“Just because something works does not mean it cannot be improved.”
So says the tech-wizard sister of the title character in “Black Panther.” It’s an apt credo for this soulful, stirringly acted and pretty terrific movie’s place in the Marvel Studios realm.
As a rule, these movies basically work, most of them, even if they sometimes feel more like a product, launched, than a superhero world, imagined.
But co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s film qualifies, handily, as his third consecutive and undeniable success, following the roiling docudrama “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and the improbable, irresistible “Rocky” sequel “Creed” (2015). “Black Panther” is also the first Marvel superhero movie I can remember with a serious emotional wallop. More important, it has a forceful, natural sense of how to let the mythic world converse with the racial politics of the real world.
These last 10 years of officially sanctioned Marvel Cinematic Universe movies got off to a misleadingly exuberant start with the first “Iron Man” in 2008. Back then we hadn’t gotten used to the all-star, dutifully interlocking “Avengers” pictures that now roll off the assembly line on a Disney stockholder-friendly schedule.
It’s pretty clear “Black Panther” is going to be a huge hit. One of the best things about it is a simple one: It feels like a story and an achievement unto itself. In his current incarnation, the character first appeared in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), and he’s reporting for world-saving duty in the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.” But the movie opening this week is the one where he gets the room to breathe. Put another way: Chadwick Boseman’s regal, rock-solid portrayal gets its due, and a dozen or more wonderfully acted supporting roles get theirs, too.
Like last summer’s cure for the common superhero blockbuster, the DC Comics ringer “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther” fleshes out a beautifully functioning society far from the prying, destructive eyes of the outside world. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, the title character is the son of the king of the (fictional) African nation Wakanda. The screenplay, which Coogler wrote with Joe Robert Cole, follows familiar storytelling grooves, but you don’t get that hectic, blurry feeling some of the Marvels impart as they hustle between action sequences. There’s a pleasing fullness and rounded-out quality to the best scenes in “Black Panther.” Coogler and his comrades maximize each new vignette and new set of characters rolling in and out of the story.
In brief: Wakanda, consisting of five tribes, was blessed long ago by a meteorite made of a magical substance called vibranium. The glowing alien metal gives humans the strength, agility and star billing of superhumans, and feeds the special herbal potion that turns the king of the moment into Black Panther, a warrior, a protector and an extremely fast and high-leaping wonder.
In the early stages of Coogler’s film, king T’Chaka (John Kani) expires, leaving the throne to be filled by his son, T’Challa (Boseman). The newly crowned king’s key allies include T’Challa’s brash, delightful sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who’s constantly showing off the latest in Wakandan technology and gadgetry. She’s Q from the James Bond universe, in other words, only a thousand times more stylish.
With a lively wit and urgent fire in the eyes, Lupita Nyong’o portays T’Challa’s ex, currently one of the nation’s undercover “war dogs” surveying the outside world. General Okoye, the spear-wielding standout in Wakanda’s all-female Special Forces team, comes to vivid life in the hands of Danai Gurira. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are inevitably perfect casting as the queen and the kingdom’s Obi-Wan, respectively. There’s such a fine line in these movies separating “taking it seriously, so the audience can as well” and “enough with the self-seriousness, already.” “Black Panther” treads that line with aplomb.
There are two primary adversaries, and the film executes a shrewd handoff from one to the other. Andy Serkis plays the arms dealer and vibranium fantatic Ulysses Klaue, and, crucial to the story’s ideological tension, Michael B. Jordan is the American black ops ace known as Killmonger. For reasons set up in the Oakland, Calif.-set 1992 prologue, he’s got ambitions for the throne, and a fervent belief in getting stunningly advanced weaponry in the hands of oppressed people of color throughout the world.
“Black Panther” treats Killmonger as a complicated antagonist: ruthless, but grieving, a charismatic despot in training. Coogler focuses on the clash between his revolutionary worldview and the more cautious, diplomatic worldview of the Wakandan nation. Coogler’s facility with staging and shaping the fight scenes is quite good, though he has a tendency to flip between hand-held “realism” and a more classical approach to uncertain effect. It’s as if the film hadn’t quite made up its mind on how to build these crucial and often brutal confrontations.
The design work is far above par, thanks to “Mudbound” Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison’s glowing cinematography; to production designer Hannah Beachler’s depiction of urban Wakanda, which looks a little like Seoul and a little like “The Jetsons” in Middle-earth; and to Ruth E. Carter’s knockout costumes for both sexes. Two hundred million dollars should, in fact, buy you a good-looking superhero movie. What money can’t buy, however, is where Coogler’s skills as a moment-by-moment dramatist come in. Without giving it away, Killmonger’s final line of dialogue is an indelible reminder that the best pop myths come straight out of the most painful realities. May Marvel learn its lesson from “Black Panther”: When a movie like this ends up feeling both personal and vital, you’ve done something right.
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.
‘Black Panther’ — 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)
Running time: 2:20
Opens: Thursday evening