The first thing to be said about “Black Panther” is that it’s a terrific movie. If it was not, all the talk about being a landmark in Hollywood’s depiction of African-American empowerment would be a consolation prize. It’s easily the best of the Marvel superhero movies but it’s also a film that foregrounds a cornucopia of powerful black faces, garbs, traditions, and conflicts. It’s a stealth movie: Like “Get Out,” it’s a genre film jam-packed with social relevancy.
I can well imagine what it might be like to be a young African-American child watching this film for the first time (or the third time). It is no small thing to “see” oneself, or one’s fantasy self, on screen. For better or worse, movies act as the great validators in our society. Viewing people like ourselves on the big screen is a form of authentification.
For far too long in the history of African-American representation in Hollywood, black people were (and to some extent still are) routinely portrayed as subservient or expendable. This failure has unavoidably contributed to a psychic rift in the culture among people of all colors. I am not championing here only “positive” role models. The luxury of playing villains should also be available to all. The point I am making is, there must exist the option to play anything, because people comprise everything. No race should be cinematically ghettoized.
The Black Panther superhero initially appeared during the civil rights era in a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby co-authored 1966 Marvel comic book, and made his first appearance on film in 2016 in “Captain America: Civil War.” In “Black Panther,” he returns to his African homeland of Wakanda to claim the kingdom he inherited from his father. Wakanda, never colonized, is regarded by the outside world as impoverished and impenetrable. This deliberately orchestrated Wakandan fiction preserves a way of life that combines native African traditionalism with super-sophisticated technology powered by the country’s unlimited supply of the miraculous ore vibranium.
Chadwick Boseman once again plays T’Challa, who when he needs to morphs into his superhero identity Black Panther, and he strikes just the right note of humble heroism. (We see his departed father tell him, “You are a good man, with a good heart," then adding, “And it's hard for a good man to be a king." ) He is surrounded by women whose awe he must earn, among them Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of his bald-pated, spear-wielding warrior women bodyguards; his sometime love interest Nakia (a resplendent Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy who is first shown during a secret mission liberating captive Nigerian girls; his indomitable mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett); and his teasing, science-genius kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who proudly shows off to him her latest techno-gadgets with all the sniffy aplomb of Q tolerating 007.
Director Ryan Coogler, who is African-American and who previously made the estimable features “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is also the co-writer of “Black Panther,” with Joe Robert Cole, and he understands better than any of the other Marvel maestros that for a superhero movie to be more than a popcorn jamboree, it needs to have a purpose beyond mere cacophony and hijinks. The conflict in “Black Panther” is boldly outlined: Should T’Challa bring Wakanda out of the shadows and into the global arena and use its vibranium-powered energy to unite the world and help heal its ills?
His chief antagonist is a long-lost cousin, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who grew up poor in racially riven Oakland and became a black-ops soldier. Bristling with rage at what he perceives to be the global powerlessness of black people to fight their oppressors, he finds his way into Wakanda and fights T’Challa for the throne because he believes that harnessing the Wakandan energy will create a new world order of black supremacy. The point is made almost explicitly: Killmonger is Malcolm X to T’Challa’s Martin Luther King.
As muddled as this message is, it strikes a visceral nerve. The righting of racial wrongs is given a fantasy power boost here, but, to Coogler’s credit, he makes Killmonger’s quest both supremely understandable and ultimately defeating. Like so many power-mad liberators before him, he becomes his own enemy.
The injection of this racially charged material into a superhero comics movie is sometimes strained, and, although the action sequences are deftly done, they don’t quite bring down the house. Coogler is trying for a lot of things in “Black Panther,” probably too many, but there is also a winning modesty to his ambition: He isn’t trying to create a new world order in the movies, just a franchise film that delivers the requisite thrills while also providing the ballast of a true social consciousness. When you think about it, that’s quite a lot. You don’t get the feeling that Coogler wedged the political material into “Black Panther” in order to justify this project to himself. He has a true popular sensibility: The comic book trappings don’t detract from the seriousness. They heighten the seriousness.
Since the only superpower Hollywood truly recognizes is boffo box office, I hope that the inescapable commercial success of “Black Panther” will result not simply in more black-themed superhero movies but also in something far more valuable: a recognition of the extraordinary range and artistry of black filmmakers, writers, and actors whose talents even now remain so imposingly underrepresented and unexpressed. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.)