A big and bold change of focus in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” pushes past many of the clichéd plot devices, archetypes and formulas of standard comic book blockbusters. Calling a moratorium on planet-devastating villains, maverick heroes, romance-free story lines and people of color exclusively viewed as sidekicks, this well crafted stand-alone takes viewers on a voyage of discovery.
While it doesn’t arrive at the promised land of cinema excellence pledged by its massive pre-release hype, it is an inventive, enjoyable trip. Like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” it moves a familiar genre in a good new direction.
To begin with, the protagonist isn’t an authority-mocking bad boy with a talent for one-liners. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler has higher emotional standards and talent suiting those ambitions. Having knocked his tragic true story debut feature “Fruitvale Station” out of the park and then launching the Rocky Balboa saga to new heights with his African-American sequel “Creed,” Coogler brings similar levels of sadness, anger and compassion to this project. This isn’t the first film about a black superhero, but it’s the first in a very long time.
After his father’s assassination, the title character, T’Challa, is the new ruler of Wakanda, a hidden sanctuary kingdom where Earth’s most sophisticated technology and traditional African ways coexist. He’s also the nation’s globe-trotting crime fighter, keeping both roles in a challenging balance. As played by Chadwick Boseman, he’s dignified, restrained and decisive. He’s also protected by a platoon of spear-wielding female guards when he’s not wearing his invulnerable combat suit.
T’Challa is the sort of regal futuristic leader that “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark might be if he’d attended a good finishing school. His central mission is to lead his homeland with wisdom and courage, keeping Wakanda’s advanced society and its reserve of all-important vibranium ore with its energy-manipulating qualities hidden by the country’s pose as Africa’s poorest territory. That puts him in immediate conflict with evil South African smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, in a rare non-CGI character performance that he clearly relishes).
After a lengthy session of world-building, back story and character-introducing in the opening, the film makes a second-act shift into James Bond territory. T’Challa, his unerring female bodyguard Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira) and idealistic spy/love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) set off to stop Klaue’s deal to sell stolen vibranium at an extravagant South Korean casino. This triggers the sort of shoot/speed chase/crash spectacle that we often see. The action is improved by the color-rich cinematography of Rachel Morrison (Oscar-nominated for her camera work in “Mudbound”).
Having never been colonized, Wakanda is determined to fend off oppressive control. An unexpected threat to its freedom arrives in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He is a deadly American military combat veteran with surprising connections to the throne and its intrigue, and even more unexpected plans for the vibranium.
By keeping earthlings as the story’s bad guys, Cloogler adds a significant measure of social commentary. The villain is essentially a scarred antihero, and the looming conflict is an international race war rather than intergalactic strife. Those cultural themes — they’re not hidden subtexts — make this less a black superhero’s flick than a black film concerning a superhero.
Because the plot unfolds at an unhurried pace, the acting ensemble has time to build intriguing supporting characters. In addition to the scene-stealing turns by Gurira (of TV’s “The Walking Dead”) and Nyong’o (“Twelve Years a Slave”), there is outstanding work by future A-lister Letitia Wright as the new king’s tech genius little sister, as well as screen veterans Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as respected elders.
Following the comic rule book, the story builds toward a climax where a crowded battlefield sees the laws of physics violated and characters appearing on and off as digital cartoons. Still, like last year’s “Wonder Woman,” this is a good if imperfect film that takes a revolutionary stance on how we should recognize heroes. As Jordan’s Killmonger says as he’s about to realize his dreams, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. The world’s going to start over.”