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Movie Reviews

Panther power and subversion

Winston Duke stars in the Marvel release, Black Panther. Photo: courtesy marvel studios

It’s been a few weeks since the release of the incredibly enjoyable, wildly kinetic, and unquestionably groundbreaking superhero movie Black Panther, the latest addition to what’s become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a sprawling, interconnected series of movies based on Marvel Comics’ wealth of characters.

For the uninitiated, Black Panther, played with a quiet air of power and nobility by Chadwick Boseman, is T’Challa, who has the strength and agility of his namesake and a cool, indestructible costume. A member of the valiant superteam the Avengers, T’Challa is also heir to the throne of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda — secretly, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, thanks to a cache of Vibranium (an otherworldly element that has helped to fuel the country’s scientific achievements and prosperity). Preposterous? No. Comic books!

Even disregarding its near-unanimous positive reviews and stratospheric box-office numbers, Black Panther is notable and praiseworthy as a stand-alone entertainment in addition to being a sterling continuation of Marvel’s cinematic chronicle. The films in the MCU can vary greatly in tone. For example, the Captain America movies are earnest adventures with military and espionage elements, the misfit Guardians of the Galaxy are wacky space operas, and the recent Thor: Ragnarok is a frequently hilarious combination of family saga, gladiator epic, and buddy comedy. But Black Panther is unlike any of the numerous installments that preceded it, because it’s the first to spotlight a black superhero, and it wholeheartedly embraces the sociocultural aspects of such an endeavor.

OAKLAND NATIVE DIRECTS

Nitpickers will note that Marvel released three films about Blade, an African American vampire hunter, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those were outliers with substantial budgets and impressive profits for their time. Black Panther differs in its predominantly black cast and African setting. And, significantly, it was directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, a 31-year-old Oakland, Calif.-born African American filmmaker whose award-winning indie debut movie, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, was based on a real-life tragedy involving a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Despite Fruitvale Station and the well-received 2015 Rocky Balboa sequel, Creed, being the only feature-length entries in Coogler’s filmography, he was handed the stewardship of the big-bucks, high-profile Black Panther, and has made something personal, sophisticated, and empowering while delivering one of the best effects-enhanced action movies of the past 10 years. In short, Coogler has risen to the occasion — and was probably the best possible person for the job, regardless of whether he was a part of Hollywood’s current and welcome diversity campaign. In that regard, Coogler joins Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) of Maori descent and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) — so far, the only female director of superhero movies — as having made among the best of the genre.

WONDERS OF WAKANDA

The setup and backstories of Wakanda and T’Challa are effortlessly and clearly delivered early in the proceedings. And there’s even an introductory segment set in Coogler’s East Bay hometown that’s crucial to the story. When his father (the King and the previous Black Panther) dies, T’Challa leaves his colleagues in the Avengers and goes home to be anointed king. There, he faces challenges to his coronation from representatives of the five tribes who co-exist in Wakanda. Meanwhile, a super-villain named Klaw (Andy Sirkis of The Lord of the Rings and War for the Planet of the Apes) wants to get his hands on Vibranium for mercenary reasons. And T’Challa has a rival who he had heretofore never known: Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan of Creed and Fruitvale Station), who believes he’s the rightful ruler of Wakanda and wants to spread Vibranium weaponry to the poor and disenfranchised around the world, then rule them after they overthrow their masters.

Rather than overwhelming the story, myriad special effects bring the glory of Wakanda to life, while rendering the feats of the Panther, his allies, and his enemies in vivid fashion. The actors’ characterizations are rich and striking, down to the most minor roles. His physical skills notwithstanding, T’Challa has a core of humanity and warmth that Boseman brings out when appropriate. Boseman’s co-stars and supporting players are a joy to watch. You get Forest Whitaker as T’Challa’s mentor, Angela Bassett as the Queen Mother, Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s romantic interest, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend, Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross, and Danai Gurira of TV’s The Walking Dead as the leader of Wakanda’s all-woman warrior squad. Special mention has to go to Letitia Wright who steals every scene she’s in as T’Challa’s playful little sister Shuri, a tech genius and a charmer.

In spots, Black Panther echoes James Bond-style spy flicks, plus mixes in martial arts, African tribal intrigue, and international political drama. That notwithstanding, Coogler never abandons Black Panther’s comic book roots nor fails to fit into the grand tapestry of the multimovie Marvel epic as it soars forward from release to release. In fact, Black Panther references events in prior movies such as Captain America: Civil War and includes elements that push the studio’s transmedia narrative forward toward Avengers: Infinity War, reaching theaters on May 4. Yet, you needn’t see any of the other Marvel movies to get or appreciate this one, making Coogler’s unapologetic but inclusive view of a black superhero, his utopian milieu, and its rightful place in the world at large that much more of a triumph.

Black Panther: currently playing at all AMC theaters in San Francisco: Van Ness 14 (1000 Van Ness Ave.), Kabuki 8 (1881 Post St), and Metreon (135 Fourth St.); amctheatres.com

SUBVERSIVE SCREENINGS AT THE ROXIE

Elliot Lavine has carved out a valuable niche as a programmer with his ongoing series of rare or forgotten movies — with a particular emphasis on noir — at local venues. Now, he’s teaming with fellow film buff Don Malcolm to bring a remarkably timely selection of 12 vintage features to the Roxie Theater (March 23–26): “The Dark Side of the Dream: Subversive Cinema for Subversive Times 1933–1964.”

Screenings include such notables as 1937’s Black Legion, a taut, long-neglected drama starring a young Humphrey Bogart as an alienated worker who’s convinced to join a whites-only terror organization that bears a resemblance to the KKK; and blacklisted director Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of the Fritz Lang classic M about a community in crisis due to a child killer on the loose. Lavine and Malcolm also toss in a couple of better-known but equally relevant offerings that look at media manipulation in the name of politics: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941).

The Dark Side of the Dream: Subversive Cinema for Subversive Times 1933–1964: March 23–26, The Roxie, 3117 16th St., 415-863-1087, roxie.com

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube, and on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s David Feldman Show. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster  

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