Mythic 'Black Panther' Is A Momentous Event In Pop Culture History

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 12:56 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new superhero film "Black Panther" opens wide tomorrow. As originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics, Black Panther was an African king named T'Challa who fought crime in a high-tech panther suit. The film stars Chadwick Boseman, who first played the character in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War." "Black Panther" was directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who made "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Although Marvel superhero movies are more alike than unalike, "Black Panther," starring Chadwick Boseman as the African king T'Challa, is as good as its wildly positive reviews proclaim. For all its high-tech gadgetry and computer-generated mayhem, it's grounded in the real world. It begins, in fact, in 1992, in Oakland, Calif., probably only a few train stops from the site of the tragic climax of director Ryan Coogler's debut feature "Fruitvale Station." Outside some projects, black children play ball and make the best of their bad deal, while inside, two men with high-powered weaponry get a visit from the elderly king of Wakanda and two spear-carrying female bodyguards. The terrible result of that visit reaches to present-day Wakanda and beyond.

What is Wakanda? A fictional African nation, on the surface, not too different from the ones our current administration has disparaged. Once you get under the lush canopy of trees, though, its hidden-away capital city is both ancient and futuristic with sonic-powered railways snaking among great stone towers. It's fueled by a vast supply of the super metal vibranium, which the Wakandans have protected for thousands of years primarily by remaining isolated. Their worldview will be brutally tested.

The villain is a charismatic radical named Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and "Creed." He wants vibranium to power nothing less than a full-scale race war. He's crazy, but as a street kid with a chip on his shoulder, he's more dramatically compelling than the regal, conscientious T'Challa, which is one way "Black Panther" is edgier than its Marvel predecessors. It's taken a long time for the Panther to arrive on screen, but then, it took years to get his standalone comic after being a supporting player with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and a series with the cringeworthy title "Jungle Action."

It was worth the wait to get the character right. Marvel is known as a boy's universe, but the filmmakers have surrounded "Black Panther" with women who frequently leave him in the dust. One is his flaming red afro-haired on-and-off girlfriend Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong'o, who's bent on leaving Wakanda to help other imperiled African countries. Even stronger is Danai Gurira's General Okoye, who has a samurai's dexterity with long spears. T'Challa's giddy kid sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is an even more fun inversion of male superhero protocol. She's the tech wizard Q to Black Panther's James Bond. T'Challa invokes her help during a fight with Killmonger on the Wakandan train tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Shuri.

LETITIA WRIGHT: (As Shuri) Brother.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Turn on the train on the bottom track.

WRIGHT: (As Shuri) The stabilizers will deactivate your suit. You won't have protection.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Neither will he.

WRIGHT: (As Shuri) OK.

EDELSTEIN: Some of "Black Panther's" computer-generated imagery looks fake. And apart from General Okoye's acrobatic spear work, the fighting isn't as fluid as you'd hope for from the director of "Creed." But the movie's palette is gorgeous, its roots in both pop sci-fi and African folklore. Afrofuturism is a label I've heard. The Black Panther isn't just a random super alter ego like Iron Man or Spiderman. It has mythic reverberations. It's T'Challa's spirit animal. Chadwick Boseman gives this busy enterprise its grave, thoughtful center, abetted by Winston Duke as an imperious rival tribe leader, Daniel Kaluuya of "Get Out" as a fickle ally, and as a CIA agent, Martin Freeman, who's the lone representative of the larger Marvel Universe and uses his small stature to big comic effect.

In the coming weeks, people might wonder why "Black Panther" focuses on the struggle within the black community instead of against larger racial injustices. But here in his first film, T'Challa is primarily concerned with the welfare of his own country. Let's see in future installments how he's changed by his move from isolationism into the larger world. In the meantime, let's celebrate "Black Panther" for what it is - a momentous event in pop culture history.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Joshua Green about his book on Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEEKND AND KENDRICK LAMAR'S "PRAY FOR ME")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY FOR ME")

THE WEEKND: (Singing) I'm always ready for war again, go down that road again. It's all the same. I'm always ready to take a life again. You know I'll ride again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.