The arc of the Marvel universe is long, but it’s finally bent toward Black Panther. It always seemed counterintuitive that the same sprawling cinematic realm that (along with DC) so readily welcomed creatures blue and green, Ant-Men and Wolverines, took so long to put a black superhero at the center of the screen. Now that the moment has arrived though, it feels like nothing less than a sea change: a wave started by Wonder Woman last year and grown to full swell in Panther’s moral weight and real-world currency.
It’s also really, really fun. Chadwick Boseman (42, Marshall) stars as T’Challa, newly anointed king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and heir to its secret wonder, Vibranium, a meteor-borne metal so powerful it can redirect energy and so rare — outside its homeland, at least — that its value is almost incalculable. And where fetishistic objects of desire go, very bad men must follow: chief among them arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a ball with his gold incisors and wheezy lunatic’s giggle) and Michael B. Jordan’s brooding mercenary Erik Killmonger.
T’Challa may have the crown and the Vibranium-enhanced Panther suit — and he’s working on the girl, Nakia, played by a luminous Lupita Nynong’o. But he’s also still reeling from his father’s recent death, and not entirely prepared to take on new enemies. Thank God (and great casting agents) for the women beside him, including his regal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), brainiac baby sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and fearless warrior-protector Okoye (Danai Gurira).
They’re indomitable, and so gorgeously, vividly drawn that Boseman sometimes feels like a supporting player in his own story. (The effervescent British import Wright and actress/playwright Gurira, especially, feel like they could easily hold their own films; it’s hard to remember the last time any females, let alone women of color, even came close to creating such fully formed roles in a cineplex tentpole.) Martin Freeman is great too as CIA agent Everett Ross, a Bisquick-blond Boy Scout who spends about 90 percent of the movie just looking awed to be there. But it’s hard to find a weak spot in the stacked cast, even the ones who only have a few brief scenes: Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani.
Ryan Coogler, the 31-year-old director whose brief resumé already includes an acclaimed indie drama (the 2013 festival breakout Fruitvale Station) and an underdog triumph (2015’s stellar Rocky reboot Creed), clearly fought hard to get Panther to the screen the way he envisioned it: Not as a boilerplate blockbuster window-dressed with African-American faces, but a story fully, joyfully rooted in black culture. It doesn’t feel like an accident that a chunk of the movie’s most important action happens in his hometown of Oakland, only blocks away from the real-life events of Fruitvale. And Jordan’s kinetic Killmonger is no cat-stroking cartoon villain; he’s a genuinely tragic figure, a self-appointed warden of social justice irreparably warped by the wrongs done to him.
Coogler’s filmmaking isn’t flawless. The CG backdrops veer into screensaver territory, and the battle scenes are often shot in turbulent closeup; the last 30 minutes are so frenetic it feels like there are defibrillator pads sewn into the theater seats. But he infuses nearly every frame with soul and style, and makes the radical case that a comic-book movie can actually have something meaningful — beyond boom or kapow or America — to say. In that context, Panther’s nuanced celebration of pride and identity and personal responsibility doesn’t just feel like a fresh direction for the genre, it’s the movie’s own true superpower. A-