Review: 'Black Panther' is rousing, inclusive
Black audiences will see themselves reflected in a way they haven’t before when the Marvel superhero makes his big-screen solo debut. USA TODAY
Even with rampaging armored rhinos, spiritual dreamwalking and technology that wouldn’t be out of place in a Blade Runner film, Black Panther still manages to bring an undeniable realness to the Marvel movie universe.
Director Ryan Coogler’s spectacular new film (★★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Feb. 16) features the most high-profile black movie superhero yet, and also happens to be the best origin vehicle for the mighty Marvel brand since Guardians of the Galaxy.
Chadwick Boseman follows up a memorable Captain America: Civil War appearance as African ruler T’Challa (and his masked warrior alter ego) with a roaring solo adventure that unleashes James Bond-style spycraft, geopolitics galore and tribal intrigue a la Game of Thrones. Yet while there are plenty of fantastical aspects, Black Panther is extremely grounded, dealing with the consequences of ages-old colonialism and exploring isolationism at a time when actual countries are building borders rather than breaking them down.
Boseman lends a winning mix of dignity and swagger to T’Challa, who returns to his homeland of Wakanda for the first time since the death of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), to take the throne. In addition to having to prove his worth to factions at home, the new king must keep his country's secret under wraps: The rest of the planet thinks Wakanda is third world, but thanks to being rich in the otherworldly metal vibranium, it’s actually decades beyond everybody else, with hover ships and various mind-blowing innovations.
Chadwick Boseman stars as T'Challa, the king of a high-tech African nation, in the Marvel movie 'Black Panther.' Marvel Studios
Unlike other comic-book films that lean into hero-vs.-hero smackdowns, Black Panther differentiates itself by having a loyal cadre of allies for its main character. Wakandan “war dog” spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is T’Challa’s ex who remains close; Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the fierce leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special force; and T'Challa's tech-whiz sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the gadget-inventing Q to Panther’s 007, who steals scenes with rebellious verve.
On a mission to take down arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (a delightfully unstable Andy Serkis), the good guys run into mysterious mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who becomes the most formidable challenger to T’Challa’s reign. Played brilliantly by Jordan, Killmonger is the standout villain that Marvel movies have sorely needed: an enemy who feels of our time, with understandable motives and a potentially Earth-shaking scheme born out of revenge and resentment.
But this superb cast doesn’t have a weak link. Winston Duke is awesome in a supporting role as T’Challa’s rival, M’Baku; Angela Bassett is resplendent as Wakandan queen mother Ramonda; and Sterling K. Brown gives a heartfelt performance as N’Jobu, who has ties to Wakanda’s complicated past.
Superhero movies have long needed this kind of representation in terms of men and women of color, and for black audiences, Black Panther will undoubtedly be as culturally significant in the way it addresses subjects of identity, race and gender as Wonder Woman was to female fans. The film ventures to other important places, too: There are sins of the fathers and redemptions of the sons that are core to the narrative, heads butt in Wakanda about its role on the international stage, and each character has to wrestle with his or her role in a bigger picture, especially T’Challa. “It’s hard for a good man to be king,” his father tells him.
While the themes are deep, Black Panther is at the same time a visual joy to behold, with confident quirkiness (those aforementioned war rhinos), insane action sequences and special effects, and the glorious reveal of Wakanda, whose culture is steeped in African influences but which also offers a jaw-dropping look at what a city of the future could be.
Let's not wait too long for a return trip.