but there are quite a few charismatic supporting players here keen to steal every scene they can — and they do, notably the physically imposing Jordan, the radiant Nyong'o and especially Wright, who gives her every scene extra punch and humor.

Production company: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Buena Vista

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Nate Moore, Jeffrey Chernov, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editors: Michael P. Shawver, Debbie Berman
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Visual effects supervisor: Geoffrey Baumann
Special effects supervisor: Dan Sudick
Casting: Sarah Finn

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

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