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MOVIE REVIEW: With Chadwick Boseman in the lead, 'Black Panther' pounces on pop culture

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published February 16, 2018 at 2:30 a.m.


T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king and protector of a technologically advanced West African nation isolated from the rest of the world in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

Black Panther

88 Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: PG-13, for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture

Running time: 2 hour, 14 minutes

Ferocious Wakanda warrior General Okoye (Danai Gurira) is T’Challa’s closest adviser and fiercest ally in Black Panther.

The first appearance of the Black Panther character in Marvel comics was back in 1966, in an issue of Fantastic Four, in which T'Challa, the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, tests the powers of the American superhero quartet.

He defeats all of them using his superhuman senses and advanced techno weaponry in his costume. Wakanda was revealed to be a hidden economic power and technologically superior country, powered by the all-powerful vibranium meteorite that hit the region millions of years ago.

From the start, the character, created by two middle-aged Jewish men (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) was vastly more respectful (?) than many of Marvel's other early attempts at black characters -- the worst of which, Luke Cage, uttered the infamous "Sweet Christmas!" line when he was really upset. T'Challa was royalty, after all, and the country he ruled was superior to Western civilization, even if it chose to remain hidden from the rest of the world.

It is this idea -- a peaceable and highly advanced civilization that chooses to sit out the sordid affairs of the rest of the world rather than intervening -- that director Ryan Coogler, and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole very much take to task in the compellingly thrilling big budget superhero film that has been, shall we say, highly anticipated since its announcement went public a couple of years back.

There are reasons for this eager anticipation, of course, including a bouncy soundtrack by hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar, but the most compelling is the fact that Marvel's first black superhero film was written and directed by black talent, and stars a primarily black cast. If Pixar's Coco was a way of finally integrating Hispanic culture into a big-budget kids' offerings, this film offers an equally well-funded showcase for black Americans, and, in this, Coogler and Co. have certainly not disappointed.

Black Panther might begin with tribal myth ("Papa," a young boy's voice is heard over an opening shot of the solar system "tell me the story of home"), but it takes most of its dramatic cues from Shakespearean tragedy, and bends the form to support its heightened sense of social and racial politics.

In true Marvel Cinematic Universe fashion, we begin the film very shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in the immediate death of King T'Chaka (John Kani), father of T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir to the Wakandan throne. Wakanda, we are told, was divided into five tribes shortly after the vibranium meteorite hit, and after the death of one king, each of the tribes is given the opportunity to challenge the heir apparent in single combat for the right to wear the crown.

After T'Challa survives the challenge from M'Baku (Winston Duke), he is made king -- and, so named, continues his role as the Black Panther, the defender of Wakanda, powered by a mysterious glowing flower that imbues whomever consumes it with mystical powers, heightened senses, and jungle-cat reflexes.

Trouble comes in the form of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the son of T'Challa's uncle, who has returned to Wakanda to avenge his father's death at the hands -- he believes -- of T'Chaka. Seeking revenge and the throne he feels he is owed, Killmonger dispatches T'Challa and immediately sets a new course for the country -- to send their powerful weapons tech across the globe to embattled black citizens as a way to rise up against their oppressors and leading Wakanda to rule the Earth ("the right way," it is suggested more than once).

If Marvel is often faced with a villain problem -- that is, a vastly more compelling hero pitted against a droning, one-dimensional, would-be monarch of evil -- Coogler and Cole have almost gone the opposite route: Killmonger, by deed and psychology, is a good deal more complex than the squeaky clean do-gooder T'Challa ("It's hard for a good man to be king," his father says, truthfully enough), even if his methodology is aggressive, his philosophy seems just about right.

In an early scene at a museum in London, Killmonger and his partner, Klaue (Andy Serkis, in a delightfully boisterous turn), steal an ancient Wakandan artifact made of vibranium, but only after Killmonger points out to the docent the only reason it was housed in the museum in the first place is because it had been pillaged and stolen from his country.

There are far worse problems for a film -- especially a superhero action flick -- to have than a compelling villain, but when his worldview makes a good deal more sense than that of the hero, it can make one's rooting interest more dicey. Fortunately, the filmmakers get all this -- one of the film's central themes is the morality of continued isolationism in the face of vast human suffering throughout the rest of the world. Such that by the end, in one of the film's more courageous moves, the hero has seen the error of his ways, as brought to his attention by his sworn enemy.

Along the way, the film moves artfully from political intrigue and human drama to the requisite action set-tos, all through the prism of a thrillingly different perspective from what has come before in the genre. There is a hell of a lot of CGI, naturally, which almost always results in a certain amount of action-fatigue, but even in the film's climactic showdown, with tribes attacking tribes, and the two Panthers knocking themselves silly on the tracks of an electro-magnetic pulse train as it zips between them, Coogler keeps it rooted in our investment in the characters, never letting the spectacle carry off with the emotional heft.

There is also another refreshing element to Coogler's film: The female characters, including Wakandan super-spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), the once and future romantic interest of T'Challa, and the ferocious Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the all-female elite secret service tasked with protecting their king, fight every bit as effectively and fiercely as any of the men. When T'Challa travels on a secret mission to apprehend Klaue in South Korea, the only compatriots he thinks to bring with him are those two, who are more than up for the task. At no point does this feel heavy-handed, or unearned: The women love their country just as much as the king, and are willing to lay down and die on that love without a moment's hesitation. And yet, the film is so thrilling and suitably action-packed, you never feel as if it's simply paying lip-service to PC feminist politics, the women are as organically included in the film as any of the male characters, which feels like a mighty step up for the genre.

Marvel has made more than a dozen films thus far in the process of building its MCU (Marvel Comics Universe), but realizing that the public will need different, more mature and fulfilling material to whet their appetite, the studio has not just sat back and regurgitated what worked before. The world is a constantly evolving place, as the films seem to acknowledge, and to not address that cold reality is to treat the films as mere comic-book fodder than what they have come to be: the narrative epoch of our time.

MovieStyle on 02/16/2018

Print Headline: Hear him roar; With Chadwick Boseman in the lead, Marvel’s Black Panther pounces on pop culture


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