Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture. Two hours, 14 minutes.
Publication date: Feb. 16, 2018
Review by Peter Canavese
Like Asgardian royal Thor, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is a warrior king from a wondrous and remote pocket kingdom, namely the fictional African nation of Wakanda. A secret metropolis cloaked from the world, the technologically advanced but tradition-honoring Wakanda relies on its king -- who also assumes the masked mantle of the catsuit-clad hero Black Panther -- to protect its sovereignty and its vibranium, a precious natural resource ripe for exploitation.
Wakanda's king and T'Challa's beloved father T'Chaka (John Kani) has recently passed, but T'Challa must earn the throne through ritual combat and, having done so, forge his rule under fire (As T'Chaka portentously muses, "It's hard for a good man to be king"). A parallel plot establishes the film's "villain," in fact a ruthless but strongly motivated antagonist named Erik Stevens, a.k.a. "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan). If Boseman is the center that holds, the ever-charismatic Jordan is the one who fascinates in limning Erik's pained drive.
Director Ryan Coogler (who directed Jordan in "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed") and his co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole ably give the story of these competing children of trauma, cultural pride, and insistent moral righteousness a mythic resonance and a vital modernity, partly by placing the tale's original sin in Coogler's own birthplace of Oakland. They also know well enough to hold up Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead"), and especially Letitia Wright (playing T'Challa's teenage sister and full-time gadget-dispensing "Q") as a terrific trio of women wielding brains, brawn, and heart to aid king and country.
Much of the talk around "Black Panther" revolves around the superhero movie's primarily black cast, a breakthrough of sorts at this budgetary scale. There's no denying the cultural significance of these optics and Coogler's top-notch execution: although the "Blade" franchise, also adapted from Marvel Comics, was a stepping stone, the powerful Marvel Studios affords this black superhero a $200 million budget and a cast with two Oscar-winning actors (Nyong'o and Forest Whitaker) and two Oscar nominees (Angela Bassett and Daniel Kaluuya, currently up for "Get Out").
Coogler takes the opportunity seriously, with thematic verve but also a sense of play. The main thrust of the plot wrestles with the political conundrum of fearful isolationism versus sweeping altruism, while a spy sequence that begins in a South Korea casino and spills onto the streets as a car chase knowingly plays like a demo reel for the long-mooted "black James Bond." In most respects, "Black Panther" is boilerplate Marvel, with a sleek, colorful look, cheeky humor, and familiar action beats (marred somewhat by rubbery digital doubles). But Coogler brings enough to the table for a fresh vision, broadly appealing as well as inspirational in its representation for black audiences and women.