Africa saves “Black Panther,” Marvel’s Black History Month gift to Afro-centric fangirl and fanboydom. Africanness defines it and sets it apart from the many comic book adaptations that preceded it.
And that’s a necessary distinction, because these Marvel marvels aren’t so much scripted and directed as focus-grouped and engineered. The story beats, hero or heroine hurdles and fights and effects are so familiar as to be budgeted down to the penny. Broadening the appeal of your franchise ethnically is just smart business. In story terms, in character inclusions, in casting, pandering pays. You’d expect no less from Disney.
So you’ve got another cool costumed-hero tested with dead daddy issues, another “sibling” (or close relative) rivalry, another hidden world where superhuman heroes lay low.
But speaking of ideas borrowed from scads of predecessors, especially DC’s “Wonder Woman,” we’re shown the toughest, most interesting and fiercest female characters ever to grace a Marvel movie, a most welcome upgrade.
Chadwick Boseman brings a self-assured swagger to the title character, T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda who becomes king of his “poor, Third World” African nation when his father is killed by terrorists.
Wakanda, we have been told, is more than meets the eye. It’s not just huts and shepherds, tending their flocks under African skies. For millennia, its people have masked the true nature of their advanced, refined civilization. Another magic Marvel metal is in play here (yawn). “Vibranium” explains their mag-lev trains, their force-field shields and sonic boom spears, and young King T’Challa’s superpowered Black Panther suit and African mask-shaped spaceship.
And as the “Unobtainium” of Avatar is…unobtainable, bad guys are hellbent on getting this glowing blue Vibranium. First among them is the Afrikaner racist Ulyssees Klaue, played by Andy Serkis with an “I’m not stuck in a motion capture suit” glee. He flings the South African accented “You savages don’t deserve it” around a little too freely when talking about Wakanda and Vibranium.
His smarter but equally sadistic sidekick is Erik, aka “Kill Monger” (Michael B. Jordan of “Creed”), a trained American agent/assassin with the fighting and technological skills to get what they want, and the ruthlessness to not share it when they do. He’s got a bone to pick with the colonialist culture of Western Civilization, and Wakanda’s refusal to engage with it.
That’s the core conflict of the film. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, of “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” fleshes out the picture with glorious texture — a fresh color palette, striking settings, costumes, hair styles and gloriously African standards of beauty, and cute set pieces that give novelty to the well-worn Marvel version of the hero’s journey.
The many tribes of Wakanda get to challenge fight the heir to see if they can place one of their own on the throne, a throw-down staged before a vast multitude at the edge of a vaster waterfall refereed by Forest Whitaker.
The palace guard of Wakanda could give Wonder Woman’s Amazons a fair fight, if the chips are down. They’re statuesque, bald and wild-eyed women warriors, led by General Okeye, ferociously played by Danai Gurira of “The Walking Dead.”
T’Challa’s version of Q, his James Bond gadget-guru, is his smart alec baby sister (Letitia Wright). When they all get tangled-up in a South Korean Vibranium buy gone wrong and a CIA agent (Martin Freeman of TV’s “Sherlock”) is hurt, sister Shuri has just the one-liner for that occasion.
“Great. Another broken white boy for us to fix!”
The script has few zingers as good as that, surrounded by verbal banalities. There are battles and brawls that offer few surprises and a whole lot of filler. Sacrifices are made, Black Nationalist speeches about the white West’s plundering of the art, culture and human beings of the colonized Third World have a righteous sting.
This has the attempted gravitas of “Logan,” the myth-building of “Wonder Woman,” and the same pacing problems as those two consequential, worthwhile but only occasionally fun additions to the genre.
Because “Panther” is awfully slow on the prowl. The two hours and fourteen minutes just amble by. There’s little urgency to any of this, even the finale.
I’ve loved Boseman in his survey of American Civil Rights heroes (Jackie Robinson in “42,” Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall”) and in his larger-than-life turn as James Brown in “Get On Up.” Here, he’s well-cast but somewhat unchallenged.
Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o brings a radiant, competitive spark to her scenes with him, playing the Panther’s “ex” who happens to be the country’s most brilliant spy. Gurira and Wright dazzle, and Angela Bassett brings her regal presence to the Queen Mother. For all the fussing and fighting and grudge-settling among the guys, the women pretty much steal the picture. Jordan? All haircut, street “Creed” sneer and muscles. The character called for more of a Malcolm X turn, a lot less sneer and a lot more polish and intellect. This guy’s a one-dimensional villain treated as such by the Wakandans.
You can praise “Black Panther” for being a movie that embraces vast corners of the American and global audience through the simple act of “representation,” something comic book movies have neglecte. You can praise it for being, like “Wonder Woman,” a movie of its moment, a genre picture whose demographic and political time have come.
But whatever its cultural significance, it’s just passable entertainment, a noble attempt at waxing mythical that never, for one second, delivers that out-of-body giddiness that makes popcorn pictures of its ilk burst to life.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman
Credits: Directed by Ryan Coogler, Joe Roert Cole, based on the Marvel comics. A Marvel release.
Running time: 2:14