BLACK PANTHER
(***½)
"..one of the few blockbusters that does not feel like it was made by committee..."

Black Panther Claws His Way to the Top of the Marvel Movie Universe.

(021718) Long after the marketing dust has settled and every pundit, blowhard and Facebook friend has weighed in on it in terms of race, class, gender, identity, representation, Hollywood, politics, the president and these contentious times in which we live, there will be this: "Black Panther" is one heck of a potent superhero film.

Sure, the heavily anticipated big-screen debut of Marvel's first black superhero, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby more than a half-century ago, comes freighted with all sorts of cultural expectations. But, beyond that, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") has created a remarkable film that stays within the strictures of the big-budget superhero movie - including a hiss-worthy villain and the dreaded, CGI-saturated third act - but athletically pushes against the boundaries with grace and skill. I am more than happy to report, then, that not only is Black Panther a superlative representative of the Marvel model, in terms of acting and script, but also a film where the central conflict is more human-scale, with social relevance that resonates beyond the confines of the narrative.

Chadwick Boseman (2016's Captain America: Civil War) plays T’Challa, Crown Prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. As we learn in an opening expositional voiceover, a meteorite made of “vibranium” (strongest element on earth!) crashed into the present-day site of Wakanda eons ago, leaving a massive deposit of ore that, ever since, has powered that nation’s development of a technology far beyond any other on the planet. The management of that secret treasure falls to T’Challa, as the eldest, at the death of his father, the King, though his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) – a brilliant scientist – oversees the gadgets and gizmos. Part of the family’s legacy is that whoever rules also holds the power of the mystical “black panther,” which grants superhuman strength, and more. And so T’Challa settles into his new role – after surviving a ritual challenge from a local chieftain – and prepares to rule his kingdom.

Unfortunately, trouble arrives quickly on his doorstep, in the form of a rival named Erik Killmonger, played by a magnetic Michael B. Jordan (2015's Creed), an American mercenary in league with a vicious South African named Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis (normally a motion-capture actor known for roles like Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films). Together, they hope to steal the Wakandan technology and take over the world, although it soon turns out that Killmonger, though violent, has a more noble agenda. Killmonger has long been disturbed by the fact that Wakanda does nothing with its fantastical science other than protect its own and hide from the world. Millions of Africans suffer, and have suffered in the past, while this tiny country could have, with a fraction of its power, saved them. This has to change, he says.

Part of what makes Black Panther such a compelling film is its complicated villain. Killmonger is not wrong to long for a better world for his brothers and sisters. His methods are flawed, and his unstable personality makes him an imperfect vehicle for the message, but he has a point against which it is hard to argue. Boseman, equally strong as T’Challa, wrestles with this moral dilemma, worried about what exposure might mean to his homeland. Of such complex conflict is worthy drama made.

Jordan is one of the most exciting, dynamic actors working in Hollywood, and he brings a vulnerability and sadness to Killmonger that elevates him above the standard mustache-twirling Marvel baddie. He’s so good at engendering your sympathy that one might yearn for a bit more mustache in his performance, but that would fundamentally alter the film’s affecting final scenes back in Oakland, California. This is a film comfortable with its complexity, confident in its politics, and unafraid to allude to sometimes-grim truths about race relations. Killmonger’s introduction in particular is a master class in how to both touch on what really matters and satisfy the popcorn urge simultaneously. In a way, he’s the true conscience of the movie and the one who speaks to the collective anxiety of the black man and woman in 2018, while T’Challa and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia are our glittering ideal.

The rest of the cast easily hold their own against the two leads, including Lupita Nyong’o (2016's The Jungle Book) as Nakia, a warrior princess who is T’Challa’s main love interest; Danai Gurira (Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead) as Okoye, the head of Wakandan security; Daniel Kaluuya (2017's Get Out) as W’Kabi, a disgruntled prince; the aforementioned Wright and Serkis; and Martin Freeman (Bilbo in the recent Hobbit films) as a CIA officer who unexpectedly finds himself fighting alongside T’Challa and his family. Everyone has talent on full display, and their easy rapport – whether as friends or enemies – is a joy to watch.

The only element that I found subpar, is the final Panther vs. Panther fight scene. It's over reliance on using CGI for the two combatants was distracting. Once the fists start flying, the CGI characters seemingly turn to rubber and never seem human. It's disappointing, considering in Coogler''s previous film Creed he took the well worn boxing match trope and breathed some much needed visceral energy into them. The fight scene in Black Panther looks like it was placed entirely in the hands of the effects crew. It robs that scene of some of its sense of triumph.

Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) does a fine job creating a cinematic world that makes sense within the rules established in its first scenes. He and his cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, give us images of great beauty, with a consistent design, throughout. The film, at 140 minutes, is long, though it only rarely feels so. Maybe more importantly, this is one of the precious few multi-million dollar blockbusters from a major studio that does not feel like it was made by committee. Instead, most of the time Black Panther delivers a masterful new take on the superhero origin story, fresh in its perspective and energetic in its plotting and the vision of a real film-maker.

Directed by:  Ryan Coogler
Written by:  Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole. Based on the Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring:   Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o
Released:  121617
Length: 134 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture

BLACK PANTHER ©  2018 Marvel Entertainment
Review © 2018 Alternate Reality, Inc.