Power to the panther
In Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman plays a superhero. Actually, he’s been doing that for some time: Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get on Up (2014), Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017). But those movies, put together, probably didn’t sell as many tickets as Black Panther during the first three hours of opening weekend, so I guess they don’t really count. To today’s moviegoers, the achievements of heroes and trailblazers in real life are all well and good, but what really matters is what goes on in the Marvel universe.
For people to whom comic book movies are the ultimate measure of validation, Black Panther will resonate beyond its flashy merits. Boseman plays T’Challa, king of the African nation of Wakanda, which—like Superman, Batman and the rest of them—has a secret identity. Beneath Wakanda’s disguise as a mild-mannered Third World country lies a magnificent world of the future, with a near-magical technology beyond anything known to humankind, thanks to its monopoly of the miracle metal Vibranium. The kings of Wakanda, transported by a magic potion during a rite of succession, attain the standard array of superpowers usually conferred by spider bites, lightning bolts, magic lanterns or immigration from the planet Krypton.
There’s no reason a standard superhero story shouldn’t be embellished with elements of black empowerment, rituals echoing real or imagined African folklore and wish-fulfillment fantasies of a Garden of Eden under the canopy of an impenetrable rain forest. That’s what director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole (taking off from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics) do here, providing King T’Challa with an unsuspected and embittered cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who challenges him for the throne and plans to use Wakanda’s miraculous technology to launch a worldwide race war.
Coogler and Cole also provide our hero with an extensive female support system: Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett); superspy and sometimes lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); General Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of his all-female royal guard; and his sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), brilliant guru of Wakandan weaponry and technology. At times this cadre of powerful women threaten to blow the estimable Boseman right off the screen.
T’Challa/Black Panther even gets that staple of African American rom-coms, the token white buddy—in this case Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K. Ross. Toss in Andy Serkis as auxiliary white villain Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw”) and the usual hundreds (if not thousands) of CGI artists to enhance the work of some 152 credited stunt men and women, and all the necessary ingredients are in place.
Coogler deploys all these assets—especially that powerhouse cast—with efficiency and aplomb, and the sense that it’s about time a superhero of color got a big movie of his own is enough to compensate for all the usual clichés and paint-by-number action scenes.
No comic book movie is ever as good as its fans think or its box office take would suggest, but at least Black Panther has its social conscience in the right place.