The precious metal vibranium might be abundant on Wakanda, the fictional homeland to Black Panther, but the country’s greatest natural resource is its valiant and dauntless women. And wowza! Director Ryan Coogler hits the jackpot. He draws up a supporting cast of fierce females and turns them loose. Yes, it’s the women of Wakanda — Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright — who kick butt and take names while the boys are left to avenge the misdeeds of past generations and deal in other banal superhero tropes. Whenever any of these actresses (Angela Bassett, too) are on the screen, “Black Panther,” well, roars.
The plot follows T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), in the wake of the death of his father (John Kani) in the terrorist attack that unfolded in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” T’Challa returns home to be crowned king of the scientifically and technically advanced nation of Wakanda, a mysterious country flush full of the glowing mineral vibranium — the stuff giving Captain America’s mighty shield its powers. The villainous arms dealer and physicist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) makes it his mission to beg, cheat, borrow, steal and kill for the ore. He’s aided in his quest by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an MIT-educated special-ops soldier with an ax to grind against Wakanda’s royal family. The script sends Killmonger to Wakanda to challenge T’Challa for the throne. The fate of the world, naturally, is at stake.
Oscar-winner Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) plays Nakia, love interest to T’Challa, activist and spy. Gurira (“The Walking Dead”) is Okoye , the country’s greatest warrior and general of the all-female Dora Milaje, the king’s personal bodyguards. The scene-stealing Wright (Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Ready Player One”) plays Shuri, T’Challa’s tech-guru sister and Wakanda’s princess. She infuses the film with effortless comedy and levity, tinkering in her lab where she creates gadgets, weapons and technology, including his Black Panther armor, to help her brother. They have a cool little sister-big brother vibe that’s totally relatable. She’s “Q” to T’Challa’s James Bond. Bassett lends tons of gravitas as T’Challa’s supportive and loving mother, Ramonda.
Also part of the all-star cast is Daniel Kaluuya, an Oscar-nominee for his part in last year’s surprise hit, “Get Out,” and Winston Duke as M’Baku, a Wakandan tribal leader at odds with T’Challa. Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) plays a small-but-pivotal part in the film’s prologue. Forest Whitaker is the wizened elder, an advisor to T’Challa. Martin Freeman is CIA agent Everett Ross, a superhero registration task force operative we met in “Captain America: Civil War.”
Too often, “Black Panther” sticks to the genre playbook with predictable plot points of promises, betrayals, danger, while it dutifully sets up movies to come in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it would be easy to write off “Black Panther” as just another superhero movie, but it’s not that simple. “Black Panther” is the first of its ilk to be a celebration of African culture and to feature a predominantly black cast and black director. That’s something to cheer, even if it lands a full decade after “Iron Man” launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What took so long?
Coogler (“Creed”), who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole (TV’s “American Crime Story”), creates a complex movie with considerable cultural significance — touching on issues of African colonization, racism, globalization and gender dynamics — that hit right in the heart of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. Coogler’s message of acceptance and love triumphing over hate couldn’t be more urgent and relevant. The social and political undertones — with a power-hungry character deemed “unfit to rule as king” — feel very here and now. No doubt, the film will become a phenomenon.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison brings “Black Panther” to vivid and lush life. She and Coogler create a three-dimensional Wakanda that feels lived in, from the succulent vegetation, to the jewel-toned garb, to the sleek futuristic rail system. Morrison made history last month by becoming the first female director of photography to receive an Oscar nomination for “Mudbound.” She previously worked with Coogler on his injustice tale, “Fruitvale Station,” starring Jordan.
As T’Challa and Killmonger square off, T’Challa takes the pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. approach in protecting his reclusive homeland, while Killmonger pushes for militant activism a la Malcolm X. Boseman, finally playing a fictional character after turns as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown, certainly has the regal presence of a king and the heart of a warrior, but as written, the character could use a bit more charisma. A very buff Jordan exudes most of the swagger and doesn’t squander it for a second. Yes, this “Black Panther” is red-hot. Wakanda forever!
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Andy Serkis.
(PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.)