Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the African king who fights evildoers in the guise of a wildcat, is unusually grounded for a Marvel superhero epic, and unusually gripping. It’s primarily set in Wakanda, described in onscreen news accounts as Africa’s poorest country. (Trump would have choice words about Wakandan immigration.) But the poverty turns out to be surface deep, literally. Under a lush cover of trees is a city both ancient and futuristic, where sonic-powered railways snake among great stone towers, the works fueled by the metal Vibranium — best known (until now) as the substance of Captain America’s shield. For thousands of years, we learn, the Wakandans have cherished and protected their isolation, along with their Vibranium mother lode. But their worldview is about to be brutally tested. T’Challa’s do-gooder on-and-off girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is bent on crossing the border to help other imperiled African countries. Far more dangerous, though, is the aptly named militant Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who looks to Vibranium to power a full-scale international race war.
Not to minimize the alien death funnels of the Avengers films, but the conflicts threatened here hit frighteningly close to home. You’d expect no less from director Ryan Coogler, who opens the film in 1992 in Oakland, a few stops down the BART line from the site of the tragic climax of his debut feature, Fruitvale Station. Outside the projects, children play ball and try to make the best of their bad deal, while inside two black men survey their high-powered weaponry. Interrupted by “two Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks” and a king in a Vibranium suit, they make a series of bad decisions that reach all the way to present-day Wakanda and beyond.
That Black Panther has a richer palette than its Marvel precursors is no surprise, since its roots are equally in pop culture and African folklore. All right, it’s probably faux folklore, but it doesn’t feel faux in the hands of Coogler, co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, production designer Hannah Beachler, and the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison. The image of Wakandans on stone cliffs above a great waterfall, watching T’Challa fend off challengers to his throne, has mythic resonance — helped, I’d argue (maybe perversely) by the obvious green-screen FX, which suggest a Natural History Museum diorama. Moreover, the panther isn’t some random super–alter ego. He’s T’Challa’s spirit animal. During the rite of succession, T’Challa drinks a sacred potion that lights up his veins, whereupon he drifts off, astrally speaking, to meet his father, T’Chaka (assassinated in Captain America: Civil War), on “the ancestral plane.” That meeting is uneasy, though. T’Chaka has secrets that are going to come back and bite Black Panther on the ass.
Many fans think Black Panther was overdue for a stand-alone feature — but then, it took a long time for him to get his stand-alone comic. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, following the most momentous civil-rights battles, Black Panther made his debut in an issue of Fantastic Four, moved on to The Avengers, and occupied a lot of real estate in the — *wince* — Jungle Action series, the title of which carried overtones of Tarzan, before appearing in many of his own comics under the title Black Panther. Maybe it was worth the wait to get the character right onscreen. For one thing, Coogler hasn’t explicitly connected him to the tiring Marvel superhero stable. (Yes, Agent Everett K. Ross is in the film, but it doesn’t refer to other Marvel figures. And of course there’s a tie-in after all the credits have rolled, but this is a long movie, multiplex sodas are huge, and you should go ahead and use the restroom and not think you’re missing anything super important.)
Better, the filmmakers have surrounded Black Panther with women who are not just worthy of him but frequently leave him in the dust. Nyong’o’s flame-haired Nakia is one, but your gaze will be drawn (or commanded) by Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, another “Grace Jones–lookin’ chick” (tall, bald) with open contempt for guns and a samurai’s dexterity with a long spear. Men quail before her. Black Panther gives her a wide berth. Everything in her affect says “uncontainable.” T’Challa’s giddy kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is an even more fun inversion of male superhero protocol, playing Q to Black Panther’s Bond with an array of Vibranium-powered suits and gizmos. The mix of Afrocentrism, feminism, and high-tech gadgetry is irresistible. Black Panther’s team is so wonderful that I hate to think of it being dulled by the mostly white-bread Avengers.
Not that I mean to sound like Erik Killmonger, though I imagine some viewers will find him more compelling than the noble, conscientious T’Challa — much as Malcolm X is a compelling counterweight to Martin Luther King. First seen as an ally of the exuberantly sadistic Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), Erik humiliates (and then some) a patronizing white female museum director and bristles (and then some) when Klaue describes the Wakandans as savages. Michael B. Jordan is sensationally good, a flamboyant Hotspur to Boseman’s Prince Hal, their final battle ending on a note that made me think of Hal’s “for worms, Harry.” Doubtless in the coming weeks many will muse on the impact of a blockbuster primarily focusing on struggles within the black community instead of racial injustice, but even in the superb recent series by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the artist Brian Stelfreeze, the Panther’s principal concern was the welfare of Wakanda. Militancy that ushers in chaos is no solution.
Plus, you don’t put a race war at the center of a potentially billion-dollar property. Even a disguised race war, as in the brave but overly weighty War for the Planet of the Apes (which remade Apocalypse Now with apes standing in for the Vietnamese) couldn’t find a big enough audience.
Coogler has assembled a terrific supporting cast, with Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and Forest Whitaker (in a too-subservient role — but I don’t begrudge him those fat Marvel or Star Wars paychecks). Winston Duke is wonderfully imperious as M’Baku, as the leader of a rival tribe. I’d have liked even more of Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s unsteady ally, but his last moment onscreen is a delight. Martin Freeman as the CIA’s Everett K. Ross is literally dwarfed by the rest of the cast, a disparity he uses to his advantage: He can bellow and bluster and play the part absolutely straight but still be — in context — funny and endearing. As for Boseman, he is simply magnetic. He gives this busy enterprise its grave, thoughtful center.
Black Panther’s fight scenes are better than in other Marvel films, but they’re still a disappointment from the maker of Creed. Where other directors of gargantuan effects movies will hold a shot for, say, one or two seconds, Coogler will up it to three, maybe four when Gurira’s Okoye brings out her sticks. That makes a difference, but it’s a far cry from the fluid long takes that would take the action to another level. Even in this, the most original Marvel movie, there’s a sameness to the rhythm of the storytelling and the nature of the CGI, which is just money thrown at creative challenges. The good news is that Coogler has proven he can play in the big boys’ house, and there’s no excuse for studios to pass on more personal projects he has in the pipeline. How much better can a guy be?