A CAT WITH CLAWS
‘Black Panther’ a winner thanks to talented cast, welldone action sequences
Unless you’ve been living under a giant hunk of vibranium, you’re likely aware of the early buzz surrounding “Black Panther.”
The latest entry in Disneyowned Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe has enjoyed critics and others who’ve seen it far in advance falling all over themselves to proclaim it all kinds of wonderful.
So does the story of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, prince and powerful protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, live up to the hype? Well, yeah, it pretty much does. Hey, look, the bones of this largely excellent superhero adventure are those of your typical Marvel movie; you’ll find the standard ingredients of an admirable if imperfect hero, an obsessively driven villain, high-octane action sequences and the like.
But it’s the extra layers of “Black Panther” — the very fine performances, the deft direction of Ryan Coogler and, yes, the impact of having a largely black cast — that help it stand out, rather proudly, from the superhero crowd.
T’Challa and his alter ego, the masked hero Black Panther, were introduced in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” an “Avengers”-like superhero joinup (and fight-each-other) romp.
After a flashback to early 1990s Oakland, California, that will prove important later (and, notably, boasts the great Sterling K. Brown of “This Is Us”), T’Challa’s stand-alone story begins in earnest with him mourning the loss of his father and the king of Wakanda, T’Chaka, and preparing to inherit his mantle.
Following a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira) — head of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan Special Forces, and the country’s best fighter other than his highness — in which he predictably “froze” at the sight of the beautiful Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) — a War Dog, a Wakandan spy who works in other countries to report what she observes — T’Challa and his crew fly above the mist, mountains and wildlife of his country in a spaceship-like craft.
“This never gets old,” he says, as the craft shoots through an invisible barrier to reveal a hidden high-tech metropolis beyond it.
Wakanda is home to copious amounts of the aforementioned vibranium, a strong, magically and incredibly ridiculously named element that has allowed the nation to develop incredible technology — innovations kept from the outside world. (A compelling sociopolitical theme coursing through the veins of “Black Panther” is whether Wakanda has been correct or selfish in not sharing its potentially culture-shifting advancements with struggling cultures, including its African neighbors.)
An elaborate river ceremony to crown T’Challa king culminates at magnificent, cascading falls with a ferocious combat challenge from rival Jabari tribe leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) in which T’Challa must prove his worth.
However, his real troubles lie ahead with the story’s real villains. Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, introduced in 2015’s “Age of Ultron,” is a bulky-and-brutish criminal long wanted in Wakanda for stealing vibranium, while Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is an unknown but highly skilled and fierce foe with whom T’Challa and his forces will have to contend.
Also in the mix are Letitia Wright (“Urban Hymn,” “Glasgow Girls”), as Shuri, the country’s top scientist and innovator and T’Challa’s younger sister — and basically the Q to his James Bond; Angela Bassett (“American Horror Story,” “London Has Fallen”), as Romonda, mother of T’Challa and Shuri; Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “Sicario”), as W’Kabi, the head of the security for the Wakanda’s Border Tribe and the significant other of Okoye; Forest Whitaker (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”), as Zuri, the spiritual leader of Wakanda and a close friend of the late T’Chaka; and Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit” trilogy, “Sherlock”), reprising the role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross, introduced in “Captain America: Civil War.”
While it takes one shortcut that feels just a little unsatisfying but likely was made to keep things moving, the otherwise wellcrafted story from Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) gives all the key players the opportunity to make an impression, which they do.
Not surprisingly, though, much of the standout work is turned in by Boseman, whose memorable work includes portraying reallife notables Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get on Up”) and who last year added Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”) to that impressive checklist. His T’Challa is noble, intelligent, composed and physically impressive.
His physical presence is certainly matched by that of Jordan, the talented star of Coogler’s previous films “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015). (It’s no shock Jordan appears to be in “Creed” shape considering the boxing drama’s sequel is due later this year.) He’s also fascinatingly fiery as Killmonger, who is a better-than-average villain in part because he’s not consumed with ruling the world — or, at least, not exactly.
Coogler gets solid supporting work from Nyong’o (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “12 Years a Slave”) and better than that from Gurira, who’s almost unrecognizable from her beloved character on “The Walking Dead,” Michonne. (To say that Gurira is missing Michonne’s signature dreadlocks would be an understatement.) Meanwhile, Serkis (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the “Planet of the Apes” trilogy), who’s seemingly been busy in the gym beefing up, makes the most of a rare chance to do non-motion-capture work. Klaue is a fun character here.
For his part, Coogler just continues to impress. It cannot be easy to make a real creative mark in the highly planned-out and well-coordinated MCU, but Coogler does just that. “Black Panther” may not have quite the cultural impact as “Fruitvale” station or the emotional punch as “Creed,” but it’s highly impressive blend of character moments and action. To the latter point, a car chase/battle through the streets of an Asian city and the obligatory climactic fight between Black Panther and Killmonger are done with real flair.
Going into the year, you’d have expected the best MCU film to be this summer’s highly anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War,” which will bring together seemingly all of the established Marvel heroes for one epic adventure.
However, this smaller, more culturally meaningful superhero tale will be tough to beat.
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Chadwick Boseman in a scene from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”
A scene from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”