Wakanda Forever: "Black Panther" a game-changer that stands apart from MCU

Black Panther (2018)
134 min., rated PG-13.

Black Panther might not be the first-ever black superhero, but the release of “Black Panther” is a proud watershed moment, representing an underserved culture in a commercial franchise movie. The 1966 comic-book character, co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and predating the revolutionary Black Panther Party, finally makes his debut after an appearance in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” It’s the eighteenth-and-counting film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and yet hardly feels of a piece with the other cogs in the machine, as the action set-pieces and standard superhero stuff actually take a backseat most of the time. With the ensemble (and behind-the-scenes crew) predominantly made up of spectacular artists of color giving the film even more weight, it’s groundbreaking in that regard and makes for a big-screen celebration of African culture and pride. As comic-book movies go, “Black Panther” is not only terrifically entertaining but much more important and serious-minded, while still bearing a brisk sense of fun.

Prince and heir to the clandestine, technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take the throne following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), at the United Nations but not before he ingests a heart-shaped herb that helps him gain superhuman abilities. While T’Challa wants to continue Wakanda’s practice of isolationism by not revealing its power to the world, Afrikaner arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and American-raised Wakandan Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) are in cahoots to steal an artifact of vibranium—the key metal that Wakanda is built upon—from the Museum of Great Britain. When T’Challa, along with undercover spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), go on a mission overseen by T’Challa’s tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to capture Klaue in South Korea, they are later ambushed by Killmonger, who also has his eyes on the throne. 

With only two other feature films under his belt (2013’s tremendous “Fruitvale Station” and 2015’s fresh, stirring “Creed”), director Ryan Coogler brings his intimate, character-first indie roots and a singular identity to a $200-million-budgeted property that usually comes with jokey banter and a lot of box-checking for future installments. Apart from the reappearance of two supporting characters, a flashback to the assassination of T’Challa’s father from “Captain America: Civil War,” and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, “Black Panther” completely stands on its own without any need to cross-pollinate with other already-established heavy hitters. It isn’t content with just functioning as a popcorn blockbuster under the Marvel banner; the screenplay by director Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole is Shakespearean and more political than any of the other MCU entries, while really concentrating on the people involved. Themes of racial strife, colonialism, and isolationism are seamlessly woven into the narrative without coming across preachy or heavy-handed.

“Black Panther” does not look or sound like any other Marvel offering. In terms of world-building, the film introduces a distinguished new world in Wakanda, a façade of a third-world territory that’s really a high-tech, Afro-centric utopia built on vibranium, with reverence to old African traditions. It’s undetected enough to not be found on a map (besides it being fictional), but it is the most technologically progressive. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (the first female director of photography to be nominated for an Oscar for 2017’s “Mudbound”) lushly captures the nation of Wakanda, as well as the dazzling celestial planes T’Challa enters after being buried in sand to speak with his father. The film achieves a vibrancy with Ruth E. Carter’s striking, meticulous costume design and Ludwig Göransson’s score with African percussion (aided by original hip-hop songs produced by Kendrick Lamar). The action set-pieces, of which there are surprisingly few, are solid when they’re not hypercut, darkly lit, or undercut by artificial, overcooked CGI. There is exactly one standout from the rest involving hand-to-hand combat in a South Korean casino that segues into a car chase, and it’s thrilling and staged with immense energy before ending with a laugh involving Nakia behind the wheel and Okoye with her spear. 

Chadwick Boseman is excellent, stoic and understated, as T’Challa/Black Panther, the kind of king Wakanda needs, but the four women in his life are every bit as prominent, strong, skilled and smart. Angela Bassett is royalty as mother Queen Ramonda; Lupita Nyong’o (2016’s “Queen of Katwe”) is lovely as Nakia, a spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend; and the dynamite Danai Gurira (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) is fierce and dryly funny as Okoye, a badass warrior general who’s faithful to Wakanda. Letitia Wright is vivacious and a major source of humor as Shuri, T’Challa’s excitable younger sister and tech handler who makes her brother’s vibranium-made suit. Looking ahead, Shuri could give Tony Stark a run for his money. The charismatic Michael B. Jordan (who has been director Coogler’s muse since “Fruitvale Station”) is commanding and swaggering as Erik Killmonger, who isn’t just another stock villain mad with power; he might be the most noteworthy Marvel “villain” since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. There is considerable nuance and understanding behind Killmonger’s motivations, beliefs and resentment for T’Challa in keeping Wakanda’s resources a secret, and his final words to T’Challa end on a graceful note. Also making marks with brief screen time is Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “This Is Us”) in the 1992-set prologue in Oakland, California, as T’Challa’s uncle N’Jobu; Daniel Kaluuya (2017’s “Get Out”), as Okoye’s partner who shifts his allegiances; and Forest Whitaker, as elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri.

Like what 2017's “Wonder Woman” did in creating a quality blockbuster fronted by a female superhero and directed by a woman, “Black Panther” deserves high praise for the specificity of an African culture that mainstream audiences don’t usually find in a studio movie. So, is it the Second Coming? Not quite, but that can be difficult to achieve, considering at least three comic-book films are released each year in an ever-expanding universe that will not break its structural blueprint. What “Black Panther” achieves, though, cannot be slighted, as this is a culturally significant and exciting game-changer without any portals or Infinity Stones.

Grade: B +