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 A Marvelous Hero 

Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman
Walt Disney Studios
 134 Minutes
Directed byRyan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan 
Black Panther

It would have been very easy for Marvel Studios to have gone through the motions in the making of its newest superhero movie, Black Panther, and simply cranked out a generic film with a largely black cast, knowing that, no matter how good or bad the actual product was, it was well positioned to make a bundle at the box office and, at the least, whet the appetite of Marvel fans until the next “big one,” Avengers: Infinity War, arrives this summer. Fortunately, Marvel didn’t go the quick and easy route but, instead, went beyond what was a relatively minor character in the Marvel Comics universe and, instead, created perhaps the best backstory and supporting cast in any superhero film.


As with many comic book superheroes, the titular Black Panther came by his powers somewhat by chance, although in his case it was chance hundreds of years in the making, in the form of a meteor containing a powerful super-element called vibranium, which fell to earth in Africa in what is now the nation of Wakanda. Over the years, the Wakandans learned to harness the power of vibranium (also an element in Captain America’s shield) and use the metal to create technological marvels centuries advanced from the rest of the world. However, they also kept their technology a secret from the rest of the world, appearing to be a poor, third world country while cloaking their magnificent city.


Wakanda is ruled by King T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), who ascended to the throne after the death of his father in Captain America Civil War. As the ruler, T’challa has the power of the Black Panther, extraordinary strength and agility gained from consuming special herbs laced with vibranium. He also has a lot of advanced gadgets at his disposal, including a tricked-out costume, all of which were designed by his sister, Churi (Letitia Wright), sort of a combination of James Bond’s Q and NCIS’s Abby. But, although T’challa wants to keep doing things in the traditional way, others want to use the Wakandan technology, most particularly Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-Special Forces soldier who bears a grudge against the royal family and wants to export vibranium weaponry to start a worldwide revolution against the status quo. To do so, Killmonger teams up with a most unlikely ally, arms dealer Ulysses Klauwe (Andy Serkis), who has been stealing Wakandan weaponry for years.


While the origin story of Black Panther is in some ways like that of many other comic book superheroes, who gain their powers accidentally, as a film, Black Panther creates as intricate and detailed a backstory surrounding the superhero as any comic book film I can recall. The movie was directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, and they have painstakingly woven African culture and heritage into the storyline. Black Panther isn’t merely a superhero who lives in African the way that Spider-Man lives in New York; instead, he is the product of both centuries of African heritage and a powerful other-worldly metal.


In many ways, T’Challah is the least interesting character in Black Panther. For much of the film, he is dignified and restrained, letting those around him do the heavy lifting. And that lifting begins with Killmonger, who is far from the rote villain we have seen far too often in Marvel films. Killmonger is actually more of a Shakespearean tragic hero, a man brought down by his pride and desire for vengeance following some events portrayed in the movie’s prologue. And, his goal is admirable, the end of oppression against those in third world countries. But his methods are far too bloodthirsty, and he, himself, is a ruthless killer when need be.


Killmonger, however, is but one side of the argument that is at the center of Black Panther, namely, the responsibility T’Challah and the Wakandans have as a result of their technology. The opposing point of view is best represented by Churi and T’Challah’s possible romantic interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O), who want to share the Wakandan secrets. This conflict creates the real drama in Black Panther, readily eclipsing the various fights and chases that are a staple of Marvel filmwork.


Finally, no discussion of the characters in the movie would be complete without a mention of Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the king’s personal bodyguard. While the notion of an elite bodyguard cadre for a ruler isn’t that unusual, here, they are all female, noteworthy primarily because it isn’t noteworthy in the movie, just an accepted part of the culture, unlike the reaction such an all-female unit would cause in most Western nations, especially the United States. Gurira displays the same agility and fighting prowess using spears here as she shows using her machete against the zombies of The Walking Dead.


Somewhat surprisingly, while the characterizations, backstory, and moral and ethical issues raised in Black Panther are far superior to those in almost any previous comic superhero movie, the action scenes are far more routine. Ryan Coogler, despite his previous work on Creed, doesn’t handle the editing and camera work well in the fight scenes, especially a brawl in a casino that triggers the movie’s first major set piece. That sequence segues into a car chase that, despite the villainous Ulysses Klauwe’s use of a sonic blaster that doubles as his artificial arm, proves somewhat familiar seeming as well. The big finale, however, manages to partially make up for earlier shortcomings by incorporating some truly unique elements for this type of film, most noteworthy of which is a charge by trained rhinos.


Black Panther in many ways goes beyond the built-in weaknesses of the genre that hamper so many superhero movies and actually explores the Marvel mantra (“with great power comes great responsibility”) as something other than the personal responsibility of the superhero to bash the bad guys. Here, it becomes part and parcel of the overall dynamic of the movie and takes into recognition the historic treatment of black Africans over the centuries, which becomes an ironic counterpoint to the magnificent Wakandan culture that is at the heart of the film. Frankly, there are too many Marvel movies with too many gimmicky heroes and interchangeable villains. Black Panther stands out from the crowd as perhaps the best actual drama Marvel has made.  

In this scene, the Black Panther chases some of the bad guys.

Read other reviews of Black Panther: 

Black Panther (2018) on IMDb