So many comic book movies fail to interest me anymore because the material feels stale, like day-old saltines in the Serengeti. Superhero films have become so frequent, and their formulaic framing so consistent, the entire genre is in desperate need of something fresh.
Enter Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” remarkably spry and original in a day and age where a guy putting on Spandex and fighting bad guys has become so redundant.
Meet T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), Prince of Wakanda, who lost his father back in “Captain America: Civil War.” Now he’s the heir apparent to the throne of the secret African nation that houses the most powerful substance on Earth: Vibranium. For generations the Royal Family of Wakanda has helped protect their sovereign nation with the use of technology to keep their advanced society cloaked while pretending to be a third-world country.
Not everything in the country is perfect. Some of their precious metal has been stolen, forcing T’challa to hunt down criminals using superpowers and nigh-indestructible Black Panther armor. Did I forget to mention the King of Wakanda gets to drink this purple herb that makes him super-strong and fast, and can be buried in red sand, in order to send him to the afterlife to talk with dead relatives?
Well, he does and he can.
The movie moves around a lot and spends no time indulging audience questions. Coogler opens the door to the world of Wakanda and pushes us in. It’s a vast, colorful and often fake-looking world. Fortunately, the story of what’s happening in Wakanda has far more texture than some of the dodgy effects work used to create the fictional realm. The wardrobe is an absolute crazy collection of old and new: fantasy-meets-futuristic with George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars thrown in to add a little sass.
So after T’challa becomes king, he takes off to recover the stolen Vibranium. Through a series of convenient events we’re introduced to our main villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He’s a killing machine with a mean streak and quite possibly the best haircut ever for a bad guy. Killmonger wants the crown for himself, so he can use the superior technology of Wakanda to arm the disenfranchised and overthrow the power structure of the world we know. T’challa must stop Killmonger before he can use spaceships to transport laser guns to the outside world. The plot for “Black Panther” is kind of insane, but in the best way possible.
“Black Panther” has more in common with “Flash Gordon” than “Spider-Man” or “Thor.” It is a big, colorful, fun piece of melodrama, unafraid to dwell in the weird, wonderful world of Wakanda. There’s no attempt at making the material gritty or grounded. It’s off-the-wall science fiction with some great characters.
In fact, I’d say the characters are the best thing about the movie. The cast is brimming with talent and manages to bring a lot of electricity to each role. Michael B. Jordan does a particularly good job as the villain, while Lupita Nyong’o is radiant and charming as a conflicted character who tries to balance the love for our hero and her responsibilities to a continent desperately in need of heroes.
There are some heavier themes at play in “Black Panther” than other movies in the genre. The concepts of duty, sacrifice, responsibility and abandonment are woven into the story seamlessly and manage to make pretty strong arguments about society in its current fractured state. It’s a testament to the film’s success that a big-budget comic book adaptation can manage something a little more complex than “Good Guy A punches Bad Guy B.” It’s not a masters class thesis of sociology, but my brain appreciated an attempt to make a blockbuster about a little something more than eye- and ear-fucking into a state of catatonia.
I have a few complaints, still: The action is boring, the editing is sloppy and the special effects look kind of cheap. “Black Panther” nails all the other stuff most comic book movies miss but doesn’t deliver in the one area where they consistently succeed. There are some imaginatively written concepts for action scenes, but they end up looking like a bunch of poorly rendered pixels and composited green-screen backgrounds rather than actual people fighting in a physical location.
Still, the film is highly entertaining and succeeds where other blockbusters often fail: great characters, an interesting story and a world previously unexplored in this genre.