MARCH 13, 2018
Among the many wonderful things about Ryan Coogler’s latest film, “Black Panther,” is that the director doesn’t approach it as a superhero movie. It’s as if the idea has never even occurred to him.
Instead, “Black Panther” is one of the few comic-book movies that is almost completely about character — relationships between father and son, mother and son, son with an ex-girlfriend and, most significantly, the jealousy between cousins. It’s one of the rare superhero films that doesn’t rely on CGI to tell the story but instead uses computer generated imagery to enhance it.
Based on the Marvel comic that first appeared in the 1960s, “Black Panther” is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, whose very existence is predicated on the discovery of an element called “vibranium,” which gives its possessor supernatural powers and the title “Black Panther.” After the death of his father, the current Black Panther is King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who continues his father’s policy of presenting to the world that Wakanda is a third-world country, all the while using vibranium to move the country forward with advanced technology that far surpasses most first-world countries.
Black Panther is no stranger to the Marvel film universe as he was first introduced in “Captain America: Civil War” (as were several characters in this film) so the character clearly fits snugly in the Marvel world, yet “Black Panther” feels like a stand-alone film in the sense that you needn’t have seen the earlier film to enjoy it.
Boseman is just fine as Black Panther (and it is such a relief to see the actor being freed from having to play such all-American icons as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and Marvin Gaye), but it is particularly striking to see King T’Challa take a back seat to the many powerful women in his life — his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett, fierce as always), his brainy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, delightful) and his spy/ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, who apparently can do anything).
Then T’Challa’s nemesis arrives.
It’s often been said that a superhero movie is only as good as its villain, a rule that both Marvel and DC Comics seem to have ignored in most of their films, sending us a parade of mediocre bad guys whose only goal is to take over the world or some such vague thing. What Coogler has done is to cast a superior actor, Michael B. Jordan (who became a star headlining Coogler’s previous two movies, 2013’s “Fruitvale Station” and 2015’s “Creed”), to bring to life N’Jadaka, also known as Eric “Killmonger” Stevens, an ex-American Black Ops soldier who also happens to be T’Challa’s cousin.
Killmonger has no interest in taking over the world, just taking over the throne. Instead he believes that T’Challa is not using his power as king to help his people both in his country and all over Africa, and he believes that he can do a much better job. Totally understandable and absolutely believable, a far cry from the lackluster villains with vague motivations in most superhero movies. And that’s what gives the conflict in “Black Panther” a refreshing gravitas.
Faithful readers of this column probably know that I’m not a big fan of comic book superhero films, either from Marvel (with the exception of the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film) or, even worse, from DC Comics (again, with the exception of “Wonder Woman”). For me at least, the structure of these films all feel the same — Act I is getting-to-know-you (with hopefully some humor), Act II is where the stakes are set and Act III is all the CGI crap.
“Black Panther” follows all those rules, but the film is ultimately more effective because here the stakes that are set in Act II are much more personal than usual and the Act III CGI battle at least features the faces of our protagonists so that those personal stakes are brought into the hand-to-hand combat.
Articles about “Black Panther” in the coming weeks will likely lead with the fact that the film is a box-office bonanza — as of Tuesday, it has already grossed more than $570 million in the U.S. alone and is on track to becoming one of the top 5 successful films of all time.
What I hope that those articles will also acknowledge is that “Black Panther,” for all its financial success, is also a damned good movie.