It’s been nearly a decade since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began taking shape with the release of Iron Man. Before then, the idea of an interconnected series of superhero films spun out of the pages of comic books was something that appealed almost exclusively to middle-aged man-children who never quite outgrew those adventures.
It seems quaint to think of this now, since Disney’s Marvel Studios has successfully launched 17 movies in the top box office slot. A big part of sustaining—and expanding—the appeal of these serialized action adventures was the decision by Marvel Studios’ president, Boston-born Kevin Feige, to set each film within a different genre. That approach was best exemplified by the three Captain America pictures: The First Avenger, a star-spangled, patriotic paean to the Greatest Generation’s battle against fascism; The Winter Soldier, a contemporary action movie deeply indebted to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s; and Civil War, the story of a fractured family torn apart in an ideological battle of brother against brother.
Civil War was also notable for introducing T’Challa, prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and the man behind the mask of the Black Panther, a comic character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that debuted in July of 1966, predating the founding of the Black Panther Party by a few months.
Now, in Marvel’s 18th film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) finally graces his own long-awaited solo adventure—only this time, the picture doesn’t just adapt itself to one genre, but a handful of them. Quite fittingly for a Disney release set primarily in Africa, Black Panther borrows from one of the studio’s biggest animated hits, The Lion King, as the Wakandan prince ascends to the throne of his late father who died in a terrorist bombing during the events of Civil War. Utilizing not only some of the spiritual aspects of the 1994 Oscar winner but some of its more overt Shakespearean aspirations as well, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (along with Joe Robert Cole) also manages to weave in elements of monomyth, culled from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
But the films for which Coogler—the 31-year-old wunderkind behind Fruitvale Station and knockout Rocky reboot, Creed—clearly displays the most reverence are those featuring suave super-spy James Bond. He pays homage to that franchise not only with T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright)—a smart-mouthed tech genius whose gadgets exceed those dreamed up by Bond pal Q—but also with the mission that T’Challa embarks upon at an underground casino in Busan, South Korea.
Flanked by the proudly bald-pated Okoye (Danai Gurira)—head of the all-female Wakandan special forces—and “War Dog” Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave)—a Wakandan spy and one-time love of T’Challa—the newly crowned king intends to apprehend one-armed South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Pioneering performance capture artist Andy Serkis (the man behind Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy) portrays Klaue, a fugitive who murdered the parents of W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out), chief of Wakandan security and T’Challa’s royal counsel.
The trio quickly realize that Klaue is about to sell stolen Vibranium (Wakanda’s most precious resource and the secret element behind most of the advanced technologies they’ve hidden from the world for generations) to C.I.A. operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), which leads to one of Coogler’s now-customary single-take fight sequences as Cambridge-born director of photography Rachel Morrison (current Oscar nominee for Mudbound) sends her agile camera careening from one floor to the next and back.
Despite this, Coogler’s staging of the action sequences is somewhat disappointing, given the fresh energy he brought back to boxing in Creed. Notably, a subsequent car chase through the streets of Busan fails to measure up to a highway shootout in The Winter Soldier, and a handful of the visual effects look like they were rendered more than a decade ago. If the movie was driven purely by computer-generated imaging, this would be a problem. However, like Coogler’s previous pictures, Black Panther has more to offer than the violence that disrupts its characters’ lives, punctuated by performances that greatly elevate the material.
Boseman—best known for playing historical figures like Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall in a string of biopics—brings a stoic dignity that stands in sharp contrast to the swagger of this film’s main antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. As played by Fruitvale Station and Creed star Michael B. Jordan (Robert De Niro to Coogler’s Martin Scorsese), he’s a self-professed “kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales,” and the first Marvel villain whose motivation might be justified. For a film that’s been hailed as a defining moment for both cinema and black America, this is perhaps its greatest surprise of all. ◆
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Atandwa Kani, Ashton Tyler, Denzel Whitaker, Seth Carr, Alex R. Hibbert, Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steel, Danny Sapani and Stan Lee. Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Directed by Coogler. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.