'Black Panther' a cool Marvel cat

Unlike many of its predecessors, "Black Panther" has real, honest-to-goodness stakes.

The cosmically vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it’s called, spans planets peppered throughout the galaxy, but Ryan Coogler’s Earth-bound “Black Panther,” glittering and galvanizing, stands worlds apart.

For those of us who have sometimes felt pummeled by the parade of previous Marvel movies, the sheer richness of Coogler’s film is almost disorienting. Can superhero films, so often a dull mash of effects, be this dazzlingly colorful? Are genuine cultural connections allowed in modern-day comic book blockbuster-making? 

Unlike many of its predecessors, “Black Panther” has real, honest-to-goodness stakes. The most earnest, big-budget attempt of a black superhero film, “Black Panther” is assured of being an overdue cinematic landmark. But it’s also simply ravishing, grand-scale filmmaking.

Ti Gong

Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa prince of the African nation Wakanda in Marvel's superhero film "Black Panther."

There are familiar Marvel beats. Coogler hasn’t reinvented the genre, so much as electrified it with a new perspective and a rare talent for marrying naturalistic character development with spectacle muscle.

“Tell them who you are” is the encouragement shouted at the title character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) prince of the African nation Wakanda. But it could just as well serve as rallying cry of a film that many symbolizes a big-screen affirmation of African-American identity. 

Coogler opens with exposition on Wakanda, a mighty African country that appears from the outside, as one Western sneers, as “Third World.” But hidden from sight is a shimmering, technologically advanced metropolis whose stealthy growth has been fueled by vibranium, a cosmic mineral deposited deep in its mountains by a meteorite thousands of years earlier. Vibranium makes up the suit that T’Challa dons as Black Panther, and its power is much guarded. An early flashback, to 1992 Oakland, California, shows one Wakandan’s failed efforts to smuggle Vibranium in order to empower struggling African-Americans.

When the king of Wakanda dies, T’Challa returns home to take the throne. He finds the country’s five tribes are beginning to bubble with discord. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) of the Border Tribe would like to see the historically isolationist Wakanda give more in foreign aid and to refugees.

The issue is brought to the fore by an unknown Wakandan exile, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an American soldier aspiring to rebalance black power around the globe. 

Ti Gong

Boseman’s Panther is a politician at heart who’s virtually always flanked by a trio of powerful women.

But his mission isn’t initially so clear, as he and a band of rogues, led by Andy Serkis’ black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, begin causing havoc for T’Challa. Boseman’s Panther is a politician at heart who’s virtually always flanked by a trio of powerful women: Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, part of Wakanda’s all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje; the special forces leader Okoye (Danai Gurira); and his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther first appeared in 1966. But the character has sparked the imaginations of many since, including filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, the author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wesley Snipes, who labored for years to adapt the comic into a movie. Ironically it was Snipes’ 1998 superhero film “Blade” that kicked off Marvel’s box-office success.

It’s easy to lament how long it took to bring “Black Panther” to the big screen. But at least the wait was worth it.

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