‘Black Panther’ centers on crime, espionage

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Give credit to Disney for continuing to break the mold. Millions of Marvel Comic fanboys often demand the same high-powered tedium while dutifully paying homage to whatever CGI drivel is delivered to today’s silver screen. Sure, there’s typically a message worthy of the latest After School Special, but these superhero flicks are mostly fun, fights and pyrotechnics.

It seems nobody told director/co-writer Ryan Coogler that these films are supposed to be single dimensional audio-visual extravaganzas. The charismatic stars and weapons of mass destruction can come off the shelf. Yet, as he did with “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015), Coogler takes a simple concept to a whole new level.

He begins with an all-star cast led by the charming Chadwick Boseman (“24” “Marshall”) as T’Challa/Black Panther. Coogler brings back the enigmatic Michael B. Jordan from “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” as Erik Killmonger, the powerful and somewhat complex villain. Angela Bassett is the Queen, Forest Whitaker, the wise sage, while Lupita Nyong’o (“Star Wars” series) is Nakia, the witty love interest of the Black Panther.

In the midst of the almost all-black cast is Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit” series), who commented, “You think this is what black actors must feel like all the time.” Coogler made sure the Black Panther was not going to be Superfly, Shaft or any Blaxploitation incarnation. You’re not going to hear, “Don’t ever touch a black man’s radio!”

Coogler replaced the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) designers with colleagues from “Fruitville Station,” citing cultures of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo and Ethiopia as architectural influences for the mythical country of Wakanda. Released during Black History Month, he brought in experts on African history, politics and culture.

Composer Ludwig Goransson listened to thousands of African tribal recordings and local musicians. Even the fighting is based on African martial arts. The central theme is responsibility and identity, but the filmmakers describe it as “a big, operatic family drama centered on a world of crime and international espionage.”

This story started during the last MCU feature, “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) when the King of Wakanda is assassinated. His son, T’Challa, the new king, returns home to his third world country, which is not all that is seems. It is secretly a wealthy and technologically advanced nation hidden in plain sight.

T’Challa is challenged for the throne from factions within his own country. When two foes conspire to destroy Wakanda, the king (Black Panther), must team with the CIA. Agent Everett K. Ross (Freeman) asks, “You’re telling me the king of a Third World country runs around in a bulletproof catsuit?” Together with a neighboring nation, they join forces to prevent Wakanda from being dragged into a world war.

If you came for the typical silly fun, this movie has its share, but the actors did not get that memo. They perform with the earnestness of “Moonlight” or “The Color Purple.” They make this a deeper story filled with cultural pageantry and sense of purpose. Where other features are a part of the MCU, this movie easily stands on its own. The superb cast is rounded out with Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown and Andy Serkis.

“Black Panther” is 134 minutes and rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence. As a token of Hollywood’s appreciation, it was a noble effort for the studios to make a “black” superhero movie. But, as with “Wonder Woman,” the filmmakers took full advantage and “went for the gold” making quite a statement indeed.

After knocking the bad guys around, this hero cannot proclaim, “Hakuna Matata.” His citizens must still understand, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As its leader, he must also ask, “If Wakandans do not help their struggling neighbors, then who are they as a people?” Even if barefoot, the shoe is now on the other foot.

Ron’s Rating: B 
Leigh’s Rating: B

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