The overwhelmingly positive initial reaction to Marvel Studio’s new superhero movie almost invariably stresses such concepts as affirmation and esteem, emphasizing that “Black Panther” can serve to inspire African-American youngsters (and adults too, one expects) in the same way that “Wonder Woman” did little girls and their moms. And its appeal should not only be to boys; there are plenty of strong, admirable black women in it as well.
From a social perspective, that’s laudable. Heroic models have often served metaphorically as representatives of portions of the population that have suffered from societal hostility. (It’s undeniable that Superman, today considered the most “establishment” example of all, originally symbolized immigrants who were discriminated against, and especially Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who often faced ant-Semitism on these shores.) It’s about time that women and African-Americans got similar benefits from the superhero genre. Though there have in fact been black superhero movies before, they’ve been minor ones, like Robert Townsend’s “The Meteor Man” or Shaquille O’Neal’s “Steel.” By contrast “Black Panther” gets the real, full-Marvel treatment, and it’s pretty spectacular, as are all the products rolling off the studio’s assembly line.
It also takes advantage of the African landscapes, which may be depicted in exaggeratedly voluptuous tones by cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who otherwise favors dark, somber images) but are still glorious, and the colorful costumes by Ruth E. Carter and propulsive regional music by Ludwig Goransson (whose more conventional scoring for the action scenes is much less interesting).
And yet while it’s certainly well-made and exciting, this is still, despite its different hues, a superhero movie that hews to a pretty standard formula, and in the end the message it delivers is surprisingly tame.
The script by director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole offers an updating of elements from the comic series that began in the seventies. The setting is Wakanda, a West African kingdom that has lived a curious double life ever since a meteor struck it long ago, leaving behind a supply of vibranium, the strongest metal in the universe and a source of power that has enabled the nation to create amazing technology. It is also the basis of an elixir that gives the Wakandan king his alter-ego as Black Panther, a costumed do-gooder possessed of special abilities with which he protects his people. Though well ahead of the “developed” nations, Wakanda, aware of the dangers of colonization, has kept its advanced status a secret, presenting itself to the outside as a third-world basket-case unworthy of being preyed upon.
Following the death of its current monarch (John Kani) as a result of the terrorist assault depicted in “Captain America: Civil War,” the crown has been assumed by his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after his close victory over burly mountain-man rival M’Balu (Winston Duke) in a challenge match, much to the glee of his mother, regal Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his spunky sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a technical wiz, his trusted mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the physically awesome head of the royal house’s band of Amazonian warriors. Support also comes from T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who apparently split with him because she believes that Wakanda should share its technological knowledge with the rest of the world while T’Challa intends to follow its traditional secretive policy. She is now romantically involved with the king’s advisor W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya).
Though Wakanda seems to have weathered the transition of power well enough, trouble is brewing elsewhere: ruthless black-market weapons dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has not only learned the secret of vibranium but, assisted in acquiring a specimen with the help of mysterious American confederate Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), has literally armed himself with it. T’Challa determines to capture him and bring him back to Wakanda, a mission that takes him to Busan, South Korea, where he and his allies engage in a supercharged car chase with Klaue’s SUVs and join forces with CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who returns wounded with him to Wakanda and becomes a trusted ally.
The major threat to T’Challa and Wakanda, however, comes not from Klaue but from Stevens, who we eventually learn is a former black ops specialist called Killmonger. Series fans will recognize him as T’Challa’s cousin, the son of the turncoat brother his father had been forced to deal with. Their encounter is shown in an introductory flashback, which is here connected with the black power protests of an earlier epoch in America, and to Killmonger’s determination to challenge T’Challa’s rule and use Wakandan technology to foment world revolution. The rest of the film is devoted to showing how close to success he comes, and how T’Challa and his allies work together, and in some cases sacrifice themselves, in order to try to prevent his unleashing untold violence on the world.
This final section of the movie is filled with action, some involving massive set pieces featuring futuristic aircraft on the one hand and armored rhinoceroses on the other (as well as armies of spear-wielding combatants). But these are juxtaposed with hand-to-hand combat scenes, most notably between T’Challa and Killmonger, both in dueling Panther suits. It all ends quite predictably, but Coogler and his own army of stunt people and CGI technicians pull off everything with verve, even if some moments are visually a bit murky thanks to the hyperactive editing of Michael P. Sawyer and Debbie Berman.
Within all the melee, Boseman brings a grave dignity to T’Challa, even if the character is rather a stick, a real-royal version of the capitalist royal Bruce Wayne, who was outclassed by his villains just as the king is here by Jordan, who once again—as in his previous films with Coogler—brings an electrifying presence to Stevens/Killmonger; his simmering intensity is undeniable. Whitaker’s muted benevolence and Serkis’ scenery-chewing nastiness are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but both get tiresome by the close, while Kaluuya’s turn as the ultimately untrustworthy W’Kabi is, like Boseman’s, slightly dullish.
On the other hand, the women excel. Bassett is a model of regal decorum as the widow Ramonda, and Nyong’o a paragon of supportive womanhood as Nakia. Even here, however, it’s the sprightlier females who especially shine, with Gurira as formidable Okoye and Wright as sharp-tongued Shuri especially engaging, though in very different ways. The latter is also notable for bringing some welcome rays of humor to what is, for the most part, a very serious enterprise, particularly in the sequences in which she introduces her brother to the gizmos she’s whipped up for him, acting the part of a miniature Q (not the only instance in which “Black Panther” mimics James Bondish spycraft, especially in a Korean casino sequence). Some he-man humor is also contributed by the well-muscled Duke. Then there is Freeman, the white outsider-turned-ally, whose meekness is meant to obscure his heroism, even if it’s framed with a comic edge.
But the Ross subplot, as well as other elements of the picture, accentuates the fact that while it focuses on a black man as hero, the movie’s attitude is ultimately what might be termed a white-bread one. The truly revolutionary figure here is Killmonger, whose resentment over centuries of bondage, abuse and discrimination spills over into a “by any means necessary” desire for repayment. But his overtly black power attitude is rejected in favor of T’Challa’s adoption of Nakia’s do-good one, which involves sharing Wakanda’s enlightened mode of life with the rest of humanity in a “tribal-free” environment that’s referenced in one of the picture’s two post-credit sequences, a sort of kumbaya moment in which Freeman’s Ross looks on with a beaming smile, the very image of predatory oppression turned into admiring cooperation. One can only wonder how well that will work out in future installments (see the second closing teaser, which can be interpreted quite otherwise).
The other aspect of the movie that might cause some apprehension is the status of the women. Yes, they are all strong personalities, wise and activist. But they are essentially supportive figures in a regime that is unquestionably male-dominated. Females are apparently excluded from any consideration of rule, and at best can exercise influence through their husbands or brothers. They are admirable characters, but subordinate ones.
Still, the good definitely outweighs the problematic here, making for a superhero movie that’s definitely one of the better examples of the genre though hardly as groundbreaking as some would claim. And if it inspires youngsters who can identify with its characters, that’s all to the good.