‘Black Panther’: Marvel’s tale of the king adds race and regality to superhero thrills
So does it live up to all the hype and the “revolutionary” tag? Well … somewhat, and no. “Black Panther” is definitely a different kind of superhero film, imbued with the trappings of the Bard while hitting all the usual superhero pratfalls for the fanboys and delivering the requisite wham-bam smackdowns fueled by a glut of CGI FX. In short, it’s a game go, with some nicely layered-in barbs about the state of race relations, and there’s a mound of Oscar gold to be found among the impressive (mostly African-American) cast.
As far as the latest Marvel entry being the first superhero flick to revolve around a black hero, and thus a beacon of hope for young African-Americans seeing iconic representations of themselves on the screen: In the wholesome, square-jawed, side-of-good sense (think Superman or Captain America), that is so, but there have been other black superheroes to grace the screen. Take “Spawn” (1997) or “Hancock” (2008), though those films featured conflicted and tormented protagonists who didn’t fit neatly into the kind of archetypal superhero cape that most want to wrap themselves up in. Messy and flawed is not the way to go for blissful escapism.
“Black Panther” revels in its celebration of African culture and pageantry but also digs at social blight in America (though not deeply enough), making it a mainstream engagement clearly marked by the color and culture of its hero.
The film, based on the comic serial by Stan Lee (who conceived it in 1966, before the similarly named U.S. activist group lead by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton seized headlines), begins with a quick, cool animated rewind of how the fictional African country of Wakanda came to be. Hit by a meteor of vibranium (the stuff Captain America’s shield is made out of), Wakandan tribes have leveraged the all-powerful material to build radically advanced technology (supersonic transports that look like something from a “Guardians of the Galaxy” chapter, a train system that rides on a magnetic field and comm devices that are tiny little gumdrops behind the ear) and use it to remain invisible and impervious to the rest of the planet, even as world-shaping events (slavery, world wars and so on) carry on around them. Think of the cloaked island of Amazons in “Wonder Woman,” off the grid and out of sight until Steve Trevor crash lands there during the Second World War, and you have it.
The Wakandans have a king, the entity of the title, ordained as their protector: T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. (The Black Panther drinks an elixir that gives him powers, but also has a super suit like Batman or Ironman that no bullet can pierce). Boseman has done well in challenging roles portraying Jackie Robinson (“42”), Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”) and James Brown (“Get on Up”), and fills the role admirably – though there’s not a lot for him to do when not bounding around and taking out baddies but play the part of the dutiful king.
“Black Panther” moves in very slinky and pleasantly unpredictable ways as it jumps from Oakland in 1992 to present-day Seoul, Korea, where a black market deal for vibranium involving the CIA is going down. The Shakespearean strokes arrive with a former black ops commando named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who drops in on Wakanda with designs on T’Challa’s post. Jordan, so full of seething fury in his other collaborations with director Ryan Coogler – the truth-telling social commentary “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and the reboot of the “Rocky” films, “Creed” (2015) – like Boseman feels a bit tamped down and restrained in the part, which includes some unique body art and a Basquiat coif. There’s even more power in the supporting cast, namely Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave”) and Danai Gurira (Michonne from “The Walking Dead”) as part of T’Challa’s Amazonian vanguard, and Andy Serkis as a cheeky badass with the gonzo moniker of Ulysses Klaue. Other inspired casting in smaller parts include Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (“The King of Scotland”) as T’Challa’s uncle, the ever radiant Angela Bassett (Oscar nominee for “What’s Love Got to Do with It”) as T’Challa’s mom and current Oscar contender Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as a high member of Wakandan aristocracy and counsel to T’Challa.
It all adds up to a busy orchestration directed competently by Coogler, who in his earlier efforts worked more exclusively around character. Here, as with most superhero fodder, the plot takes the reins. There’s vibrant cinematography by Cambridge native Rachel Morrison, who’s also up for an Oscar this year for her work on “Mudbound,” that captures the cityscapes of Seoul and the plains of Wakanda gloriously but gets lost in the CGI mashup toward the end. At 134 minutes, “Black Panther” is long for what it is; some cutting and tightening might have given it more teeth. As is, the film’s a cut above for the genre and stands to serve an underserved audience the way “Wonder Woman” did. It’s not a breakthrough, but it is a breakout.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.