here have been nearly 20 movies in the pretentiously titled (yet wildly entertaining) Marvel Cinematic Universe since “Iron Man” kicked off the tidal wave of superhero cinema that has overwhelmed audiences worldwide since 2008. In a prime example of just how overly dominant white culture is in Hollywood, none of these stories centered on a character of color, with the only black actors in these films relegated to supporting roles.
All that is changing this weekend, with Marvel’s latest film “Black Panther” hitting theaters with the tale of a heroic prince named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who comes from the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. T’Challa inherits not only the throne of that nation but also superpowers that have passed down through his family for centuries.
The film opens with the backstory of how Wakanda became a powerful nation, revealing that a large meteor consisting of a powerful material called vibranium crashed there millions of years ago. Five tribes discovered the magical properties of the material and used it to create a technologically advanced nation, one cloaked by supernatural powers to appear poor to the outside world. However, one of the tribes rejected the modernization and established a separate realm in the mountains.
The four other tribes picked a king by combat, and he became the Black Panther, a hero imbued with superpowers from a special flower grown in the country’s vibranium-enriched soil.
Jumping to 1992, the then-current king, T’Chaka (John Kani), visits his brother in Oakland. There, his brother has established base from which to spy on the rest of the world. The King is upset that his brother has married an American woman with whom he has a young son. Worse, he is stockpiling futuristic Wakandan weapons to lead a global war.
The brother’s right-hand man has actually been spying on the brother for the King, who orders his brother to return home and face judgment. Only the brother refuses and tries to kill the spy. However, the King kills his brother before he can act, then takes the weapons back home, leaving his nephew to fend for himself in Oakland.
Cut to the present day, where the nephew has teamed up with a South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to steal more Wakandan technology. A former Special Forces soldier nicknamed Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) plans to steal the throne from T’Challa, the son of King T’Chaka, who’s still mourning his beloved father’s death from a terrorist bomb.
As the new Black Panther, T’Challa must work with a female Wakandan spy with whom he’s romantically entangled, and with the general of Wakanda’s elite female warriors to stop Klaue and Killmonger. They’re aided by his brilliant younger sister, who runs Wakanda’s technological development, and a CIA agent.
While “Black Panther” is undeniably exciting overall, its opening sequences are more convoluted than most MCU films. On top of the history of the meteor and of the Oakland incident, an extended scene in which T’Challa must battle a challenger to his throne and the first glimmers of romance with a love interest all combine to put off the first real confrontation with the villains at nearly a half-hour into the film.
But from there, there’s a lot of compelling, exciting, crowd-pleasing action. The first showdown with the villains in South Korea leads to a nifty car chase. Also, the stakes are raised eventually when the vengeful nephew finally reveals his plan to take over the throne and become the Black Panther so that he can lead oppressed people in a global war and establish himself as king of the world.
Boseman has built his still-young yet highly impressive career upon his portrayals of real-life icons Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, but the highly entertaining and very original “Panther” will finally propel him to international stardom. With great performances, stunning visuals, and impressive action overseen by co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), “Black Panther” is a fun addition to the MCU.
But what makes it truly stand out, of course, is the fact that it finally gives black audiences worldwide a full-on superhero of their own, something that’s been long overdue.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Length: 132 minutes
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
An utterly pretentious, overlong piece of drivel that could have told its very basic story in 12 rather than 132 minutes. Centering on a so-called “romance” between a 17-year-old boy who looks 12 and a 24-year-old man who looks 30, it’s creepy to the core and undeserving of its hype. Grade: F
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
A laughably pretentious tale of a top British fashion designer ridiculously named Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his extremely slow-building and utterly implausible relationship with a female underling (Vicky Krieps) amid 1950s-era repression. The film is being sold as a gift to viewers since it’s Day-Lewis’ final film, but viewers will want to take it back. Grade: D
Stars: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Length: 121 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
This darkly comic biopic of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding explores both funny and harrowingly sad aspects of her childhood into adulthood, with Janney providing a wicked turn as Tonya’s abusive and foul-mouthed mother. A powerhouse movie that is turning into a huge sleeper hit and a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars. Grade: A
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s latest epic fantasy leads the Oscar race with 13 well-deserved nominations. Sally Hawkins delivers a uniquely silent performance as a meek mute woman who works as a janitor in an early-1960s government facility and falls for the mysterious creature that scientists are studying and about to kill. Achingly romantic, beautifully shot, and downright exciting, this is as close to perfect as movies get. Grade: A
Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment. Grade: B