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‘Black Panther’ (review by Sharon Knolle)

Produced by Kevin Feige
Written by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Based on Black Panther by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan,
Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman,
Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke,
Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

 

 

Black Panther is finally here and, I’m happy to say, it does not disappoint. It’s operatic, it’s Shakespearean, it’s pretty damn wondrous. With echoes of The Lion King, Gladiator, and even Mad Max: Fury Road and Wonder Woman, it may very well be the first Marvel film to win an Oscar.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) made his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, in which his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), was killed.

Now he’s set to become the King of Wakanda — if there are no other contenders for the throne.

Like the X-Men, the character of Black Panther was created in the 1960s and its themes of equality, justice, and social responsibility resonate more than ever today.

To the rest of the globe, Wakanda appears to be an impoverished third-world nation. Its technological advancements are kept veiled from a world that can’t be trusted with the fearsome power of vibranium. But T’Challa’s socially-minded ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) believes that their great abundance should be shared with the less fortunate.

The new king wants to honor his father’s legacy of protecting Wakanda from outsiders. But with refugees at the borders, can they refuse to help? Much as in Civil War, when the characters square off over the right thing to do, each of them has compelling justification for their stance.

There’s a “take what you can grab” villain, amoral South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, the only white man who knows Wakanda’s secrets. Andy Serkis eats up the screen as the over-the-top bad guy who’s easily one of my favorite Marvel villains. It’s great to actually see Serkis’s face again and not just his motion-capture characters.

But he’s just the appetizer for the real villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). In this squabble over the throne, he’s the Loki to T’Challa’s Thor, who reminds us that there are secrets in this family as dark as any revealed in Thor: Ragnarok. But that’s too far pat of a way to describe him. Especially since Black Panther — while very funny when it wants to be — is not out for cheap laughs and cannot rightly be compared to the broad comedy of Thor: Ragnarok.

As Killmonger, Jordan is magnetic and you cannot take your eyes off him. One of the best scenes in Black Panther is when his streetwise, bitter character first encounters the formal, tradition-bound Wakandans. It’s as if Alonzo Harris from Training Day had wandered into Asgard and called out everyone for their stiffer-than-stiff attitudes.

I haven’t even mentioned how amazing Danai Gurira is as Okoye, the fierce general who heads up the Dora Milaje, the king’s all-female bodyguards. (Who are referred to early on in the film as “Some Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks with spears.”) Her fight scenes are as thrilling as anything on The Walking Dead. And the flashes of humor under that tough exterior makes us love her even more.

Watching the women of Wakanda take charge is every bit as empowering as Wonder Woman. (Even if Wakanda is a patriarchal society with a king instead of a queen.)

Nyong’o, who serves as Wakanda’s moral conscience for most of the film, also gets her moment on the battlefield. And hello, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s techie teenage sister who provides some of the film’s funniest and most quotable moments.

Another scene stealer: The imposing Winston Duke as rival chieftain M’Baku.

Like any great fantasy film, this movie isn’t just about some mythical land and the clash of comic-book characters. We can’t help but feel a call to action. Are we doing enough for our fellow men and women? Can we do more? And why the hell isn’t there a real place like Wakanda?

There is so much going on in Black Panther that it feels like two or even three films in one. It’s a family drama with action to rival the Captain America films. It’s a Gladiator epic. It’s Lord of the Rings. It’s The Lion King writ large. It’s a call to arms. It’s a helluva movie.

My only caveat: For most of the film, Wakanda seems effortlessly real, but the CG in the final battle sequences wasn’t quite theater-ready. But hey, similar CG issues with the Battle of the Pelennor Fields didn’t stop Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King from collecting a Best Picture Oscar.

This is a film we’ll still be talking about at Oscar time. And long after that.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

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