If you go to the map section of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, you’ll find the fictional nation of Wakanda surrounded by some other fictional nations, like Canaan and Narobia. You can’t miss it. Though, depending on what Marvel story you’re reading, or what film you happen to be watching, its exact position tends to move around a little. But that doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s an East African nation where long, long ago, a massive meteorite made from a valuable and equally fictional metal called Vibranium crashed.
As explained during a terrifically animated sequence at the beginning of the new superhero adventure, Black Panther, that meteorite and the metal it contained changed the fortune of the small African nation and its five tribes. As time passed, the Wakandans learned to use the metal in order to develop advanced technology beyond their wildest dreams. Plus, by drinking a liquid cultivated from a heart-shaped herb affected by the powerful metal, a human could develop superhuman abilities; a Black Panther. Wisely, until everyone knew what they were doing and what they had, Wakanda isolated itself from the rest of the world. As far as everyone else thought, Wakanda was nothing but an unimportant, third world country that kept moving around a little on the map. But in reality, at the center of its nation, it had the most advanced, futuristic city on Earth.
Of course, while every Marvel-reading, overly enthusiastic fanboy, or girl for that matter, already knows this, the rest of us didn’t. But again, like pin-pointing the exact position of that little African nation on the map, it doesn’t matter. The opening segment is so well executed, it’s a pleasure to watch. Plus, unlike that lengthy opener to David Lynch’s Dune where, to this day, I still can’t figure out what Virginia Madsen was talking about, director Ryan Coogler’s explanation of what happened 10,000 years ago in Wakanda makes perfect sense. Plus, and here’s what you’re really wanting to know: Black Panther is a great superhero movie. It’s to Marvel what Wonder Woman was to D.C. Comics; possibly the best of its kind.
The strength of this totally absorbing adventure is that while it’s all part of the Marvel universe, it’s a complete, stand-alone feature, absent of links to the rest of the superhero world. Down the road, with expected, mandatory sequels, things will be different, but here, as an origin story, the place where it all began, Black Panther is alone in its own universe. It creates its own world where, despite the fantasy, super-duper events that occur within, is all perfectly acceptable. There’s no problem suspending your disbelief; you buy the whole thing. Having Iron Man, Captain America, or any of those others dropping by would only break the spell and spoil things. But fortunately, they don’t, and that makes all the difference.
Once the nation’s backstory is complete, the film begins. After the usual, Hollywood establishing shot of London consisting of the River Thames and always the London Eye, not far away in a London museum, a historic weapon on display is swiped from its glass case. Unknown to the museum curators, the ancient weapon is actually made from Vibranium and should bring a fortune on the black market.
The thieves are Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan exile who is only too aware of the metal’s power, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a murderous and totally off-balanced black-marketeer. The theft doesn’t go unnoticed by the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the nation’s current Black Panther. With the assistance of his female bodyguards, described earlier by one character as “two Grace Jones-looking chicks,” T’Challa leaves his nation to stop the thieves selling the artifact. There’s a thrilling chase through the streets of Busan, South Korea, but it doesn’t go well for our hero, and T’Challa is forced to return to Africa having let the bad guys slip through his panther claws. But then something unexpected happens about midway through the film, and when it occurs, it changes the course of the story.
Shot widescreen with some outstanding backdrop images of the African landscape, from that opening introduction of the falling meteorite to the satisfying conclusion, Black Panther never loses its grip for all of its 134 minutes. Aided by a mostly black cast who, no matter how a dedicated Marvel reader envisaged a live version of their beloved comic book heroes, perfectly embody their characters. Both Boseman’s Panther and his challenging opposite, Jordan’s Wakandan exile who went on to be an American black-ops soldier, make for fully-fledged, formidable enemies. There’s nothing for trolls in the comment section to whine about.
Other standouts include Letitia Wright in a breakout role as the panther’s sister, Shuri, the designer of the nation’s new technology. Played with child-like, excitable humor, Shuri is to her older brother what ‘Q’ is to James Bond, only funnier. “Great,” she exclaims as injured and unconscious CIA Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) is wheeled in to her operating room. “Another white boy for us to fix.”
Plus, as the unhinged South African gangster, Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkiss is magnificently scary. Out of all the English speaking accents around the world, the South African is probably the most difficult one to perfect, but Serkiss gets it just right. You’d swear he was the real thing.
Only Martin Freeman’s CIA agent feels out of place. Perhaps best known as Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, though just as famous as The Hobbit and the likable guy from Love Actually, here, Freeman doesn’t quite click. Part of the problem may be that he’s so good at what he’s previously done, he can’t help but carry the baggage of earlier work when cast as an American operative. It doesn’t necessarily spoil things, plus it’s probable that teenage audiences, for whom Black Panther is aimed, won’t notice a thing, but for older Anglophiles who know the actor as that nice character from the original version of the BBC TV series The Office, acceptance of a passable American accent might be a hurdle too high to climb. He never quite convinces.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)