LEADER OF THE PACK
‘Black Panther’ makes big leap as superhero flick
Much of the power of this new Marvel superhero film “Black Panther” is visual and symbolic, but what power lies there.
The film is set in part in the secret African technological superpower Wakanda, a place blessed with the supermetal vibranium and ruled by a royal family newly headed by Prince T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a kind of vibranium-clad Iron Man who possesses sacred tribal super-abilities and whose Q-like little sister Shuri (a delightful Letitia Wright) provides him with a vibranium catsuit that bestows Iron Man-like speed and super-strength, protection from bullets and other hazards. Among the enemies Black Panther faces in this installment is a South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (a scenestealing Andy Serkis in the flesh for a change) and a vengeful cousin named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) abandoned in Oakland, Calif., in 1992 by T’Challa’s father (John Kani). Erik wants to usurp Black Panther’s throne and conquer the world.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, who first appeared in an issue of “The Fantastic Four” in 1966, Black Panther is the first superhero of African descent in popular American comic books. He made his first Marvel film universe appearance in 2016 in “Captain America: Civil War,” and he comes to the big screen in his own film at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and divisive politics have made such a hero a particularly timely figure to rally around.
Boseman’s Black Panther is not as amusing as the latest Thor. But he is not too serious to tease his little sister or to “freeze” in the presence of his stunning ex, Nakia (Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o), an operative who wants to use Wakanda’s powers to help the oppressed people of the world. Helping Black Panther in his battle against evildoers is the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan all-female special forces unit led by the fierce but funny Okoye (Danai Gurira of “The Walking Dead,” another scene-stealer).
Director-co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) is an obvious fan of James Bond films (not to mention “Star Wars,” “The Lion King” and “The Lord of the Rings”), evident in a Grace Jones shoutout and scenes set in South Korea, where we meet the Felix Leiter-like American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Bilbo himself Martin Freeman), who becomes Black Panther’s quip-making sidekick.
The film is a showcase of sartorial and tonsorial splendor. In crucial supporting roles are a wealth of supertalent. They include Academy Award nominees Angela Bassett in gray dreadlocks as the queen mother of Wakanda and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as T’Challa’s friend and rival W’Kabi; Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as shaman Zuri, whose ceremonial robe appears to be one long purple rope; and Golden Globe winner Sterling K. Brown as Erik’s late father. As T’Challa’s towering rival M’Baku, Yale School of Drama-educated Winston Duke makes a case for his own movie.
With stunning production design, a score produced by hip-hop maestro Kendrick Lamar and dazzling, polychrome cinematography by Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), the first woman nominated for an Oscar in cinematography, “Black Panther” is also a technical embarrassment of riches.
POWER STRUGGLE: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, far left) is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, left, with Daniel Kaluuya).