Chadwick Boseman, until now best known for channeling the likes of Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, comes masterfully into his own here as T’Challa, crown prince of the mystical kingdom of Wakanda, who assumes the throne when his father is killed while giving a speech at the United Nations. After an elaborate initiation ritual, T’Challa is tasked with hunting down an evil arms merchant named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen a Wakandan artifact made of the precious metal vibranium. Outfitted with adhesive footwear, a fearsome feline mask and a suit that can absorb and redirect power, invented by his techno-genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa sets off for South Korea with his allies, General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an accomplished operative who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend.
That game, once it’s afoot, is plenty entertaining, even if it never veers beyond the most conventional contours of modern-day movie action. In a recent interview that went viral, the music producer Quincy Jones noted that most rap music is “just loops, beats, rhymes and hooks.” The same formula applies to the comic book movies that, at their most uninspired, feel like thinly cobbled-together series of battles royal, windy expository encounters, spatially challenged chase scenes and epic standoffs.
The difference with “Black Panther” is that, while observing the outlines of the traditional comic book arc, Coogler and his creative team have enlarged and revitalized it. Drawing on elements from African history and tribal culture, as well as contemporary and forward-looking flourishes, “Black Panther” pulses with color, vibrancy and layered textural beauty, from the beadwork and textiles of Ruth Carter’s spectacular costumes and Hannah Beachler’s warm, dazzlingly eye-catching production design to hairstyles, tattoos and scarifications that feel both ancient and novel.
Although the comic-book-movie universe might not seem to need yet another origin story, this one possesses urgency and genuine propulsive interest most others lack. Once T’Challa’s true challenge is revealed, “Black Panther” becomes something deeper than the mere formation of one superhero, engaging such subjects as: the legacy of colonialism; collective memory and interior geography; the tension between autonomy and social conscience; and the need for solidarity within an African diaspora at political and cultural odds with itself.
Make no mistake: Coogler doesn’t use “Black Panther” as an awkward delivery system for such Deep Ideas. Rather, he weaves them in organically and subtly. “Black Panther” is great fun to watch and shot through with delicate threads of lighthearted humor, mostly delivered from Wright’s cheeky, sarcastic whiz kid and Martin Freeman, who shows up midway through the film as an earnest if unlikely ally.
Gracefully photographed with a gratifying un-frenetic touch by Rachel Morrison (nominated for an Oscar for her marvelous work on “Mudbound”), “Black Panther” succeeds far beyond Coogler’s directorial chops (which are prodigious), striking visual design and thematic depth. As a showcase for many of the finest actors working today, it proves how essential performance is, even in movies that on their surface demand little more than fitting into a latex suit and affecting a convincing grimace.
Boseman, who strides through “Black Panther” with unforced, charismatic ease, assumes almost Shakespearean levels of doubt as his character is challenged by an unexpected rival. Nyong’o, Wright, Sterling K. Brown and Daniel Kaluuya bring poetry and gravitas to roles that transcend mere support. Michael B. Jordan, who broke out in Coogler’s debut film, “Fruitvale Station,” brings scrappy, street-smart volatility to his performance as a character with whom T’Challa has a karmic connection, and Gurira steals every scene she’s in as an indomitable warrior trained in the art of spearcraft.
It’s these actors — their faces, their commitment, their attention to craft and detail — that elevate “Black Panther” to stirring heights, whether they’re surfing on top of speeding cars through the colorfully lit streets of Busan, arguing against the backdrop of a teeming, futuristic city or communing with their deceased elders on the ancestral plane. And, as they dominate the screen in a movie rooted firmly in their own history and narratives, they provide an exhilarating, regal rebuke to the chronic absence and denigration of black bodies in American cinema. “Black Panther” may be grounded in the loops, beats, rhymes and hooks of contemporary film grammar, but it feels like a whole new language.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture. 140 minutes.