“You’re a good man, with a good heart,” a father tells his son, in a vision. “And it is hard for a good man to be king.”
“Black Panther,” the story of how that son enters his legacy as both king and superhero, unfolds like every other big-deal comic-book movie — in the best of ways. Goodness prevails, evil is punished, zippy suits and gadgets are unveiled, and some butts get well and truly kicked.
But, as you may have heard, this movie is different from those that preceded it in the Marvel Comics universe: Its hero is black and African, and most of its cast is black — as is its director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler. And that difference makes it all the more invigorating. Like “Wonder Woman” last year, it’s thrilling to see a superhero movie populated with people generally on the sidelines in such films. A lot of us haven’t seen much of ourselves as heroes on screen; movies like these are part of a step forward. (Granted, it’s taken a while: Black Panther first appeared in a Marvel comic back in 1966.)
Played with calm majesty by Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther is the superhero identity of T’Challa, the newfound king of the African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father. (See “Captain America: Civil War,” which introduced Boseman’s character, for details on that.) Wakanda, a country never colonized, is depicted in the world media as a place of poverty and backwardness. In reality, it’s a beautiful and technologically advanced place, thanks to its rich reserves of vibranium: an ore with energy-manipulating qualities that’s very handy in creating superhero suits and other things.
Nothing ever goes smoothly for the title character in a comic-book movie — if it did, why would we show up? — and T’Challa finds himself threatened by an old nemesis (the evil Klaue; appropriately pronounced “claw,” and played by Andy Serkis) and a new adversary known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), whose name is a reminder that things are often not subtle in the Marvel world. Backing up T’Challa are a formidable line of women: his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett, whose steely presence would be an asset to every superhero movie); younger sister Shuri (newcomer Letitia Wright); love interest/ally Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, of “12 Years a Slave”), a Wakandan spy; and the all-female security force known as the Dora Milaje, led by the fierce Okoye (Danai Gurira, best known for TV’s “The Walking Dead”). All of these women clearly have T’Challa’s number; for a superhero, he puts up with a lot of teasing.
Coogler is a young filmmaker — this is just his third feature, following “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” (two fine and very different films) — but he marshals this world with confidence and flair. The action sequences are insanely fun: Watch as Gurira, in a fight scene, effortlessly wrangles a floaty red evening gown while kicking butt, and dispatches a bad guy by throwing her wig at him. Message: Do NOT mess with the Dora Milaje. Wright, whose character is the designated gadget-maker (during battle, she sports vibranium-shooting panther paws), brings enchanting little-sister glee; and Nyong’o, who the camera adores, brings her own brand of light to every scene.
Boseman, the quiet center around which the movie whirls, makes an appealing hero: As Black Panther, he moves with the grace of a cat; as T’Challa, he exudes decency and wisdom — he is, as his father reminds him, a good man. (He also, in the department of Aspirational Things Learned From Comic-Book Movies, can control his superhero suit with his mind — something I would like to do with my wardrobe.) He’ll be back, in “The Avengers: Infinity War” later this spring, but I’m looking forward to returning to Wakanda, soon.