This is the true power of Marvel. Because of its prolific and successful nature, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is not only able to give us the big guns of the MC such as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but is also able to explore the lesser-known characters such as the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. Marvel Studios has shown it is equally at ease making such quirkier fare as it is at the more predictable projects.
But that still doesn’t prepare audiences for just how good “Black Panther” is. Growing up, the Black Panther was one of my favorite Marvel characters. At first it was just the sleek costume, but later it was his dual nature of superhero and king, scientist and vigilante, man and royal.
First appearing in “Fantastic Four” # 52 in 1966, the Black Panther was created by the unbeatable Marvel duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Black Panther has had the huge advantage of being consistently written well, particularly by the likes of Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is doing an exemplary job writing the current “Black Panther” series.
MCU introduced the Black Panther in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, excellent as Jackie Robinson in “42”) is a prince of the African nation of Wakanda. When his father King T’Chaka is killed, T’Challa takes on the mantle of the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda, bringing both into conflict and then communion with the Avengers.
At the end of “Civil War,” we get our first glimpse of Wakanda and the dual nature it too maintains. Due to the miracle metal Vibranium (Cap’s shield is made from it), Wakanda has emerged as the world’s most technologically advanced nation, but, to protect it from invaders, maintains a disguise of being a backward country of farmers through intentional subterfuge, natural obstacles and high-tech holograms.
“Black Panther” picks up after the event of “Civil War,” with T’Challa struggling to be a good king. As he tries to grow into the role of the Black Panther, he has to face down Vibranium being smuggled by the criminal Ulysses Klaue (a cackling Andy Serkis). But a completely unexpected threat is discovered with the arrival of the vicious mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), one that will shake Wakanda to its very core and bring the Black Panther to the literal edge.
That’s a fairly simple description of the complex, condensed saga that is contained in just over two hours by director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”). It starts off as a very conventional superhero flick but then flips into a political drama that involves ritual combat, royal bloodlines, cutting-edge technology and much more. “Black Panther” starts with a very narrow focus that grows into a massive epic punctuated with great action scenes like the Busan car chase. It could be argued that the tense behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the Wakandan court is even better than the big action scenes, which can get a bit cluttered due to scale and speed.
Boseman does great work as T’Challa, presenting a man who is not yet ready to be king but is dedicated to become king, injecting everyday nobility into what could easily have been a cardboard cutout. His performance is matched by Jordan, whose Kilmonger is a growling presence that has deep motivations that ironically attracts the viewers’ sympathy despite his methods. The two are surrounded by other good performances, notably the fierce Danai Gurira (Okoye, the leader of the Black Panther’s elite all-woman security team the Dora Milaje), the sparkling Letitia Wright (funny Shuri, T’Challa’s genius sister) and the wry Martin Freeman (returning in a surprisingly meaty role as CIA operative Everett Ross).
The character Black Panther is of massive cultural importance as he was the first major black character (either African or African-American) in popular comic books. Coogler’s “Black Panther” lives up to that considerable legacy by crafting a film that celebrates black culture in a very authentic way. This is shown, for example, by the balance struck between the traditional African chants and the new songs from Kendrick Lamar that drives “Black Panther” forward.
This duality can be found all around. Coogler and team do an impressive job of using all these characters from deep Black Panther comic continuity (Klaue, Kilmonger, Shuri, Ross, etc.) and then revamped and modernize them for the screen. This reflects the movie’s construction, tapping into classic tropes and very of-the-moment storytelling, shifting from the wild to the city and into wondrous places.
Marvel Studios has been pushing what viewers imagine a Marvel movie to be, never afraid to shift gears such as how different “Thor: Ragnarok” is from its predecessors. The big ensemble “Avengers” movies allow Marvel to try some truly radical departures from the expected. This is the new standard, a character-establishing, world-building, status-quo-changing saga. Marvel could not have found a better cinematic experiment to kick off a year which features at least six films based on Marvel properties and the perfect lead-in to May’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” That movie’s trailers prominently feature T’Challa and Wakanda. Marvel’s “Black Panther” is a marvelous mix of modern and mythical. Wakanda forever.
Marvel’s “Black Panther” is now showing in cinemas.