‘Black Panther’ cinematically and culturally advances the Marvel Universe

“Black Panther” – “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Dorothy (Judy Garland), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Well, if Dorothy sat down and watched the latest Marvel installment, “Black Panther”, she would exclaim that Oz could not hold a candle to Wakanda, and Kansas has become a very distant memory.

Over the last 10 years, Marvel Studios has expanded wonder and broadened sci-fi horizons for comic book-movie audiences everywhere, especially with “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) and “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017).  These stories, however, were seeded in outer space, as directors James Gunn and Taika Waititi tapped into cosmic liberation and otherworldly delights.  Here, writer/director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station” (2013), “Creed” (2015)) and co-writer Joe Robert Cole extend that weightless, starry enchantment but on Planet Earth, and specifically, the nation of Wakanda located in Africa.

Even though Wakanda resembles a city built in the 24th century, complete with cone-shaped skyscrapers, monorails that ride on air and ships that hover and suddenly burst into flight, the film takes place in 2016, right after the events of “Captain America: Civil War”.  Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), whose alter ego is Black Panther, just lost his father via a terrorist attack in Austria, and he is – now – the rightful heir to the throne.  Although five tribes compromise the nation of Wakanda, a fearsome challenger M’Baku (Winston Duke) contests T’Challa’s right to be king.

A more formidable opponent, however, soon travels from a faraway place to Wakanda to attempt to unseat T’Challa:  the chief antagonist of the picture, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).   “Black Panther” is the third collaboration between Coogler and Jordan, and while the actor played protagonists in “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015), with Killmonger, this is a departure and – he said in a Feb. 14 interview – an enjoyable one.

“For me, it was liberating in a way.  It was fun to express a frustration that a lot of people may feel.” – Michael B. Jordan

As the picture unfolds – and like many great big screen villains – Killmonger’s motivation and rage are understood and empathized, but, of course, his methods in expressing his twisted course are suspect.  Deadly, in fact, as his name speaks for himself.  Killmonger projects danger during every on-screen moment.  Several times, Coogler’s camera captures a sly Killmonger smile, a moment before he steps into a potentially lethal fight.  Killmonger enjoys taking lives.  It is his fuel, but he does so in a sinister, matter-of-fact manner, as his pulse never reaches 40.

Much of the action, however, does raise one’s pulse, as one set piece caroms in the close confines of a Korean casino and spills out into urban neon, but many entanglements reside in the previously peaceful Wakanda itself, due to this violent outsider’s massive disruption to T’Challa’s kingdom.

This particular kingdom is also wonderfully constructed with African looks and customs.  Coogler, production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter seamlessly weave African themes into Wakanda, which result in marvelous mixes of culture and bright, rainbow fabric within a shiny, metallic and futuristic metropolis. Visually, Coogler and company present an on-screen world never seen before.  The only possible comparison is a conglomeration of “Buck Rogers” meets Xandar (an outer space city from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)) meets an occasional glimpse of a futuristic Los Angeles from Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), but yes, Wakanda stands on its own.

T’Challa welcomes others to stand with him on his journey, as he is supported by a triad of strong women:  his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and a fierce warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira).  Shuri and Okoye particularly stand out.  Shuri is an optimistic scientist and inventor, who could give Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) several lessons in technological breakthroughs and presents her latest findings to her brother in equal parts of extreme competence and humor, like Q from the James Bond films.  Okoye is just the opposite, a no-nonsense, battle-tested heroine.  With a fashion-forward baldheaded look and a stern demeanor, she would lay down her life for her king and kingdom without blinking.

During a time when the absence of racial diversity in Hollywood films is rightly questioned, Marvel Studios and the “Black Panther” team move forward without blinking by offering a story revolving around a superhero of color.  Even though black exploitation films of the 1970s – like “Shaft” (1971) and “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974) – were hugely popular, it is difficult to fathom that a studio – 40 years ago – would pour millions and millions of dollars into a black superhero movie.

On the set of “Good Morning America” during a Feb. 12 interview, a young, African-American girl asked Boseman, “Why is it important to you that there is a movie like this that represents black heroes?”

“It’s important, because I didn’t have this growing up,” Boseman said, “I just know what it’s going to mean to you when you see it.  It can give you a certain type of confidence, when you walk through the world, and it’ll also make people (who) look like you (be seen) in a different light and not (be judged) in a particular way.”

“Black Panther” not only breaks cultural boundaries, but also cinematic ones by delivering intricate Shakespearean intrigue between the leads and supporting characters, while revealing a celestial-like adventure on Earth.  Now, who knows if Coogler, Cole, Boseman, and Jordan thought about Oz during their youth, but in 2018, they proudly establish a spectacular adventure that Dorothy could not have dreamt.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2   out of    ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Marvel Studios; Trailer credits: Marvel Entertainment (YouTube)

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