BLACK PANTHER  * * * 1 / 2

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright. Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. Directed by Ryan Coogler.  

When I met Ryan Coogler in 2013 he still had a day job working as a youth counselor at a Bay Area juvenile detention facility. Nearing the end of a grinding publicity tour for his extraordinary debut feature, Fruitvale Station, the then-27-year-old writer-director spoke to me eloquently about the surreal adulation of Sundance success and the strange sensation of rolling into Cannes as Harvey Weinstein’s latest boy-genius discovery. But mostly he talked about wanting to get back to “his kids.”

I thought about that a lot during Coogler’s next film, Creed. His stirring, semi-sequel-slash-reboot to the long-dormant Rocky saga begins with a snarling orphan throwing punches in a juvie hall. I thought about it even more during Black Panther, his globe-trotting Marvel superhero extravaganza that nonetheless begins and ends with sad, streetwise children talking smack on an Oakland housing project’s ramshackle basketball court. At the age of just 31, Coogler has become one of the most exciting directors working within the studio system — by far the most interesting voice in franchise filmmaking. And he did it by bringing “his kids” along with him.

Black Panther is a spectacular entertainment. (“It feels like a real movie, not just one of those Marvel things,” said a cook at the restaurant where I work nights.) Set in Stan Lee’s fictional African nation of Wakanda, this is a place built upon vast reserves of a precious, fix-it-all make-believe element called Vibranium. Landlocked Wakanda has smartly disguised itself as just another Third World “shithole,” while secretly thriving in a utopia boasting technological advances beyond all your wildest dreams.

It’s an alluring could’ve-been fantasy of an Africa able to exploit its own natural resources free from colonialist nightmares, but Wakanda’s isolationism also strikes a sour note when there’s so much suffering going on next door.

Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa is an unsteady, hesitant heir to the throne. His father was murdered in that last crummy Captain America movie, leaving T’Challa to take up the legendary mantle of Black Panther. As Martin Freeman’s very funny seen-it-all CIA agent rolls his eyes and sighs, “Yes, because the King of an African country dresses up in bulletproof pajamas and fights crime.”

Coogler (who penned the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) smooths over the central absurdity with a quicksilver wit and a boisterous supporting, largely female cast. Whether it’s our hero’s bantering spy ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), his smartass, tech-genius little sister (Letitia Wright), his tougher-than-leather mom (Angela Bassett) or the place guard who is the biggest badass in the whole damn movie (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) it takes a nation of women to cover T’Challa’s back.

I couldn’t help but remember how Octavia Spencer took over Fruitvale Station or all the ways in which Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad provided the steel for Creed’s spine. Coogler is a rare male filmmaker who loves to write powerful women, and his movies are so much stronger for it.

This is by far the most visually exciting Marvel adventure yet, eschewing their usual drab airport parking lots and stairwell fights in favor of grand, eye-popping colors courtesy of Coogler’s Fruitvale Station cinematographer Rachel Morrison and glorious costume designs by Do The Right Thing’s legendary Ruth E. Carter. (A friend told me that at his screening Morrison’s screen credit got a round of applause. Well deserved, it’s a gorgeous picture.)

For a while Black Panther is a delicious riff on Black James Bond, with T’Challa and company outfitted with all sorts of gadgets, gizmos and formal wear on an elegant sojourn to an underground Seoul casino, way one-upping similar scenes in Skyfall — but then everything gets shook upon the arrival of Michael B. Jordan’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens.

He’s got another name that I won’t reveal here (you’ll probably guess it anyway) and considering Coogler’s history the bare-bones story structure of Black Panther owes an awful lot to Rocky III, but Jordan’s bad-guy is one for the ages. It’s a towering, ferociously charismatic performance – terrifying in his methods but also not entirely wrong. So many villains in these kind of things just stamp their feet and want to take over the world. Jordan’s Killmonger has a legitimate grievance, one that rattles our heroes, making them re-think and change their ways – unprecedented for a film in a genre like this one.

I would never throw such a comparison lightly, but Michael B. Jordan here reminded me of Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven. There’s not just the queasy feeling that the antagonist might actually be right, but they also both share a way of being at once completely terrifying and so easily wounded.

Jordan *hurts* in this movie, he aches in a way our bullet-proof, melancholy Prince could never begin to understand. He’s one of Coogler’s kids from the Oakland basketball court in those opening scenes, lashing out at the very fantasy this comic book movie represents. This wonderfully messy film is actually angry at itself.

A magical closing sequence brings Black Panther full circle – a fantastical gasp-inducingly great riff back at that basketball court to rival the end of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. And then the movie has to go on for a while more, because of course this is a Marvel corporate product that’s contractually obligated to tease some follow-up films.

Everyone in my theater groaned at the post-post-credit sequence, when the world’s most boring Avenger woke up in Wakanda. The title card “Black Panther will return in Avengers: Infinity War” sounds more like a threat than a promise. I want to see what the Russo Brothers do with these characters and this world about as much as I want to see the Coogler-free Creed II.

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