Yay! A new Marvel movie! Two or three times a year over the last decade, we comic-book nerds get to rejoice in the evidence that our once-sneered-upon culture has taken over the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. This year begins with Marvel giving the Black Panther character introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War his own film, and what a great addition to Marvel Studios’ ongoing series of movies it is.
As Marvel tends to do, this particular movie fills something of a sub-genre - sure, it’s a “superhero” film, but much like Ant-Man was the “heist” film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the “political thriller,” Black Panther is a James Bond film with spandex. We learned in Captain America: Civil War of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, and how T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumed the mantle of king of that nation when his father was killed. We also learned that wearing the crown of Wakanda also means wearing the spandex of the Black Panther, but it is in this film that we learn what makes Wakanda so special and how the rest of the world knows next to nothing about it.
Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who revived the Rocky franchise with Creed, (a flick that I promise I’ll get around to seeing one of these days) works movie magic with a cinematic blend of super sci-fi, Bond-ian type gadgetry and villains bent on societal anarchy. He and his cinematographer and design team have set up a rich culture filled with wondrous locations and several distinctly different tribes, details that help make the characters become individuals, and not merely place-holders. Even better, the screenplay amazingly does not waste any of the characters.
All of the warriors, both men - W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), and women – Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the still-insanely beautiful Angela Bassett (who plays Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother) serve a purpose in driving the film’s story. Heck, T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) effectively serves as this movie’s “Q” to T’Challa’s Bond. The script fleshes out the royal family’s in-house drama wonderfully, and crafts a villain, “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), that is perhaps the Marvel movie universe’s second-best villain ever, after Loki.
It is nice to have a stand-alone film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe every few times out, one that is not a TOTAL continuation of the ongoing narrative running throughout all eighteen movies of the series. Ant-Man was like that, as was the first Guardians of the Galaxy. This isn't really an origin tale, as T'Challa is already the Black Panther at the film's start, but his beginnings are touched upon. Sure, Black Panther contains mentions of things that happen in other movies, and has characters that have been seen in other movies, but none of those items require you to have seen any of the previous titles in the franchise.
Of course, no movie is perfect (well, maybe Lawrence of Arabia was perfect, but that’s another discussion for another time…), and Black Panther is not without minor grumbles. There are a few hints of story elements never followed through (Okoye and W’Kabi, for instance, are mentioned fleetingly as being lovers in what feels like might have been an excised sub-plot), and some of the CGI action shots were less than convincing, but if such things are the worst that can be found in the film, then I don’t have any problem calling it one of Marvel Studios’ best efforts to date.
While plenty of other writers, reviewers and commentators have waxed ad nauseum about the political, philosophical and “social justice” implications of this movie, I refuse to go down that rabbit hole. This particular white Anglo-Saxon Protestant conservative heterosexual male is merely a comic-book nerd, and doesn’t apply labels or checkboxes to the factors that make up his entertainment. That said, I can assure you with a broad smile that Black Panther is tremendously entertaining.