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The brave brilliance of ‘Black Panther’

February 21, 2018
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There’s no disputing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has established real dominance over the box office. These movies – nearing 20 in number – appear to have cracked the code for ensuring ongoing success.

Some might argue that the MCU has become too formulaic in its approach, that it has become a bit of a one-size-fits-all situation that doesn’t leave a lot of room for individual filmmakers to make their mark. And I might even concede that point … to a certain extent.

But then a movie like “Black Panther” comes along, a movie that somehow manages to operate within the established MCU structure while also being something wholly and uniquely itself. It’s a film that addresses serious and complex ideas while still existing in a world of superpowered beings and futuristic technology. We’ve seen superhero space operas and superhero paranoid thrillers and superhero buddy comedies.

And now, thanks to the taut direction of Ryan Coogler, the sharp, intricate screenplay of Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and the performances of a top-to-bottom outstanding cast led by Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, we’ve seen something altogether new.

Something new, thought-provoking … and spectacular.

The film leads off with an animated intro to the early history of the African nation of Wakanda, a place whose access to a huge supply of vibranium led it to become both incredibly technologically advanced and highly isolationist. It is led by a king – someone from the royal bloodline – who gains access to an irradiated plant that gives superhuman strength, speed and senses to anyone who consumes it. That king becomes the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda.

We get a brief interlude set in Oakland in 1992, where we meet a displaced Wakandan named N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown, TV’s “This is Us”) who has engaged in some questionable behaviors while serving as a spy of sorts on behalf of his brother the king. A confrontation ends in tragedy.

In the present day, we see T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, “Marshall”) dealing with the immediate aftermath of the death of his father. He is expected to assume the throne of Wakanda, though he still mourns, as do his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, TV’s “9-1-1”) and tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, “The Commuter”). He has also called in Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), a Wakandan spy and his former love, to be there as part of the transition.

He takes command, with his general Okoye (Danai Gurira, TV’s “The Walking Dead”) leading the elite all-female Dora Milaje fighting force and his trusted advisors – most notably his longtime friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”) and his father’s aide Zuri (Forest Whitaker, “The Forgiven”) – by his side.

But the outside world is threatening to find its way into Wakanda. An arms dealer by the name of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) – one of the few outsiders to ever see the true Wakanda - has gotten his hands on some vibranium that he seeks to sell to the highest bidder, while U.S. government agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, TV’s “Sherlock”) tries to capture him.

Klaue has an ally, however – an ally with a very personal vendetta against T’Challa and the Wakandan people. Erik Stephens – a highly-trained special forces operative dubbed “Killmonger” – has his own reasons for seeking access behind the Wakandan curtain. He seeks vengeance … vengeance that, if he should achieve it, could lead to catastrophe on a global scale.

It is up to T’Challa to stop Killmonger from executing his dark desires, but there are enough shades of grey on both sides to make him wonder if the choices he’s making and the battles that he’s fighting are truly the right ones.

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably don’t need me to tell you that “Black Panther” is an important movie (although I absolutely think it is, for a wealth of reasons both subtle and obvious). There’s a sophistication of message that you don’t often see in genre movies of any kind these days; the idea that a comic book movie can be used to explore notions of Africanism and African-Americanism is pretty heady stuff. The deep dive into Afrofuturism and ideas of colonialism and isolationism, too. The fact that those notions are explored by way of a film that is a hell of a lot of fun to watch is impressive indeed.

While it might be surprising that the powers that be at Marvel opted to allow this film to be made in this way, it’s no surprise at all that Ryan Coogler is the guy making it. Coogler has already shown in his relatively brief filmmaking career that he’s unafraid to make use of icons to tell unique and challenging stories. His “Black Panther” is a beautiful paean to big-budget auteurism, a film that manages to fit within the boundaries of the MCU while also being a very personal expression.

But make no mistake – the comic book trappings are here. Lots of high-tech business both large and small. Awesome action set pieces that run the gamut from high-speed car chases to fighting giant armored rhinos. Hand-to-hand combat sequences that are kinetic and frenetic in just the right ways. We even get some of the standard-issue MCU humor.

Boseman is an ideal T’Challa, evoking the internal conflict that comes with trying to be a good person, a good hero and a good king all at the same time. There’s a sense of nobility to his portrayal that is utterly magnetic. He’s regal and relatable – not an easy feat to pull off. Nyong’o offers a layered, nuanced performance as Nakia; there’s none of the wet blanket love interest about her. She is strong and capable; our engagement with her doesn’t rely on her relationship with T’Challa at all. Wright brings a bright energy to her scenes that counterpoints some of the more serious moments in a lovely way. Okoye epitomizes the warrior archetype – no gender qualification needed. Kaluuya’s W’Kabi has one of the more complex journeys of any character in the film. Bassett and Whitaker are unsurprisingly exceptional – cinematic icons treating this story with the utmost respect. Also unsurprisingly, Sheen is very good, while Serkis is clearly having a blast, chewing the scenery with entertaining abandon.

And then there’s Michael B. Jordan. One of the bigger issues that the MCU has faced over the past decade is a seeming inability to bring villains to the screen with the same vigor as its heroes. Suffice it to say, that is NOT a problem here. Jordan’s Killmonger might be the greatest villain we’ve seen in a Marvel movie. For real. Complicated motivations, blinding charisma, crackling energy, both-feet commitment – it’s all here. There’s a vitality here that is often lacking in the standard MCU Big Bad. It’s simply an outstanding performance.

“Black Panther” is a superhero movie that is more than a superhero movie. It is a striking, powerful reinvention of the form that is both of and outside the usual formula. It will thrill you in the moment and leave you thinking as you walk away. Believe the hype.

[5 out of 5]

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