“Black Panther is a more than welcome addition to this wild, serialized, conglomerate franchise that Marvel Studios has created…”
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o • TLM Rating 3/4
It doesn’t matter if you’re in New Orleans or Cape Town, a Big Mac is going to taste the same. That’s part of the allure, and part of what makes it comfort food. Marvel Studios is in the business of comfort movies. Even in the fictional country of Wakanda, where African culture is cleverly blended with science fiction, “Black Panther” tastes familiar.
As many Marvel films of late, “Black Panther” begins in the past, at an inciting incident of future importance. Then, we jump forward, into the present, where we’re reintroduced to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). If you remember from “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa’s father, the king of Wakanda, was killed in an explosion at the United Nations. T’Challa was forced to assume the mantle of king, which also brings with it the snugger mantle of the Black Panther—a disguise the king dons to defend Wakanda from its aggressors. As T’Challa performs the ceremony necessary to take the throne, a man named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his partner, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), rob a museum of its virbranium, an extremely rare, precious metal native to Wakanda (it’s also what Captain America’s shield is made of). We quickly find out that they want in—to Wakanda, that is—which proves difficult, considering the country’s isolationist tendencies.
It’s rare for any of Marvel’s films to have a memorable villain, but this movie has two. Klaue is psychotic, yes, but in an amusing, sprightly way. He’s the kind of no-good gangster who truly enjoys his work. When other little boys dreamt of being an astronaut or a baseball player, Klaue stared up at the night sky and dreamt of being an international arms dealer. Stevens, nicknamed “Killmonger,” is great for a completely different reason, which I won’t spoil. I will say, however, that he’s immensely relatable in a real-world sense unusual for a movie of this kind. In many ways, he’s another angry, young man, who seeks revenge not on any one person, but on the world itself. His pain has sat in the sun too long and turned to hatred. And like any great villain, he’s not just a foil for the hero, but a muddied, distorted reflection.
The film’s visuals are unlike anything else. I’m not talking about special effects—which are unexceptional, by the way—but the design of Wakanda and its culture. The country has one foot in the past and the other in the future, which gives way to a plethora of fascinating images. For example, there’s a tribe—one of many—that drapes themselves in some kind of traditional blanket; yet, when they hold the blanket up at a specific angle, it produces an impenetrable forcefield. Keeps you warm and fends off attack—nifty.
In keeping with its “why pick when I can have both” philosophy, there’s some significant genre splicing at work. At times, you feel like you’re watching a deleted scene from one of the recent Bond films, as beautiful women maneuver a seedy, but decorous club, looking for answers. At other times, the film is a Shakespearian power struggle of kings, who are consistently at odds with other nations, internal usurpers, family legacy and their own psychology.
This is the third film from Ryan Coogler, who previously helmed “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” Coogler doesn’t muck with the tried-and-true Marvel formula—not that he would be allowed to, anyway—but he does bring with him the natural ability to find emotion in the truest of places and extract it with great precision. Not quite as good as the debuts of Iron Man and Doctor Strange, but better than the debuts of Thor and Captain America, “Black Panther” is a more than welcome addition to this wild, serialized, conglomerate franchise that Marvel Studios has created, in its infinite, money-printing wisdom.
Cover photo Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Sydelle Noel in Black Panther. Photo courtesy Disney/Marvel Studios