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updated: 2/14/2018 5:01 PM

Marvel's 'Black Panther' leaps to front of superhero action fantasies

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  • Video: "Black Panther" trailer

  • A former CIA contractor (Michael B. Jordan), left, faces off with Wakanda's new king (Chadwick Boseman) in Ryan Coogler's groundbreaking superhero epic "Black Panther."

    A former CIA contractor (Michael B. Jordan), left, faces off with Wakanda's new king (Chadwick Boseman) in Ryan Coogler's groundbreaking superhero epic "Black Panther."
    Courtesy of Marvel Studios-Disney

  • "Black Panther" leaps into action in Ryan Coogler's new superhero movie.

    "Black Panther" leaps into action in Ryan Coogler's new superhero movie.
    Courtesy of Marvel Studios-Disney

 
 

"Black Panther" - ★ ★ ★

Ryan Coogler's bold, politically charged "Black Panther" represents a whole new animal in the Marvel Comics movie menagerie of superheroes, a different approach that rejects shopworn genre cliches, vague "save the world" goals and lame dialogue imperatives ("Let's get out of here!") abundant in earlier superhero films.

This is one terrific, innovative superhero action fantasy boasting a nearly all-black cast. Although part of the story takes place in California, most of it unfolds in a secluded, but highly advanced African nation called Wakanda.

For generations, Wakanda (pronounced like our suburban town Wauconda) has possessed vibranium, an all-purpose, purple substance that operates as a power source, but also cures illnesses and wounds, and makes costumes bulletproof when integrated with fabric.

We briefly met the future Black Panther in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War." (Some of the footage from that movie gets a replay here.)

After the death of his father in "Civil War," Prince T'Challa (a beefed-up Chadwick Boseman) becomes Wakanda's ruler in a stunningly colorful, spectacular coronation ceremony.

Apparently, being king means you become the next Black Panther with an imposing, vibranium-enhanced costume and an arsenal of supercool 007-like gadgets, then get to perform superhero feats as part of the duties of managing a monarchy government.

A young Wakanda prince (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the throne following the bombing death of his father in "Black Panther."
A young Wakanda prince (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the throne following the bombing death of his father in "Black Panther." - Courtesy of Marvel Studios-Disney

A white South African baddie named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his amoral capitalist from "Avengers: Age of Ultron") sets the plot in motion when he steals an old tool made of vibranium from a museum.

He offers to sell it to a CIA agent named Ross (Martin Freeman with a charming American accent that suggests he missed his calling as James Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter). Ross quickly becomes T'Challa's ally.

The screenplay, by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, has more defined goals for T'Challa than saving the world. He must make some tough moral choices.

He first believes that Wakanda should keep its vibranium advances secret from the world, as it has for generations. But a ruthless CIA contractor named Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (a buff Michael B. Jordan, star of Coogler's "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station") demands vibranium be weaponized and given to all oppressed people.

These are no small ideas. This cogent screenplay serves up the obligatory superhero trappings -- chases, fights, mysterious resurrections, outrageous costumes and explosive visual effects -- but it addresses real-world issues of global propriety and responsibility with an underlying sense of gravity.

Boseman, who's already played superheroes Thurgood Marshall, James Brown and Jackie Robinson, pumps T'Challa with restraint and reverence as he wrestles with big decisions and the apparent sins of his father.

Lupita Nyong'o, left, and Letitia Wright play two of several wonder women in Ryan Coogler's superhero adventure "Black Panther."
Lupita Nyong'o, left, and Letitia Wright play two of several wonder women in Ryan Coogler's superhero adventure "Black Panther." - Courtesy of Marvel Studios-Disney

He receives great support from remarkable Wakanda wonder women: his regal mom Ramonda (Angela Bassett), smart younger sister Shuri (a delightfully engaging Letitia Wright), plus tough, efficient security warriors Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o).

Marvel's Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Black Panther -- the first African superhero in American comics -- in 1966, not long after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Black Panther made entertainment history back then. With the release of Coogler's movie, he's doing it again.

• • •

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence, a rude gesture. 135 minutes

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