In Movies & TV Reviews

Chadwick Boseman stars in "Black Panther," now in theaters.

"Black Panther" is close to a Marvel masterpiece

A quibble before the kudos: History will not remember "Black Panther" as the first black comic book superhero movie.

As much as Disney would love for you to forget, that honor goes to "Spawn" in 1997 (and, as much as you'd love to forget, Shaq's "Steel," which would be released just two weeks later). That's also if you don't include original comic-inspired concoctions like "Blankman" or "The Meteor Man," the latter also claiming the title of the first superhero movie created by a black writer-director, Robert Townsend. It's not even merely Marvel's first film foray with a black superhero; the vampire hunter Blade staked his claim on that place in the record books two decades ago.

This weekend may mark a massive (and all-too massively delayed) leap for on-screen representation – a wealth of black voices in front of and behind the camera, supported with a wealth of budget as well – but it's not a first leap. And our excitement for progress shouldn't cause us to forget how we reached it.

But enough about what "Black Panther" hasn't accomplished. Let's talk about what it certainly has: It's created the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, a thoughtful and thrilling one-of-a-kind blockbuster that excels not merely because of whiz-bang superhero spectacle (like, say, "The Avengers"), but because it tells a truly terrific standalone story roaring to be told.

Taking place almost immediately after the events of "Civil War," T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, "42") returns home to Wakanda – a technologically advanced haven, thanks to its brilliant minds and a mountain of ultra-valuable vibranium, hiding as a third-world African nation – to take his dearly deceased father's place on the country's throne.

Before he can even order new business cards, however, his first crisis as king arrives: A South African weapons smuggler (motion capture wizard Andy Serkis, aka Gollum, having a blast playing yet another villain obsessed with shiny metal) has stolen a vibranium artifact from a museum, with plans to sell it to the highest bidder. Worse yet is his partner, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, "Creed"), a ruthless U.S. black ops soldier with his own plans for the immensely powerful metal – and the country from which it hails.

Working from a script written by himself and Joe Robert Cole, director Ryan Coogler takes his time bringing the audience into the world of Wakanda (minus the prologue – which, now an annoying Marvel staple, rushes out before the studio logos and before the audience has finished settling in). It's a slower start than your usual Hollywood blockbuster but a welcome one, luxuriating in the thoughtful, world-building details and evocative touchstones of its new setting – a rarity in Marvel's usual texture-free approach.

While Wakanda may be a work of fiction, it's brought to life with very real inspirations – from the architecture of Senegal, to each tribe having uniquely specific garb ranging from Zulu to ancient Nigeria and Lesotho, to the languages and traditions used. Even Ludwig's Göransson's score – never a standout feature in a Marvel movie – makes an impact, combining gurgling tribal drums and ominous hip-hop beats to further create a vibrant place unlike any seen on screen – especially in a major action movie.

Forget the typical Hollywood depictions of African cultures – homogenized as one group, condescendingly othered and painted as primitive. Coogler envisions a Wakanda not only full of vivid color (captured beautifully by newly Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison) but of people empowered by both their past and their future, technology and tradition, science and spirituality.

He then fills his well-conceived world with equally colorful characters, each one a terrific candidate to take over a movie of their own. Boseman is still magnetic as the new king of Wakanda, carrying the gravitas of a crown with his anxieties calmly boiling underneath, and supporting performers like Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown and Daniel Kaluuya add weight to every scene they're in. And as the ferocious leader of the rival Jabari tribe, Winston Duke makes an outstanding impression in his first big screen role.

But it's the women who truly rule "Black Panther." As a warrior leader loyal to the throne, "Walking Dead" alum Danai Gurira steals every scene she's in – whether flicking a deadpan look in her fierce eyes or flinging off her wig as a weapon during a fight – while Letitia Wright is a delightful discovery as T'Challa's younger sister Shuri, whose youthful attitude and sense of humor is only matched by her immense intelligence. Then there's Lupita Nyong'o as T'Challa's ex-turned-Wakandan spy on the run, her warm regalness radiating throughout the movie. It's a travesty she's only been on screen twice since her Oscar-winning role in "12 Years a Slave" five years ago.

Any of these characters could take over the lead of "Black Panther" and nobody would complain, their roles layered and nuanced. But the best character of the bunch comes from a wholly unexpected place: the villainous Killmonger. Even through its industry-changing run, Marvel's never had any particularly gripping villains, mostly just purple aliens with an angry need to blow up the world for blowing up the world's sake (Loki's the best, and he's barely a threat).

Until now. Killmonger's easily the most complex and compelling villain of the franchise, made even more so because his evil motivations are not all that evil or even unreasonable. He's tired of Wakanda's power staying hidden while black people have suffered across the globe, of a country protecting the status quo over its actual people. He's a fascinating contemporary and frighteningly charismatic villain, made even more so by Jordan's woundedly raging performance, his sharp wolf's smile unable to hide his hurt eyes.

By the time he starts to take over the spotlight, "Black Panther" really begins to pounce to life, its vividly rendered world setting the stage for an intimate standalone story (the only real MCU connections are the obligatory end credit sting and Martin Freeman's return as CIA agent Everett Ross) on a grand scale. At its best, Coogler's film lands closer to a Shakespearean tragedy or Russian political drama than the usual world-saving exploits of its Marvel brethren, with royal betrayals, dutiful soldiers stuck reassessing their loyalties and rulers figuring out what it means to actually rule.

It may not have the space battles or giant superhero team-ups, but it ends up feeling more epic than all of those thanks to its big, personal, blood-pumping emotions and sprawling scale of its new kingdom.

The story is so rich and riveting that it's almost disappointing when "Black Panther" cuts to its action sequences, the most conventionally Marvel element of the movie. The bigger set pieces hit … fine, the color and inventiveness of Coogler's world-building disappearing into more generic, choppily edited work that doesn't quite hit its big beats the way you wish. Still, an action scene at an underground casino plays like the sleek and stylish black Bond movie we'll never get, with Coogler pulling out one of his fun "Creed"-esque tracking shots. And when the action sequences scale down to one-on-one bouts – namely the duo of king confirmation battles – it not only gets rid of the CGI clutter but also puts the tense relationships and grounded stakes front and center, the emotional blows hitting just as hard as the literal ones.

That's about the only area, however, where you feel the Marvel assembly line at work – and that's a large part of why the rest of "Black Panther" stands out so strong. The studio's mastered high consistency but low ceilings, calculated safety at the expense of creating something exceptional. It's a formula that's worked, but as Shuri notes, "Just because it works doesn't mean it can't be improved" – a point Coogler's film proves almost perfectly, allowing the director to put his voice, style, perspective and story above the Marvel machinery.

Put that in the history books: "Black Panther" may not have been first, but it still feels like the start of something great.

"Black Panther": ***1/2 out of ****

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