With a handful of nips and tucks, "Black Panther" might have been an unequivocally divine entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, clawing its way into the upper echelon of the blockbuster franchise. Like 2016's dazzling, thoughtful "Captain America: Civil War" before it (coincidentally the introduction of this film's title character), this first solo outing for T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), inherited King of African nation Wakanda and frequent feline-garbed avenger, works as popcorn entertainment and something more. Under the guidance of acclaimed writer-director Ryan Coogler (2013's "Fruitvale Station"), is there any surprise the film concerns itself first and foremost with socially, racially and politically conscious subject matter over empty-minded action and computer effects? As worthwhile as his and co-scribe Joe Robert Cole's efforts are, they are occasionally overwhelmed by the narrative boxes they must check. Falling into the trap of too often telling rather than showing, the film's momentum and storytelling aren't as effortless as one hopes; as engaging as much of it is, it is always readily apparent how hard Coogler is trying to please. Then again, striving for too much and only sometimes succeeding is far preferable to not trying enough.
From the outside, Wakanda is barely a blip on the radar, a poor third-world African territory that has recently gained notoriety for the wrong reason: its leader, T'Chaka (John Kani), was killed in a terrorist explosion during the signing of the Avengers-targeted Sokovia Accords in Vienna. Uncolonized and by and large marginalized, Wakanda's true identity as the most technologically progressive nation in the world has slipped by undetected. Most of its residents, now led by T'Chaka's son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), are happy to keep it that way. Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite of alien metal vibranium fell on their land, powerful enough to build an extravagant home marrying the Wakandan's age-old traditions with hyper-modern advancements. Also from this vibranium an herb was discovered with the ability to give one who ingests it superhuman strength, speed and agility. From this, a lineage of Black Panthers were born. Just as T'Challa is acclimating himself to his new responsibilities, he learns black arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and mysterious helper Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) have stolen an artifact of vibranium from the Museum of Great Britain. Possessing and misusing this metal could potentially spell disaster, destabilizing foreign nations and giving the weak and downtrodden the chance to overthrow their governments.
Based on the Marvel Comics series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, "Black Panther" never feels like a work-for-hire project, and thank goodness for that. It's an important breakthrough for Marvel, their first feature with an ensemble predominately made up of terrific actors of color. Like Patty Jenkins' inspired work helming 2017's "Wonder Woman," Ryan Coogler has put his heart and soul into it, and his passion shines through. Coogler's aims are high, and the topics he touches upon—about the debates for and against colonization, about being protective of one's own resources vs. sharing with the world—are complex and important. Whether or not they are always eloquently handled is up for debate; as aesthetically eye-opening as the picture is, and as charismatic as its performers are, the excessive exposition threatens to become heavy-handed, not trusting viewers to process its messages and ideas without them being overtly explained.
Where "Black Panther" excels is in its vision of a fresh new world and of a community that feels entirely plausible in spite of being surrounded by the fantastical. A metropolis of advanced futuristic designs located in the present day and lived in by people who continue to pay loving tribute to their heritage, Wakanda is a setting of sheer wonder. Chadwick Boseman (2014's "Draft Day") is superb as steady-handed protector T'Challa, and he is surrounded by an ensemble that matches him. Michael B. Jordan (2015's "Fantastic Four") is commanding and, by the end, emotionally truthful as Erik Killmonger, a man whose villainy is shaded in grays; at every turn, he thinks what he is doing is right, and a key line he utters during the climax carries with it unexpected weight. As Nakia, a tireless spy and T'Challa's ex-love, Lupita Nyong'o (2017's "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi") is radiant. When she tells T'Challa early on, "I cannot be happy in here knowing there are people out there in trouble," the viewer believes every resonating word. There are other strong, independent female roles, from Danai Gurira's (2010's "My Soul to Take") Okoye, head of Wakanda's armed forces and a fierce advocate for her leader; to Letitia Wright's Princess Shuri, an intelligent, vivacious engineer and T'Challa's younger sister; to Angela Bassett's (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen") Ramonda, the loving widowed mother of T'Challa and Shuri.
"Black Panther" is destined to be celebrated, and for good reason; this may not be the first film featuring a black superhero, but it is groundbreaking all the same for being the first of this scale. That it arrives with purpose and drive and an embrace of African culture ensures its legacy is here to stay. Is it a great movie on its own, though, away from the shattering of this crucial glass ceiling? For this writer, the answer is no, not quite. Its thematic preoccupations, valiant though they are, tend to overwhelm and slow down the pacing, the characters too often stopping to explain things to the viewer when the outcome might have been more powerful with less hand-feeding. There are a few rousing but not exactly memorable action set-pieces, one involving an underground casino and an ensuing car chase on the city streets of Busan, South Korea, and another culminating in a large third-act battle in Wakanda. While stakes are high, the threat level never quite reaches them. Perhaps due to the expectation that nothing too drastic can happen to T'Challa or his homeland in the first film in a prospective new series, there is a safeness and predictability to its plot turns that keep one from fully surrendering to its spell. In spite of these pitfalls, "Black Panther" is certainly a picture worth seeing, one that treats its consequential story seriously as social commentary rather than expendable fantasy. For T'Challa, the best is likely yet to come.
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Nabiyah Be, Denzel Whitaker, Ashton Tyler, Atandwa Kani, Stan Lee, Sebastian Stan.
2018 – 134 minutes
Rated: (for violence and a brief rude gesture).
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