It was inevitable that my predilection for the Marvel superhero movies made over the past decade — starting with “Iron Man” — would one day hit a snag. There was no film that gave me more fun last year than “Thor: Ragnarok.” So, it’s with much disappointment that I’ve got to call “Black Panther” a good try, but a misfire.
Full disclosure: I knew nothing of the character beyond what was revealed of him — which wasn’t much — in “Captain America: Civil War.” But unfamiliarity with superheroes hasn’t been a problem for me in the past, and it wasn’t one here. In fact, there’s enough exposition narrated in the film’s first few minutes for any newcomer to get a basic idea of who is who, and what’s going on.
Wakanda is a small African country that keeps to itself; the king has been killed in a terrorist attack (see “Captain America: Civil War”); his son, Prince T’Challa is next in line for the throne; one of the reasons Wakanda keeps to itself is the country’s control of a special substance, Vibranium, with which the population powers everything, builds everything from. Another reason is that the isolated nation is the only place to find the purple heart-shaped herb that, when liquified, gives Black Panther his inordinate strength.
Who is this Wakandan that calls himself Black Panther? As far as I could tell, he’s the alter ego of whoever is the king. And a new king is about to be crowned, meaning Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take a drink.
Boseman is terrific in the part, adeptly handling the differences of playing grieving son, hesitant ruler, sturdy hero, and possible love interest. The other half of that last part would be Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), whose presence here became one of my first difficulties in the film. Is she a Wakandan spy? Is she the prince’s former girlfriend? If she is, and she gets back with him, will she be a future queen? Sorry, none of that is made clear.
But there’s no problem picking out the bad guys: Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is a cold-blooded mercenary and arms dealer who has stolen some Vibranium and intends to trade it for diamonds. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the fellow that appears to be working for him, has wicked ambitions beyond being rich.
Fortunately, there are enough nice people to balance things off, including CIA Agent Everett Ross (British actor Martin Freeman, sporting a perfect American accent) and Prince/King T’Challa’s little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a scientist who designs weaponry and outfits out of Vibranium.
The acting is the strongest thing the film has going for it. The difficulties come in areas of clichéd writing (the script is peppered with details that first-timers to this genre must have thought just had to be here, and a couple of plot twists to keep the story on-track are just too convenient) and choppy pacing (the action sequences stick out rather than work within the flow of the film).
Once the prince becomes the king, his first mission is to retrieve the stolen Vibranium, and he gets to show off that added strength, along with athletic skills, perfect balance and, oh yeah, his super suit. Once the good guy-bad guy business gets into gear, it leads to that superhero movie staple — the inevitable big fight near the end. But it’s fractured and unfocused and, with its inclusion of huge rhinos wearing armor and charging through the proceedings, it’s kind of silly.
Part-way through the end credits, an extra sequence furthers the story, after which yet another ending hints at what’s to come in this new franchise ... if it actually becomes a franchise. One other thing — a minor spoiler, for those who need to know: The Stan Lee cameo is at the 45-minute mark.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole; directed by Ryan Coogler
With Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Michael B. Jordan, Andy Serkis