Ryan Coogler has made the best Marvel movie, and let’s not damn it with faint praise. “Black Panther” transcends genre to become a flat-out kickass piece of pop culture. Nothing so quickly has given lie to the idea that black cinema is some sort of niche, any more than black music is. No so-called superhero movie has so committed to a lived-in universe that feels more subversive and dynamic (in this case, an African utopia that seamlessly blends afro-futurism with comic-book sci-fi mysticism). It’s funny, the action resonates, the performances are aces across the board and absolutely not one bit of it apologizes for being thoroughly, joyously, unabashedly black. It had the fifth-best opening weekend of any movie in history, and outside of some sea change in a “Star Wars” franchise, nothing’s likely to do more to re-center the popular idea of the popcorn movie.
The soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts by essentially turning the whole record over to a Kendrick Lamar mixtape. Seriously, stream the explicit version now and you’ll be gobsmacked that a Disney property got this dank or this dark and it’s great. So, yeah, go see “Black Panther,” if you haven’t already. Go even if you have. I saw it in a packed theater about 48 hours after it came out, and on the way out rode the escalator with a guy who’d already seen it twice and was planning to see it again soon.
What happened to turn this into a new “Titanic,” in which fans are scheduling repeat viewings on the way out of the current one? The simplistic answer would be some reading of racial pride: As in, holy cats, it’s about time someone threw $200 million toward a movie that’s at least as black as most Hollywood movies have been white for eons. Black people buy fully one of every seven movie tickets sold in the U.S./Canadian market, and yet movies that showcase black stars, and are helmed by black directors, are ridiculously scarce. Fictional it may be, the central African nation of Wakanda, where “Black Panther” largely takes place, comprises perhaps the longest stretch of any movie of this budget spent in Africa. That’s ridiculous, but it speaks to how blinkered and provincial American studios’ tastes are, even when they’re serving up tales of intergalactic travel and alien worlds.
It took provenance from space to make Wakanda happen. In the telling, a giant vibranium meteorite landed eons ago and became the basis for a hidden utopia that uses tech derived from the quasi-magical metal to cloak itself as an impoverished land of goatherds and rainforest. An assassination in a previous Marvel flick now means T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, having played Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, has a knack for being cast as icons) will ascend to the Wakandan throne and must grapple with the country’s very identity: Does it remain isolated, rich and safe? Or can Wakanda survive if it reveals itself to the world? Two villains are going to press the issue. Andy Serkis is an arms dealer who happens to be missing one arm of his own; he joins a mercenary named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in a vibranium heist that metastasizes. Angela Bassett plays T’Challa’s mom; Forest Whitaker is his mentor; Letitia Wright his Tony Stark-esque gadget-genius sister; and Lupita Nyong’o is his rad spy ex-girlfriend. Up and down, the cast is solid as can be, and Coogler, the co-writer and director, gets the most out of them. Moments that could sag with portentousness instead soar with real emotion; scenes of exposition still crackle with humor. The visual styling, the raw imagination and mashup of traditional styles and weapons with a futuristic tech mean a scene as potentially rote as a car chase can have at least a half-dozen quiet innovations at play.
People go see movies for a lot of reasons. “Black Panther” nails pretty much every last one of them.