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Review: 'Black Panther' Shakes Up the Marvel Universe

Author: Manohla Dargis

A jolt of a movie, “Black Panther” creates wonder with great flair and feeling partly through something Hollywood rarely dreams of anymore: myth. Most big studio fantasies take you out for a joy ride only to hit the same exhausted story and franchise-expanding beats. Not this one. Its axis point is the fantastical nation of Wakanda, an African Eden where verdant-green landscapes meet blue-sky science fiction. There, spaceships with undercarriages resembling tribal masks soar over majestic waterfalls, touching down in a story that has far more going for it than branding.

Wakanda is home to Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the latest Marvel hero to leap off the comic-book page and into his own movie. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee (script) and Jack Kirby (art), the original Black Panther — a hepcat in a slinky suit with claws and ears — debuted alongside the Fantastic Four in an adventure in Wakanda, which is powered by a mystery metal, vibranium. It was a splashy, timely entrance (the revolutionary group that shares his name officially formed that same year), and by the end of his first escapade, the Four had assured T’Challa “there’s no reason for the Black Panther’s career to come to an end!”

In the decades since, Black Panther has undergone a variety of costume alterations and adventures in the comics, some under the direction of the filmmaker Reginald Hudlin and, more recently, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates. To direct the first Panther movie, Marvel tapped Ryan Coogler, who with his last outing, “Creed,” shook the dust off the Rocky series by giving it an African-American champion played by Michael B. Jordan. For “Black Panther,” Mr. Coogler brought back both Mr. Jordan and some former crew members — including Rachel Morrison, the director of photography on his first feature “Fruitvale Station” — continuity that may help account for this movie’s intimacy and fluidity.

As with all Marvel screen ventures, the story has a lot of moving parts, but in general the results don’t register as the same-old superhero busywork, the kind that makes for forgettable stories and strenuously overinflated running times. Written by Mr. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” brings T’Challa’s story up to the present, sketches in his past and looks to his future, all while clearing room for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its other unitard-wearing warriors. (Black Panther was first wedged into the forgettable “Captain America: Civil War.” ) The movie also rather too breezily establishes Wakanda as a militaristic monarchy that is nevertheless fair and democratic.

The story initially involves a satisfying if obvious cartoonish villain, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a conspicuously very good time), an underworld arms dealer with a weaponized arm, an Afrikaans sneer and a rampaging cohort that includes Erik Killmonger (Mr. Jordan). As his name announces, Killmonger has, well, issues to go with his striking body ornamentation. The band’s evildoing ways attract the attention of the Black Panther and an international lawman in the person of a friendly C.I.A. agent (the customarily cuddly Martin Freeman), whose good-guy status is just one reminder that “Black Panther” adheres to at least some dubious Hollywood conventions.

For a while, as the story and the Black Panther veer here and there, jumping from Wakanda to Busan, South Korea, the filmmakers seem as if they’re simply going to deliver a remix of James Bond with a touch of Spidey shenanigans. The Black Panther even slinks into a swank casino with some backup and before long the place has erupted with the kind of choreographed mayhem that — as legs and gowns twirl — achieves liftoff. There’s also the inevitable chaotic car chase that turns Busan into a video game and, dispiritingly, a car commercial, an egregious tie-in that is somewhat alleviated by the amusing image of a woman warrior’s bare foot putting pedal to the metal.

Flourishes like this (along with an amusingly airborne wig and, later, rampaging rhinos) and the Wakandan backdrop give the action scenes kick and actual personality, but Mr. Coogler’s directing strengths are more intimate. There are sequences in “Black Panther” that may make you cry because of where they go and what they say, but also because of the sensitivity he brings to them. He makes some savvy story choices too. And so, before Mr. Serkis can steal too many scenes, Mr. Coogler turns his attention to Killmonger and pushes the movie in another direction, away from a white villain wronging black people to black people living their lives.

Part of the movie’s pleasure and its ethos — which wends through its visuals — is how it dispenses with familiar either/or divides, including the binary opposition that tends to shape our discourse on race. Life in Wakanda is at once urban and rural, futuristic and traditional, technological and mystical. Spaceships zoom over soaring buildings with thatched tops; a hover train zips over a market with hanging woven baskets. In one of the most striking locales, an open-air throne room is horizontally lined with suspended tree limbs, creating a loose pattern that pointedly blurs the divide between the interior and exterior worlds and is echoed by the fretwork in costumes and other sets.

The rejection of the either/or divide extends to Killmonger, whose emotional, fraught back story gives the movie more heft and real-world friction than any of Marvel’s other superhero blowouts. Like a lot of adventures, “Black Panther” turns on a familiar father-and-son drama — there’s an assassination, a power vacuum and a somewhat reluctant heir — a patrilineal intrigue that is filled in here with intense face-offs involving questions of ancestry, identity, the African diaspora, the new world and the old. One particularly moving narrative thread features Sterling K. Brown, a tremulous, vibrantly sensitive actor who conveys entire chapters of grief. (He could out-weep Juliette Binoche.)

Mr. Jordan is a terrifically charismatic presence and there are times when you wonder if he might have made a better Black Panther. Mr. Boseman’s magnetism is more slow-burning and his performance is more physically restrained than Mr. Jordan, even deliberate, though he has his splashier, freewheeling moments, including some hand-to-hand grappling. (Wrestling is big in Wakanda, hence a few sexy smackdowns featuring acres of bare skin and jumping muscle.) Like many other Wakandans, he speaks in English with a South African lilt, an accent that vividly summons up Nelson Mandela and suggests that T’Challa will soon be assuming the role of international diplomat.

It’s important to the movie’s politics and myth-building that he is surrounded by a phalanx of women, among them a battalion of women warriors called the Dora Milaje. These aren’t moviedom’s irritatingly token strong chicks, the tough babes with sizable biceps and skills but no real roles. For all his father issues, T’Challa is enveloped by women who cushion him in maternal, military, sisterly and scientific support. A female general (Danai Gurira) stands by his side; his baby sister (a vivacious Letitia Wright) provides gadgets and withering asides à la Bond’s gadget guy. Angela Bassett swans in as the royal mother, while Lupita Nyong’o, as a spy, makes the case for her own spinoff.

Buoyed by its groovy women and Afrofuturist flourishes, Wakanda itself is finally the movie’s strength, its rallying cry and state of mind. Early on, a white character carelessly describes it as “a third world country — textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” Part of the joke, which the movie wittily engages, is that Wakanda certainly fits that profile except that its shepherds patrol the border with techno-wizardry, and its textiles and costumes dazzle because of the country’s secret vibranium sauce. More critically, having never been conquered, Wakanda has evaded the historical traumas endured by much of the rest of Africa, freeing it from the ravages of both colonialism and postcolonialism.

Race matters in “Black Panther” and it matters deeply, not in terms of Manichaean good guys and bad but as a means to explore larger human concerns about the past, the present and the uses and abuses of power. That alone makes it more thoughtful about how the world works than a lot of mainstream movies, even if those ideas are interspersed with plenty of comic-book posturing. It wouldn’t be a Marvel production without manly skirmishes and digital avatars. Yet in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50

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