Black Panther; 135 min; Rated PG-13
The Marvel Studio/Universe franchise has earned $13.5 billion at the global box office over the past 10 years. It’s been a remarkable run wherein narratives were lifted from the pages of comic books that possessed at their center what has come to be known as a superhero. This is a character possessed of superhuman powers who uses his or her abilities to triumph over evil in the form of some equally classic antagonists. Kids (and adults) love this stuff.
And now arrives on the big screen (and this is a lush, beautifully costumed big-screen movie of sweeping vistas and stunning scenes) — some would say finally — the Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a superhero who appeared for the first time in the 2016 “Captain America: Civil War.”
In this incarnation, he has returned to his African nation, Wakanda, to claim the throne of his father. He is prepared to take on the role of the protector of his country as the Black Panther, a man possessed of extraordinary gifts of intelligence and strength. He is welcomed home by his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), both royalty. Shuri is, to the story’s delight, a techie who uses Wakanda’s magical resource, vibranium, a metal that allows Wakanda to not only be secreted in the heart of Africa, but to develop a technology that has enriched it beyond imagination.
Now of course, “Black Panther,” lifted from the pages of a Marvel comic (first appearing in the 1960s), must have an antagonist. And initially he is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few white men to appear in what is a predominantly all-black film. He’s a grungy psychopath intent on stealing his own cache of vibranium. But his time on the screen is brief, replaced by an unexpected rogue, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who is also T’Challa’s cousin. He is a street-wise contemporary, raised in Oakland, Calif., and lusting after the throne (and the power) that he considers rightfully his.
And so the film’s tension and conflict derives from these two young black men, locked in mortal battle, each with a vision for the future that is profoundly different.
I am aware that there have been many words written by critics that extol the appearance of a stunning black superhero, one that will be embraced by black kids (boys and girls, for “Black Panther” is filled with strong, fierce black men and women).
And it is true that the story creates not only a sense of the epic but it also has woven into it questions that are relevant and important. One is derived from a creed adhered to by Marvel’s superheroes and especially applicable to T’Challa’s and Wakanda’s place in the world: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is followed by the question: What is Wakanda’s responsibility to the poor and the disenfranchised?
Not only does “Black Panther” arrive on the screen during a time of a seeming resurgence in America of white nativism, its very presence, and its blackness, could be seen as a rebuttal to our current administration. It was Trump who referred to countries in Africa (and Haiti) as “sh**holes."
The film has also given me pause, causing me think back of those films that starred black leading men such as Sydney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, the movie being “In the Heat of the Night.” A magnificent movie. But Tibbs wasn’t a superhero, and by definition the Black Panther is the first to reach the big screen. And in the universe of Marvel, this makes all the difference.