In the Marvel-ized Afrofuture of Black Panther, camo is replaced with kente cloth. There are sub-Saharan villages along with glossy skyscrapers, and the king's guard is a team of bald female warriors with spears that collapse like light sabers.
It's a well-crafted Marvel flick. It's a satisfying sci-fi story. But Black Panther eschews genre conventions where it counts.
Two minutes into the film, we're immersed in a dazzling web of mythology about warring tribes that worship the cat goddess Bast. The tribes fight over a meteorite of vibranium, a limitless alien metal, until one warrior ingests a heart-shaped herb to become the first Black Panther, uniting the tribes.
Since then, the nation of Wakanda has thrived in isolation. Hidden in plain sight, the high-tech metropolis appears a Third World country to the rest of the world, and its lucrative vibranium resources are a secret.
In the present day, the king of Wakanda has just died. His son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume the throne as king and resident Black Panther, negotiating the loss of his father while keeping Wakanda in harmony.
The weight of ancestral duty weighs upon Boseman's furrowed expression as he struggles to decide what kind of king he ought to be. The decision is compounded by the mysterious arrival of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a militant American from Oakland, Calif., with a keen interest in Wakanda's firepower. Killmonger, raised amid 1990s-era police violence toward African-Americans, believes vibranium weapons are the answer for liberating the oppressed. Motivated by an eye-for-an-eye moralism, he assumes the methods of the oppressors.
Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) takes Wakanda's tech savvy to Star Trek proportions, complete with a morphing, vibranium-laced panther suit and glowing weaponry.
Black Panther manages to satisfy the expectations viewers have of a visually spectacular superhero movie while still offering something more. T'Challa's ego is constantly punctured by his tech- guru little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), as he works to fulfill his destiny. In one of Black Panther's defining scenes, Killmonger faces off with Okoye (Danai Gurira), T'Challa's right-hand woman and a physically superior warrior who uses measured application of force to maintain freedom. After that epic battle, the final showdown with T'Challa ensues, and the winner relies on the help of Shuri's technological prowess. It's the kind of intersectional makeover the genre needed.
Lupita Nyong'o shines as Nakia, an outlaw princess of a different Wakandan tribe (and T'Challa's former love) who beats up ivory poachers and encourages the new king to use Wakanda's resources to do good in the world. The car chase and fight scenes pack an exhilarating punch, hugely due to Gurira. As Okoye, Gurira smolders with the confidence of a seasoned warrior, ready to inspire the king to action or calmly discourage unnecessary violence while observing 3-D displays on the command deck. Along with the film's references to colonialism and the dutiful bounds of blood and heritage, Nakia's humanitarian motivations and Killmonger's vengeful approach to revolution act as reminders of the suffering of the African diaspora.
When, Wakanda's true, extravagant form is revealed, the illusion of the desolate landscapes and starving villages dissolve to reveal a space-age skyline powered by vibranium, a mass of reflective spiraling windowed towers and sleek flying trains.
It's an awe-inspiring moment that's almost a metaphor for the movie itself. Black Panther is a larger-than-fiction experience that challenges audiences to see the difference between diversity as a numbers game and the splendor of a piece of art that was created for everyone
CRITIC'S RATING: 4/4 stars.
Black Panther is rated PG-13 and now playing at Bagdad, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Lloyd, Milwaukie, Moreland, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Tigard and Vancouver.