The Marvel entry arrives on a huge wave of pre-release buzz, and it delivers on all of it, and then some
“Black Panther” is a superhero stunner.
This is a film with brains, muscle and heart that moves, breathes and thinks like no other superhero movie before it. It is crafted with extreme care and deep respect for black history and heritage. That it does those things and still flexes like an extreme thrill ride is a coup for co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, who delivers here in a big way. “Black Panther” arrives amid enormous hype and expectations, and it surpasses them all.
Though it’s a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” exists entirely in its own world. There are no cameos from Iron Man or Captain America to distract from the story of T’Challa, the incoming king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
Played by Chadwick Boseman — who has already portrayed several icons on screen, namely Jackie Robinson (“42”), James Brown (“Get On Up”) and Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”) — T’Challa is the hero of the story, a warrior and empathetic soul who wants to do good for his kingdom and his people. Black Panther’s introduction into the MCU, in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” didn’t begin to hint at the richness of the character or the depth of the world around him.
As T’Challa’s feisty little sister Shuri, Letitia Wright is a scene-stealer and a star to watch. Like James Bond’s Q, Shuri acts as Black Panther’s gadgets expert, and she gets to walk him through the technologies she creates for him in her lab. That includes his suit, which absorbs the blows it takes and stores them as kinetic energy, which can be turned against his enemies.
Chief among those enemies is Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan — he’s appeared in all three of Coogler’s films — who is electrifying as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, who comes to take T’Challa’s throne over a deep-seated family beef. Jordan, an on-screen force dating back to his days on “The Wire,” bites into the juicy role and relishes his every dastardly characteristic while also grounding him in honesty and anger. Every hero needs a good villain, and Jordan gives “Black Panther” the most charismatic, menacing and memorable superhero movie villain since Tom Hardy’s Bane took on Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The rest of the cast is rounded out by a team of luminaries, including Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother and the Queen of Wakanda; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, a Wakanda elder and one of T’Challa’s mentors; Lupita Nyong’o as a Wakandan spy and Danai Gurira as the head of T’Challa’s straight-faced, no-nonsense security team; “Get Out’s” Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend who finds his loyalties to his king tested; Martin Freeman as a CIA operative who teams up with Black Panther; and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, a jacked-up bad dude who helps Killmonger steal some precious Wakandan artifacts.
The film begins like a classic children’s tale. “Tell me a story,” a child’s voice says at the opening. And so begins the tale of Black Panther and Wakanda, with a brief stopover in Oakland, Calif. — Coogler’s hometown, and the setting for his breakthrough film “Fruitvale Station” — in 1992.
Flash forward to the present, when T’Challa is set to become king, following the death of his father. He first is challenged, part of Wakandan ritual, by a member of an opposing tribe, and their battle unfolds on the edge of a waterfall, a thrilling sequence in a film full of them.
Wakanda is rich in vibranium, a fictional metal which is among the strongest, most valuable resources on Earth. Killmonger is after it, and wants to harness its power to help arm oppressed people worldwide to start a revolution. Still, he’s not above stealing just for sport. When he lifts an African mask from a museum in London, Klaue asks him if it, too, is made from vibranium. “Nah,” he offers. “I’m just feeling it.”
“Black Panther” is infused with attitude, style and humor — there’s a “what are thooose?” joke, proving memes make their way to Wakanda, too — as well as a score steeped in hip-hop that trades traditional orchestral swells for trap drums. It is modern, sharp and cool, honoring the past as well as the present, and pushing the boundaries of the genre past what audiences are used to from superhero movies.
Black Panther first arrived in comic book form in the late 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, and the character holds an important place in comics lore, as the first superhero of African descent to make a dent in mainstream comics. Still, he’s been on the fringe among the Spider-Mans and Batmans of the world, as comics have altered the Hollywood economy. That changes here. “Black Panther” is a force, and it demands to be heard.
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Running time: 135 minutes