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Front Page - Friday, February 23, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Black Panther’ is a Marvel-ous step up for superhero genre

There’s no mistaking “Black Panther” for anything but a Marvel superhero film. Its DNA places it squarely in the family of movies that make up the studio’s cinematic universe. That said, a few alterations to that DNA resulted in something as unique as it is familiar.

Like other Marvel films, “Black Panther” features a hero who must discover who he is and then overcome a great challenge to seize his destiny. This champion is T’Challa, or the Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, who gained his strength by ingesting a heart-shaped herb affected by an alien metal called vibranium.

Black Panther was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Captain America: Civil War.” He became king when his father died at the beginning of that film.

In “Black Panther,” T’Challa must come into his own as a ruler. It’s a journey that will require him to reconcile his desire to protect his country, which is hidden from the rest of the world, with his awareness that its advanced technologies can help all of mankind. (These technologies are also derived from vibranium. Like I said, “Black Panther” is a Marvel movie through and through.)

Black Panther is played with perfect pitch precision by Chadwick Boseman, who gives the character an austere righteousness that makes him both a potentially dangerous anti-hero, as he is in “Civil War,” and a true hero of not just Wakanda but of many other people as well, as he becomes in “Black Panther.”

“Black Panther” also has a villain hellbent on not only stopping T’Challa from achieving his goals but creating chaos and death along the way. This ne’er-do-well is N’Jadaka, or Killmonger, who has a different idea about what Wakanda should do with its vibranium and sets out to overthrow T’Challa.

Killmonger’s development as a character is one of the many clever aspects of “Black Panther.” The writers, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, gave him a clear, real-world motive for his actions, which makes him relatable if not likeable. They also mask part of his identity for a large chunk of the film, which gives the reveal a nice dramatic punch.

As interesting as the character must have been on the page, Michael B. Jordan’s performance as N’Jadaka is one of the off-notes in “Black Panther.” An acclaimed actor, Jordan seems uncomfortable in the role during the first half of the film. Maybe it was all the green screen work; I don’t know. Things improve over time, but never to the point where Jordan seems at ease in Killmonger’s skin.

Finally, “Black Panther” is packed with humor and action. I believe I laughed harder at one visual gag than I’ve laughed during any other Marvel film. The set up was perfect and the punchline came just as I thought, “But what about so-and-so?”

Other Marvel films have better action, although not many have a better finale. For the first two-thirds of the film, Coogler, who also directed “Black Panther,” delivered merely serviceable set pieces that fall short of the standards set by other helmsmen in the MCU (especially the Russo brothers, who made the two “Captain America” sequels). The third act, though, is a thriller.

While “Black Panther” follows the Marvel formula to a degree, it’s also a refreshing departure from the lockstep approach of most superhero films – and not because it’s the first Marvel movie with a predominantly black cast. Rather, it’s emotionally charged social commentary sets it apart.

Yes, “Black Panther” has the breezy fun and formulaic trappings that come with being based on a comic book. But it’s also an allegory of modern America masquerading as an action blockbuster.

Wakanda is a country split by diverse political ideals. This disunity eventually sparks a devastating civil war. In a twist of sweet irony, “Black Panther” projects its ideas about the evils of division and the importance of inclusion through a historically subjugated and mistreated minority. In so doing, it makes its themes universal.

At times, “Black Panther” wears its message on its sleeve. Lines like, “We should be building bridges, not walls” (I’m paraphrasing from memory) lack the subtlety of good allegory. But “Black Panther” earns the right to be a little heavy-handed with its themes by telling a beautifully conceived story that supports them and developing male and female characters that carry them on strong shoulders.

Finally, “Black Panther” looks unlike any other Marvel film. Aided in no small part by talented digital artists, Wakanda is a wonder for the eyes, a place of shimmering beauty made all the more dazzling by the dullness of the rest of the world.

I especially enjoyed the scenes set in a pool at the foot of a waterfall. Two crucial sequences occur at this location, which pops off the screen as the people of Wakanda, dressed in vibrant tribal colors, stand among the rocks over which the water cascades.

Although “Black Panther” might not be first superhero film to feature a black lead (let’s not forget “Blade,” “Hancock” and “Catwoman”), it’s easily the best. But I wouldn’t stop there. I’d also place it among the finest Marvel has produced due to the relevance of its themes.

As the MCU prepares for a major shift in the upcoming Avengers sequels, which will conclude the narrative that began with “Iron Man” in 2008, “Black Panther” offers reassurance about the future of Marvel’s movies. The studio is stepping bravely into the realm of social commentary, showing signs of being willing to break from formula and putting its films in capable, passionate hands.

In other words, it’s growing up. And I’m looking forward to seeing what it becomes.