The eighteenth film in the Marvel movie universe offers a different pedigree of superhero. In a fierce battle between the two comic book superhero studios, DC bested rival Marvel with “Wonder Woman,” the first big budget modern day female comic book adaptation, and now it’s Marvel’s turn to break new ground with “Black Panther” being arguably the first black superhero (just don’t say that to Wesley Snipes). Writer and director Ryan Coogler came out of the gates swinging with his 2013 “Fruitvale Station,” still his most impressive film. He directed Sylvester Stallone to an Oscar nomination with his second film “Creed.” Now he makes the giant leap to blockbusters and the 32-year-old delivers a film that’s better than “The Avengers” and the previous “Thor” just to name a few.
In “Captain America: Civil War” we saw Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) survive a bomb blast at a peace forum summit, but his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani) did not. T’Challa returns to his homeland of Wakanda to be crowned king. Known as a poor third world country to the outside world, inside is the wealthy stronghold of Black Panther. Home of vibranium, the strongest metal on earth, one man managed to get out of Wakanda with some of the metal which can also be weaponized. For years Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) evaded T’Challa’s father, but now plans to sell what he obtained on the open market unless Black Panther can stop him. Klaue’s secret weapon isn’t a gun or a machine, it’s someone from the former King’s past with a claim to the Wakanda throne.
“Black Panther” is the third collaboration between Michael B. Jordan and Coogler, indeed his own secret weapon. However, this isn’t Jordan’s first foray into the Marvel universe, he was one fourth of the failed “Fantastic Four” (2015) reboot that proved as unsuccessful as the previous. Here, Jordan tries on a different role, as the best Marvel villain since the first appearance of Loki. Coogler has both identified the concurring problem with bad guys in superhero flicks and created a fleshed-out character that we can understand and even empathize with. Jordan’s performance, with a killer look I might add, really aids in the success of Erik Killmonger. “Black Panther,” unlike every single superhero movie since “The Dark Knight Rises,” finally solves the nemesis issue. Wonderful to see the Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) on screen again after being used primarily as a voice actor in “Star Wars” and “The Jungle Book.” Yet it’s relative newcomer Danai Gurira as General Okoye of the Wakandan army that kind of steals the show here.
There are quite a few moments where Coogler and crew help the audience forget this is a Marvel film, then of course we jump right back into another fight scene. The performances, casting, production design and the costumes really allow “Black Panther” to stand apart from the sequel/prequel/spinoff regurgitation Marvel has been delivering for the past decade. “Black Panther” isn’t a perfect movie, it’s still formulaic, almost following the same structure as “Thor” and the Asgard dynasty plot line (including but not limited to the sins of your father bit in “Ragnarok”). These films require so much devotion (running time) to origin stories, with an involved plot, it become tedious. While “Black Panther” stands on its own, a refresher on the previous, connected films make for a more gratifying experience, especially for those two scenes following the credits.
Final thought — Coogler’s writing and direction elevate Marvel’s 18th franchise entry beyond the systematic comic book/superhero delivery system.