Marvel’s Black Panther is, culturally and commercially, the right film at the right time. The significance of bringing a black superhero to the screen at this moment cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of director Ryan Coogler turning this origin saga into a personal statement, embracing both the African and African-American experience. Wakanda may be a fictional (and Utopian) nation but its look, customs and costumes are built on a real-world foundation. The same can be said for the framing story set in Coogler’s home town of Oakland, California.
Young people who have never seen a mirror-image of themselves in a comic-book movie will never forget this game-changer. The chameleon-like actor Chadwick Boseman—who has transformed himself into Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall—scores another victory as T’Challa, the newly-crowned King of Wakanda. Whether he will follow his father’s path and rule a country that keeps its assets and technology a secret from the world or use that wealth to help others in need remains to be seen.
Given the groundbreaking appearance of a black star in such a role, it might come as a surprise how much weight is borne by the female characters in this story, written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. These strong, smart women are played by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett. Wright not only portrays the King’s sassy sister, giving the movie what passes for comic relief: she’s a Brainiac who serves as the equivalent of James Bond’s Q, providing T’Challa with high-tech accessories, weapons, and his panther suit.
I’d have loved to see Boseman in that second skin more often. When we do, it’s in CGI-dominated fight scenes. Like too many other action movies this one asks us to root for characters in battle who scarcely seem human. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are much more exciting, to my mind.
Black Panther has an awful lot going for it: a political point of view (tackling such timely topics as isolationism), a black villain (Michael B. Jordan) who poses a tangible threat to our hero, exceptional production design, even songs by Kendrick Lamar. But it’s a serious movie that’s densely plotted (which may confuse some kids in the audience) and lacks a sense of fun. It couldn’t be more different from the previous Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok.
But in the end, that may not be what matters. Just as Taika Waititi infused Thor with his comic sensibilities, Ryan Coogler has made a superhero movie that reflects his dramatic interests and priorities. Marvel Studios has encouraged directors to put their individual stamp on established Marvel characters and moviegoers have responded enthusiastically. Black Panther has already generated enough hype for multiple movies…and delivers on its promise to an eager audience. Any reservations I have will, and possibly should, fall by the wayside.