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It used to be that once characters became established stars in the world of comics, publishers would create anthology titles like “Superman Family” or “Archie’s Gals and Pals,” thus allowing readers to get not only new stories about the title character but also ancillary tales about, say, Lois Lane or Principal Weatherbee. I bring this up because “Black Panther” does such a great job introducing the fascinating supporting characters in his orbit that it can barely find time to dig into its purported protagonist.
Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a fairly brief appearance in “Captain America: Civil War,” in which his father, King T’Chaka of the African nation of Wakanda, was assassinated. This mostly rousing solo adventure, directed by Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson”), surrounds our hero with such a terrific cadre of gals and pals — and sidelines him for a chunk of the third act — that he almost gets shoved to the background.
As the film opens, Boseman’s Prince T’Challa is returning to Wakanda, where he will succeed his father both on the throne and as the possessor of the powers of the Black Panther. (This is one of the few superheroes who is also a head of state.) What makes “Black Panther” unusual is that there are no personal hurdles our hero has to overcome; he’s ready, willing and able to inherit both titles, with no need to overcome hubris or fear or arrogance. Thankfully, we’re spared yet another Joseph Campbell-style reluctant hero’s journey.
What does stand in T’Challa’s way are the harsh realities of politics and statesmanship, as he learns a dark secret from his father’s past that casts a pall over a land that is a paradise on Earth. Wakanda, you see, was built on the site where a meteorite made of pure vibranium (the metal from which Captain America’s shield was forged) crashed. It’s made the Wakandans technologically advanced, but they’ve kept their wealth and wizardry a secret from the world.
One of the most dramatic — and relevant — storylines the film explores is whether or not advanced societies owe it to the global community to share their discoveries rather than keep their bounty to themselves. (Or as one character asks, putting none too fine a point on it, do we build bridges or erect barriers?)
T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy we first see liberating captured women and child soldiers, thinks it’s the duty of Wakanda to use its resources to help those less fortunate. And when a villainous black-ops assassin with the catchy nickname Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) shows up, he also wants Wakanda to share its wealth — by putting its high-tech weapons in the hands of black revolutionaries the world over.
Coogler (who previously directed Jordan in “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station”) plunges us into the wonders of Wakanda, and in doing so, gives us three women in T’Challa’s orbit who steal his onscreen thunder: besides Nakia, there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira, “The Walking Dead”), the intensely dedicated (and drily funny) warrior general, as well as the new king’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, “The Commuter”), a tech genius who serves as this movie’s Tony Stark.
Or, if you prefer, Q: “Black Panther” features at least one sequence that out-007s the recent James Bond movies. Shuri outfits T’Challa with some new gizmos just in time for him, Nakia and Okoye to travel to a casino in Busan, South Korea, where they get into a brawl with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) before a breathtaking car chase ensues. (Among that sequence’s thrilling aspects is Black Panther riding on top of a driverless sports car that Shuri is handling via remote control from her lab in Wakanda.)
It’s these thrilling moments that make the film’s occasional pacing lapses forgivable; not to give away too much of the plot, but the story is structured in a way that several key moments are repeated or revisited from another angle. (There’s a lot of rule-of-threes in the storytelling here.)
But when “Black Panther” works, it’s thrillingly alive, whether it’s the dazzling colors of the vivid costumes by Ruth E. Carter (“Selma”) — in Wakanda, the Basotho blankets emit force-fields — or the eclectic and vibrant music choices; the score by Ludwig Göransson (“Get Out”) vacillates smoothly between European strings and African percussion and woodwinds, while the songs put Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd side by side with South African performers like Babes Wodumo and Sjava.
One reason the charismatic Boseman doesn’t register as much as his counterparts might be his mask. We don’t get to see his face during fights the way we do Nyong’o’s or Gurira’s. (In some of the film’s less successful VFX moments, it’s obvious that the fighting figure of Black Panther is pure cartoon.) But who can complain when the film offers up Jordan’s Killmonger, one of the MCU’s most fascinating villains to date, as part of a powerful ensemble that includes Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke and Sterling K. Brown?
“Black Panther” boasts a lot of black talent on both sides of the camera, which is unusual enough for a big studio movie, but this is also one of the most Africa-centric films Hollywood has ever produced. Outside of “Queen of Katwe” — would that a tenth of the “Black Panther” audience had bought a ticket for that lovely film two years ago — or “Sense 8,” American viewers don’t get much of a look at one of the planet’s most gorgeous and populous continents, so it’s exciting to see the wildly popular Marvel movies take us there.
Like many of the best of the MCU movies, “Black Panther” doesn’t waste time laying out a lot of groundwork for films to come (still, stay for those closing credits) and it doesn’t assume that you’ve seen and memorized the previous 17 movies (still, if you have, you’ll pick up on a thing or two that others might miss). It’s already been announced that Black Panther will fight alongside the Avengers in the upcoming “Infinity War,” but here’s hoping he brings as much of his entourage with him as possible.