‘Black Panther,” the superhero who sprang to life during the tumult of the 1960s, arrives this week with a roar. Like all the great comics movies, this one’s got a villain (Michael B. Jordan) so fascinating he nearly steals the show from the hero (Chadwick Boseman). And sure, the futuristic African country of Wakanda may be fictional, but it’s brimming with cultural resonance, making “Black Panther” feel more tied in to the real world than any Marvel feature since 2008’s military-industrial-complex comedy “Iron Man.”
We first met Boseman’s T’Challa in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which saw the death of his father, the king of Wakanda, and the first version of the sleek Black Panther suit. Now T’Challa’s headed back to his homeland to claim the throne — and what a trip it is.
Director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) has created a dizzying wonderland in which traditional African garb, language, lifestyle and song rub elbows with technological wizardry fueled by the mystical comic-book element vibranium, of which Wakanda has an endless supply. The king’s guard is a fierce, all-female Special Forces, the Dora Milaje, clad in red and shorn of hair and brandishing gleaming spears, headed by the no-nonsense Okoye (Danai Gurira).
At the other end of the spectrum there’s T’Challa’s gadget-genius sister, the princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), essentially Q to T’Challa’s Bond. His squeeze is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a high-ranking spy we meet in the midst of rescuing kidnapped Nigerian women. She longs to use Wakanda’s resources to assist other African nations, but the country’s policy is to remain magically disguised as a poor, third-world country — lest the world try to exploit its riches.
The cast here is uniformly terrific: Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s regal mother, Forest Whitaker as his spiritual advisor, Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as the head of the country’s border tribe and confidante to T’Challa.
Before T’Challa can get to ruling, he’s challenged by a long-lost cousin, Erik Killmonger (a ridiculously jacked Jordan), who’s been raised in Oakland, Calif., steeped in the type of racial injustice that’s unknown to the isolated Wakandans. He’s bent on claiming the throne for himself and utilizing Wakanda’s technology to arm the oppressed around the world: “Vibranium has the tools to liberate them all,” says the dreadlocked Killmonger, whose skin is pocked with self-inflicted welts to represent his kills. T’Challa, though, is a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Malcolm X.
Killmonger and T’Challa face off in combat for the crown, and while I’d never argue against watching Jordan and Boseman brawling, a question lingered: Wakanda, with its futuristic tech and its scores of formidable women in charge, is still basing its government structure on two guys pummeling each other?
But then, Okoye and Nakia do a good bit of pummeling themselves, particularly in a Korean casino showdown with Andy Serkis’ psychotic arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (one of very few white faces here, alongside Martin Freeman as milquetoast CIA agent Everett Ross). The moment Okoye disgustedly throws her disguise’s wig at a henchman, before whipping out her spear, should have audiences spontaneously applauding.
The last act devolves into the kind of numbing, large-scale fighting that so often dumbs down superhero fare, but Coogler redeems himself at the last with a poignant, Oakland-based coda as T’Challa’s views grow and change. If there’s any justice, so will the film industry’s views on race, as “Black Panther” looks likely to shred box-office records.