Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ Is an Exhilarating Trailblazer

Black Panther” is one of those exhilarating movies where the running time stops being a factor. You’re so taken in by the style and plot that two hours feel like fifteen minutes. Like the best of the Marvel movies, this is one where you don’t have to be a fervent follower of all the different titles. You can walk in with a fresh mind and enjoy the ride. It breathlessly goes from one genre to another flawlessly, throwing great visuals on the screen with a script that’s sharp and inventive. On top of all this the movie is a pop culture milestone. It uses black characters in a way we haven’t seen before in the super hero genre, even in past stand-outs like “Blade.” With dynamic energy and style it celebrates diversity in popular filmmaking. But it does such a good job that anyone looking for a fun time will be absorbed.

As the film begins, we are introduced to Wakanda, a secretive East African nation in which outsiders are not allowed without permission. This is because it has maintained a high standard of living due to its impressive technological achievements, which remain largely hidden from the rest of the world. When King T’Chaka (John Kani) dies, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to assume the throne. Wakanda faces twin threats from a ruthless South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and a former black-ops army veteran, Erik Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has designs on the Wakandan throne. T’Challa will face them by donning the suit of the “black panther,” which he puts on to fight threats to the homeland. He is aided by his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech genius and secret operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former lover who remains loyal to the throne. They must stop Klaue from obtaining more of Wakanda’s special resource, vibranium, which is the source of the nation’s energy and if taken by the wrong hands could devastate the world.

This film first succeeds as an immersive, visual experience. Its look is a rich, creative environment combining fantastical imagination with familiar, real world terrains. Wakanda itself is a futuristic amalgam of modern Africa and comic book sci-fi. Modern buildings combine with skyscrapers and trains from some distant future. Yet the color scheme has that vibrant palette we associate with the continent’s cultures. It was a wise choice to select Ryan Coogler to direct. Coogler is known for the intense, factual drama “Fruitvale Station,” and the sharp “Rocky” sequel “Creed.” These were movies where Coogler displayed an elegant visual style which takes a back seat to memorable characters and in-depth stories. With “Black Panther” Coogler is given immense resources but he never lets the special effects take over the narrative. He and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), tell their story with beautiful images which serve to transport us into this fantastical world. There are creative references to the diversity of African societies and styles, especially when T’Challa must face any challenger to the throne before he is crowned, as various tribes gather on a fierce, vast waterfall. Other visuals are just plain smile-inducing, like armored rhinos used for battle who stop at the sight of a master and lovingly give a lick for a greeting.

Yet like Steven Spielberg in his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” days, Coogler combines great craftsmanship with a sheer joy for filmmaking. The action scenes are fluid and stylish, never turning into overly-done CGI fests. One of the best is a car chase through Hong Kong, in which T’Challa finds himself gripped to the top of a car driven by Shuri. We’ve seen a million car chases at the movies by now, but Coogler somehow makes it riveting and fun with great dashes of humor. A showdown at a casino between T’Challa’s team and Klaue is equal to anything in a James Bond or “Mission: Impossible” movie, if not better because Coogler isn’t going for just sheer thrills. He understands that the source materials of this story, the comic books, are actually well-crafted stories with various layers. None of the exciting action scenes ever become meaningless. The best Marvel movies, like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” work because they combine visual artistry with good old fashioned popcorn storytelling. The score by Ludwig Göransson is a symphonic beauty, opting for washes of musical color.

Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, also understand that for many fans of this genre, part of their devotion rests on how these stories speak to them in deeper ways. Pop culture at its best always taps into the urgent themes of its times. “Black Panther” is a fun time, but the writing has sharp references to important themes. It can even be said that the movie taps into the tradition of Blaxploitation. There are no white saviors in this movie, and subjects such as CIA coups in Africa are explored through the character of agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who wants to help T’Challa but acknowledges his workplace doesn’t have the best history in the continent. But it is the villain Kilmonger who is a provocative and interesting creation. As played by Michael B. Jordan, he is a ruthless product of the Iraq War now bent on getting Wakanda to wage war in the name of all oppressed black peoples. During a face-off with T’Challa his dialogue is peppered with politically charged statements about how he already killed “a lot of my brothers and sisters in Iraq.” Black urban America, Africa’s political links and history are all somehow wed into the plot. You don’t get this kind of open social commentary in most comic book movies. Coogler is making an entertainment, but because he has always been a director of conscience, he adds a socially aware voice to the story.

The characters are a refreshing celebration of diversity in film. “Black Panther” is groundbreaking as a super hero movie which takes its black characters and themes seriously, without resorting to the clichés of past films. It basks in its identity with great humor as well (“you brought another white boy we need to help out”). But it also does something unique in giving its female characters prominent roles in which they are fully equal to the men. Nyong’o’s Nakia is T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s not some damsel in distress. Wakanda’s top general is Okoye (Danai Gurira), who is played with such commanding presence we wonder if she’ll stage a coup someday. The dynamic between the roles is driven by wit in the banter. Among the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker has obvious B-movie fun as the elder Zuri, decked in robes as he leads ancient ceremonies. Angela Bassett is pure elegance as T’Challa’s mother Ramonda.

“Black Panther” has everything you would want from a great blockbuster, but because it is thoughtful and even challenging in its subtexts, it adds more to its value as a groundbreaking film in its genre. It’s an adventure worth celebrating for its diversity and a popcorn experience for everyone to cheer in.

Black Panther” opens Feb. 16 in theaters nationwide.