The latest entry is the Marvel Comic Universe is the highly anticipated “Black Panther.” While the character does not have the history of other high-powered entries such as Iron Man, Spiderman and Thor, its central hero is the first black superhero to take center stage. It is hard to imagine the pressure that director Ryan Coogler must have felt. Not only is this his first mega-budget project, but he also carried the weight of black expectations on his shoulders.
What a pleasure then that “Black Panther” is not only a box-office smash, but it is also really quite good — visually stunning with a well-written story (Coogler co-wrote it with Joe Robert Cole). While I am no comic book aficionado, I do enjoy being entertained, preferably with some interesting subtexts, and Black Panther certainly fits the bill.
The story centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new ruler of the African kingdom of Wakanda, a country that to the outside world is poor and agrarian. In reality, it is far more advanced than any other country, both in terms of its technology and its utopian society, thanks to the reserves of vibranium, a mysterious substance that remains pretty much unexplained, but it’s a comic book story so who cares. Vibranium is a McGuffin, a device to allow the story to move forward.
T’Challa, his spy ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and General Okoye (Danai Gurira, Michonne from “The Walking Dead”), are on the hunt for Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who stole some vibranium in a violent attack that left many dead. Of course, it was an inside job.
That’s about as far as I need to go, there will be no spoilers here, suffice to say that Michael B. Jordan (who starred in the magnificent “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler’s directorial debut — if you haven’t seen it then you must), Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitacker, Angela Bassett and a host of other big names make up a wonderful ensemble. Special mention must be made of Letitia Wright who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and a tech wiz, who is all sibling sass and self-confidence.
To say that “Black Panther” is simply a black film would be to do it a great injustice. There are multiple characters but they all get enough time for us to get to know them. Even the real big bad (no spoilers) is nuanced and sympathetic. The action is tight and well done, but it is the interplay of the characters that is the highlights of the movie.
“Black Panther” is also heavy on feminism. In Wakanda, it is the women who are the main warriors, fierce and loyal to the country. The leading spy — a woman — is also an activist for the oppressed.
The movie touches on the dangers of colonialism, as well as the plight of minorities outside of the Wakanda’s borders. It is a film that discusses the relative merits of isolationism, the virtues of foreign aid, the radicalizing of disenfranchised youth, and the power of teamwork.
Past black superheroes have been side characters — X-Men” had Storm, but that character did not have the heft of “Black Panther.” Falcon and War Machine were not main players in the Avengers. Wesley Snipes’ “Blade,” for all his bad-assery, was hardly the positive role model. By contrast, T’Challa is a king whose main struggle is how to do the right thing with the gifts he has. He is noble, kind and trusts his friends.
“Black Panther” is the perfect superhero movie for our time The fact that there has been a backlash by some Alt-right idiots about it being “too black or “too militant” just shows how needed it is.
There is one other thing “Black Panther” has going for it — it is excellent entertainment.