A groundbreaking magnum opus of cinematic marketing for African-Americans, “Creed” director Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” (** OUT OF ****) has demonstrated the impact that a film can create when a single demographic embraces it. The 18th Marvel Studios superhero saga has coined over a billion dollars. Apart from the R-rated Marvel Comics “Blade” trilogy, African-Americans have waited patiently for a suitable larger-than-life champion with a PG-13 rating. A largely derivative but a polished escapade from start to finish, “Black Panther” amounts to a standard-issue, Panther malice-in-the-palace melodrama. The generational gap in the skewered relationship between father and son in director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay provides this epic with its most thematically compelling material. The son spends most of his time handling the mistakes that his short-sighted father has made. The secret fantasy kingdom of Wakanda shares some similarities with the clandestine island in “Wonder Woman.” Basically, “Black” constitutes an origins story about a hero in a cat-suit with ears and his homeland. Mind you, this isn’t the first time Black Panther has graced the silver screen. He made his debut in the contrived and drawn-out “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) where the Avengers broke ranks and swore loyalty to either Captain America or Iron Man. Chadwick Boseman exhibits the steadfast confidence and physical agility to play Marvel Comic’s first African-born superhero. Unfortunately, since he is not only a king, but also a politician who symbolizes the status quo, he seems hopelessly bland and straightforward. Boseman needs to jettison the pseudo-African accent that he uses as Prince T’Challa because it sounds synthetic. Comparably, Michael B. Jordan emerges as far more appealing than a ruthless adversary should. As an illegitimate ghetto offspring of Wakandan blood, the charismatic Jordan spouts the minimal number of profanities allowed for a PG-13 rating. Similarly, the dynamic women who surround Black Panther as his elite bodyguard are far more exciting than the ruler they shield from danger.
For the record, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created “Black Panther” in 1966 when the character debuted in issue # 52 of first volume of the “The Fantastic Four.” The film “Black Panther” opens as a narrator explains that long before mankind arose, an enormous meteorite crashed into the jungles of Africa. The five tribes of Wakanda would eventually gravitate around the crash site. Described as “the strongest metal in the universe,” the vibranium in this meteorite drastically altered the composition of local plant life. The Five Tribes of Wakanda fought without closure until the Panther goddess Bast appeared in a vision to a shaman warrior. Four of the tribes lived together, while the fifth took up residence in the mountains. This warrior found a ‘Heart-Shaped Herb’ that endowed him with superhuman strength as well as speed. He emerged as the first Black Panther. Meantime, the Wakandans excavated vibranium and forged technology as well as weapons far beyond anything else on Earth. Paranoid that the world would plunder their secrets, Wakanda guarded it jealously and withheld it to keep foreigners from exploiting it. Earlier in “Captain America: Civil War,” the Wakanda King T’Challa died in an explosion at the United Nations in Vienna, and his son set out to find the killer. If you’ve seen “Civil War,” you know the killer was none other than James “Bucky” Barnes, aka ‘The Winter Soldier.’ Barnes reprises his role in an end credits cameo for anybody with the patience to stick around and watch it.
Sadly, despite their best efforts to conceal the vibranium, the Wakandans fail. A colorful but cruel arms merchant, racist Afrikaner Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis of “Avengers: The Age of Ultron”), and a renegade mercenary Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan of “Fantastic Four”) shoot up a British museum and steal an ancient Wakandan ax containing vibranium. Our hero T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman of “Get on Up”) pursues Klaue, but ‘Killmonger’ beats our hero to the villainous Afrikaner. Meantime, T’Challa satisfies all the rituals before his coronation. He must submit to any challengers who want to fight him for his monarchy. Of course, nobody confronts him since they respect him. As their new King, T’Challa learns about the dreadfully unfair demise of his father’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”) and his ghetto-born son. ‘Killmonger’ challenges T’Challa, and they slug it out in a pool located atop a perilous waterfall. T’Challa appears to finally have met his match, but ‘Killmonger’ lets him escape. Plunging into a deep gorge where a torrential river flows, T’Challa vanishes from sight. The authorities proclaim ‘Killmonger’ the new Wakandan king. His first imperial act is to share vibranium with other Third World black countries. Of course, you know ‘Killmonger’ cannot get away with this perfidy. Predictably, T’Challa may be down, but it isn’t entirely out of the picture.
Our hero need not worry about hasty last-minute costume changes. He wears a necklace that deploys his black, one-piece outfit and activates all its myriad capabilities. For example, if you strike him, the suit channels the energy in reverse, and the assailant suffers blowback. The Wakandans boast an incredible arsenal of futuristic weapons. James Bond would envy some of these Wakandan gadgets. At one point, they save an American CIA agent, Everett K. Rose (Martin Freeman of “Hot Fuzz”), from a devastating spinal wound that would have confined him for life in a wheelchair. English actor Freeman seems woefully miscast as an American. Coogler stages some modest action scenes. Nevertheless, everything about this formulaic adventure remains so by-the-numbers that you can guess the outcome. One of the more interesting characters, Andy Serkis’ Klaue, is probably the liveliest, but he gets his comeuppance about half-way through the heroics. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira. Altogether, “Black Panther” ushers long-overdue diversity into the Marvel Comics Universe, but this promising superhero pales by comparison with Wesley Snipes “Blade” for sheer bravado and derring-do.