Just when you thought the distinct air of comedy may have overtaken the Marvel comic world on film, what with the recent successes of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, DEADPOOL, and ANT-MAN, along comes BLACK PANTHER. It has an importance to it that makes all the glibness of IRON MAN’s Robert Downey, Jr. and his brethren seem almost trite by comparison. BLACK PANTHER restores some needed earnestness to the world of superheroes onscreen. (It’s more in line with WONDER WOMAN in that regard, as well as its centuries-old backstory.) There are substantial stakes at the root of this story, and while it’s great fun to watch, it’s not fluff.
Its seriousness is evident in its elaborate plot right off the bat. It starts with a rich backstory, full of a dozen main characters that will all figure strongly in the film. The exposition tells of a time, centuries ago, when five African tribes went to war over a meteorite made of an alien metal called vibranium. One of the warriors ingests its heart-shaped herb and gains superhuman abilities. He becomes the first “Black Panther” and unites the tribes into the nation of Wakanda. Over the next centuries, the Wakandans use the vibranium to develop highly advanced technology which can generate electricity, incredible healing powers, and advanced weaponry that can devastate with a single blow. The Wakandans are aware of how fantastic yet dangerous their natural resource is, so they keep it from the rest of the world. They know and fear what ruthless governments would do with such an advantage.
The story then flashes forward to 1992, where T’Chaka (John Kani), the current Black Panther and ruler of Wakanda, discovers that his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) has brought a cache of vibranium to Oakland, CA, hoping to use it to help African-Americans fight their way out of the ghetto. T’Chaka ends up killing his brother to prevent the vibranium from getting out and exposing Wakanda as the advanced and superior country they are to the rest of a prejudiced world. (This film is very political and announces those intentions from its opening minutes.)
Then the story moves to the present day, following T’Chaka’s death and the ascent of his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to the throne. The only one of the five tribes willing to challenge his leadership is M’Baku (Winston Duke). He’s the leader of the rival Jabari Tribe, but after hand-to-hand combat over a Wakanda waterfall leads to his defeat, there is nothing standing in T’Challa’s way. The peace and harmony in Wakanda will be short-lived though, as a band of renegades steal some Wakanda artifacts from a museum in America and manage to get their hands on some of the precious vibranium. One is a South African thug named Klaue (Andy Serkis), working with a fake appendage armed with vibranium, and Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who is connected to the Oakland chapter of the origins story.
That’s a lot of plot, but director Ryan Coogler and his fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole take their time ensuring that their story is understandable and relatable. They also manage to successfully introduce three female leads that are vital members of T’Challa’s inner circle. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is his former lover, a spy, and a member of Wakanda’s all-female special forces who serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards. Dani Garira plays Okoye, the head of the guards, and if you think she is a tough cookie on THE WALKING DEAD slaying zombies with her staff, wait till you see her wield her warrior spear in this story. T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the head of Wakanda technology. She’s a version of Q to T’Challa’s Bond, and while she may provide the comic relief in the film, the teenager is also presented as a fierce and competitive woman capable of fighting with great aplomb when needed.
Coogler ensures that these characters and their relationship to T’Challa, as well as each other, is mined as richly as that vibranium. He also directs the action cleanly and clearly, as expert as he did with his boxing scenes in CREED two years ago. The film’s big set piece set in Korea is a car chase that is both thrilling and clean in how it’s photographed. Even the hand-to-hand fight scenes between various combatants are edited just as crisply and concisely, showcasing extensive stunt training on the part of the star cast. Coogler doesn’t drag out the action scenes too long either. He knows that less is more, especially given that Black Panther wears a mask, and the hero’s fight scenes are mostly done with CGI. We never lose our connection with him even when he’s pixels.
The director cleverly has T’Challa remove his mask too during a lot of the action to keep us connected to Boseman and ensure that we believe it is he who is jumping, flipping, floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee. Wisely, Coogler uses the majority of his CGI budget to bring the world of Wakanda to life. The underground city is elegant and modern, lit by the energy of the vibranium and cast in a warm, purple haze. At times, it reminded me of Disney’s Space Mountain ride what with that rollercoaster rumbling in the dark and minimal lighting. (Disney owns Marvel so perhaps there will be a Wakanda rollercoaster ride sometime in the near future.)
Coogler doesn’t skimp on the costuming either, with elaborate clothing created by the wondrous Ruth E. Carter. Her work here should be up for an Oscar next year. The production design from Hannah Beachler should be a contender as well, not to mention Rachel Morrison’s crisp and bright cinematography. In some ways, Coogler has followed the example of T’Challa by surrounding himself with a bevy of incredibly strong female talent behind the scenes. Life imitates art, or is it the other way around?
Boseman has done excellent work on screen playing historical figures, but he’s never been as compelling as he is here. His hero is stalwart and masculine, yet sensitive and accessible too. He plays well off of everyone well and is especially strong in his scenes with Jordan. The star of FRUITVALE STATION and CREED shines once again, this time playing one of the most sympathetic antagonists ever to appear in a Marvel movie. However, Boseman’s best screen partner here is actually Wright. His scenes with her are highlights of the movie and bring out his sly and subtle comedic skills.
Miraculously, the film even finds time to give players like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman and Daniel Kaluuya (the Oscar-nominated star of GET OUT) plenty to do in their supporting turns. So many star players in such supporting roles would generally amount to glorified cameos, but not here. Each is given a ton to do and a lot of screen time. It’s just another way that Coogler brings incredible attention and detail to every single aspect of this film, as well as every role.
Most importantly, Coogler ensures that his story never loses sight of its stakes. The motivations are weighty, from the personal to the societal, and Coogler never lets his fantasy stray too far from the themes of prejudice and economic injustice. Slavery is discussed quite candidly, not shrouded in metaphor, though the whole film is a metaphor in so many ways. Still, its editorial commentary never prevents this adventure from being rollicking entertainment.
Coogler clearly demonstrates once again that he is not only one of the best young filmmakers working today, he is simply one of the best. And he can work small (the indie FRUITVALE STATION), medium (the Rocky reboot CREED), and ginormous as with this one. BLACK PANTHER not only tells a vivid story of the black experience, but it showcases how completely universal such a story can be. T’Challa is the kind of leader and superhero we all should clamor for onscreen and off.