Like its real-life radical namesakes, Black Panther is revolutionary and Afrocentric, a black cultural fantasy made real in a medium taking too long. Children of any color except white haven’t seen blockbuster movie superheroes that look like them.
Now they will, and since excitement is colorblind, we’ll all join their awed gaze. Marvel’s Black Panther is a milestone not only for its casting and director/co-writer Ryan Coogler’s cine-griot myth building but because it’s alive with fresh sights and sounds in a genre easily leaning on sameness.
Not to say Black Panther at its core isn’t anything we’ve never seen before. It’s a superhero origins story, typically an easy chapter to skip. The fate of a universe or portion of same hinges on family skeletons, sins of fathers, etc., ending in a supernatural showdown. One of many inspirational moments will be familiar to fans of an re-awakened Force.
However, Black Panther’s origins aren’t widely known. They don’t hinge on a freak accident but a proud heritage, mythical and magical. Coogler reworks such elements with a perspective that isn’t predominantly first-world white and male, an extraordinary and faintly political act.
Black Panther is chiefly set in the fictional, fantastic nation of Wakanda under East Africa. Wakanda is everything a "s---hole" country isn’t: technologically and civically superior to anywhere. Their culture is regal, vibrant, awash in colors, fabrics and rhythms Hollywood seldom if ever builds these types of mainstream, megabudget movies around. Wakandans have lived centuries as isolationists, unwilling to share their all-purpose Vibranium resources with outsiders.
That may change with the ascension of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to the crown after his father dies. Or the precious metal powering much of Marvel’s superhero universe may be used destructively by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a key figure in intrigue Marvel begs reviewers not to reveal. Both are commanding actors, each noble on opposite ends of comic book morality.
Black Panther builds a complex myth from Oakland to South Korea featuring uncommonly well-defined characters for any superhero fantasy. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay puts compelling and amusing words in the actors’ mouths, resulting in impressive turns by all. This isn’t a slam-bang Marvel flick until late, after everyone’s place in this fascinating world is clear.
Coogler delivers action with frenetic grace, keeping the violence more intimate than usual for a superhero movie. Less soulless metropolis crumbling and more face-to-face combat (although the armored rhinos aren’t bad). A car chase gets a clever boost from virtual remote controlling and Danai Gurira’s comic relief.
Black Panther’s cultural impact will be an op-ed topic for the foreseeable future for its African-American essence, strong roles for women and how much money it’ll rake in. Coogler’s movie is a raised fist of opportunity that Hollywood ignores at its own risk.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.