Some movies buckle under the weight of expectation and hope, especially the type that has preceded the release of the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Not Black Panther.
This is an origin story, globe-trotting spy thriller and fantasy, all in one. The movie manages to be part of, but something completely different than, the Marvel superhero movies that came before.
Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), introduced by way of sorrow in Captain America: Civil War, returns home to Wakanda after the death of his father, King T'Chaka. After becoming embroiled in the fisticuffs between the warring factions of the Avengers in that movie, the prince now finds himself fighting for his crown, his country and his life when a series of adversaries arrive on the scene.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, or so the story goes; this crown also means being the Black Panther, who protects Wakanda with heightened senses and abilities and an awesome superhero suit.
Wakanda is known as a "third-world country" outside of its borders. Hidden behind a cloak of deception for years, it is really a technologically advanced superpower rich in vibranium, an alien metal explained in the prologue before the opening credits (don't come into this movie late). Vibranium powers everything in the African country that holds itself apart and above worldly concerns. But these concerns all come knocking on the door: immigration, foreign aid, self-policing, political divide.
Enter Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), all American attitude and entitlement. He wants everything Wakanda has and will stop at nothing to get it. Jordan, the star of director Ryan Coogler's previous movies Fruitvale Station and Creed, shines. He makes Killmonger the scariest type of villain: His constant swagger rides on the wings of righteous fury, sweeping the audience along with him.
Black Panther becomes a deadly game of thrones, with spies, betrayals and all-out war. It's thrilling.
There are a few quibbles about the movie, but they become negligible when countered by other things. The movie can drag in spots, but that makes it easier to take in the feelings; this cast was all in and you can feel their pride. The computer-generated effects make some of the scenes look like a video game, but then there's the beauty: the costuming, the set pieces, the natural hair, the Afro-futurism.
One can feel the tension in the coronation scenes. One might have to stifle a cheer when a member of the king's all-female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, snatches her own wig to use as a weapon. That bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), says so much with just her eyes. More, please.
The rest of the cast — filled with greatness — does not disappoint. Angela Bassett (Queen Mother Ramonda) and Forest Whitaker (Zuri) bring their expected A games. Lupita Nyong'o (spy, love interest Nakia) is heavenly. Boseman, who usually exudes grace and gravitas — see his roles in 42 and Marshall — finally gets to play a little. But no one is having more fun than Letitia Wright, who plays the king's genius sister, Shuri. She steals every scene she's in with her exuberance and the toys she comes up with in her lab.
Each character is fully realized. It's remarkable.
It's almost revolutionary.
One can only hope it will be a watershed moment for Hollywood. A moment in which it will recognize that the hope and the high expectations laid on this movie come from a community often disenfranchised in real life and not represented well on screen. That this film will be a testament to excellence cannot be denied. Following the runaway success of the comedy Girls Trip last summer and the record-setting advance ticket sales for Black Panther, it seems the time is ripe.
Black Panther shows the dream of an Africa deferred. It's representation on a grand scale. It tastes like a win.
It may also feel like a standalone movie, a studio hedging its bets or understanding the need to cater to a different fan base. But then T'Challa takes action in a way that will reverberate across the Marvel universe for many movies to come.
It's a rare film that can make everyone happy, but even the purists may smile here. The source material isn't thrown away for the sake of moviegoers new to the titular hero. Black Panther manages to incorporate iconic characters in a way that serves this story well. Stand down: CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) remains a hoot.
Black Panther, once relegated to the fringes of geek and pop culture, not only lives close to the hype, it lives even closer to the hope that it would be extraordinary.
Black Panther (A)
Rated PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture). 134 minutes. In wide release.