BLACK PANTHER (2018, PG-13, 134 minutes, MARVEL STUDIOS/WALT DISNEY PICTURES)
In 2016, Marvel allowed Netflix to present the first African-American superhero to a public that was beginning to show signs of Marvel Universe Fatigue—which from here on out, I shall refer to as “MUF”. Yep; I went there.
But “Luke Cage” wasn’t the black superhero we needed. Netflix’s prior success with their gritty take on “Daredevil” and the electrifying “Jessica Jones” did not transition well in “Cage”. Part of the problem lay with the demise of an incredible villain midway through the season, followed by a weak caricature in the final arc. But what really set me off from the story were the over-processed stereotypes and the seemingly desperate need the show had to be urban. From the music to the one-note characters, it all felt forced and, after the amazing first season of “Jones” in which Cage was first introduced, anticlimactic.
With Marvel’s second attempt at bringing a non-white superhero front and center with BLACK PANTHER, it appears they learned from their prior mistakes. Director and writer Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVILLE STATION) lifts this tale far above what you have come to expect from the Marvel Universe, and is more than enough to erase any MUF you may be feeling. (Too much?...) By placing the bulk of the story in the heart of Africa within the fictional country of Wakanda, Mr. Coogler and Company offer a tale rich in African imagery, culture, and mysticism. In other words, THEY DIDN’T MAKE A MARVEL MOVIE. They made a film that reflects the cultural richness and artistic consciousness of an entire people, and they pulled it off fantastically.
The story follows T’Challa—aka, The Black Panther—who returns home to Wakanda, a country steeped in advanced technology due to their immense cache of Vibranium, the same metal used in Captain America’s indestructible shield. T’Challa has come back home to be crowned king following his father’s death, only there are a few roadblocks in his way, one of those being “Killmonger” (played by the amazing Michael B. Jordan), who has his own claim to the throne of Wakanda. Chadwick Boseman (GET ON UP, MARSHALL) returns as the titular hero, once again solidifying Marvel’s uncanny knack at brilliant casting—but he is nearly overshadowed by his costars. Not only does Mr. Jordan give his character an honest and justified cause, but makes his righteousness convincing enough to illicit empathy from the viewer—until he flies off the rails, that is. There is also the wonderfully giddy Andy Serkis, reprising his role as villain Ulysses Klaue and firmly making him one of the top five Best Marvel Villains.
But wasn’t I just saying that this isn’t really a Marvel movie?...when you take into consideration that not only is the cast predominantly not Caucasian, and add to that the strong female presences in the film and woven into the story itself, yeah—not your typical Marvel flick. Which is awesome. Angela Bassett plays T’Challa’s tough yet elegant mother; Lupita Nyong'o a world-weary spy; Danai Gurira plays a kick-ass general to his highness’s army; and his sister—brilliant and resourceful and just as confident and strong as the others—is played by Letitia Wright, who has a strong argument for getting her own stinkin’ movie or series after her performance here. Four women in a Marvel film, who together get more screen time than the superhero himself? Unheard of. And damn brilliant, too.
It used to be that female characters in these films took a backseat to the male leads—Black Widow, anyone? Now—and quite possibly due to the success of D.C.’s WONDER WOMAN—these characters add more than depth or support to the story—they also help define the hero himself. And, make him stronger. And these four fierce women do so much more than that; they give us hope that future Marvel films will embrace the concept of such diversified talent and artistic display, as it raises the MCU to a much higher level than the typical disposable fodder.
So, I leave you with this PSA: are you, or someone you love, suffering the effects of MUF? If so, go watch BLACK PANTHER, and leave your MUF behind.
(seriously…was anyone keeping count?...)
-- T.S. Kummelman