Opening Friday in Bay Area theaters, “Black Panther” — directed by Oakland’s own Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) — is the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Franchise, but it’s also something more.
It’s a superhero movie, but, like last year’s “Logan,” it adds a bracing new level of dramatic heft. In this, the action scenes seem secondary to what the characters are going through, and what’s going on in their world.
It also tackles more complicated questions about what’s good and evil, as opposed to, say, a big bad guy, like an Ultron, trying to take over the world.
Additionally, it can be added to the short list of notable movies directed by African Americans, movies that have had some kind of social or cultural impact.
Apt comparisons include Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), also known as T’Challa, newly crowned king of Wakanda, is amazing, fast and strong and good of heart. But he’s not just a Shaft or a Superfly, beating up bad guys.
He’s all too human, haunted by the death of his father, snatched away just before T’Challa could save him (as seen in “Captain America: Civil War”).
He must also deal with Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole a supply of Wakanda’s valuable, powerful metal vibranium and killed many in his wake.
The vibranium has turned Wakanda into a kind of utopia, way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology and ability to help people. But the country keeps this a secret, and T’Challa chooses to support this decision.
Klaue is now aided by a fellow known as “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), who has plans to infiltrate Wakanda and use the vibranium to start a revolution, arming down-and-out blacks against their oppressors.
The movie’s real conflict lies in the gray area between these two extremes. If one has the power to help others, is one obligated to do so? If so, how much is enough? Will anything be enough? Will power corrupt?
Other characters, such as the royal guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (current Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya), struggle to choose their own side.
Still other characters, T’Challa’s spunky, clever sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and CIA man Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, also from “Captain America: Civil War”) already know which side they’re on.
Yet another conflict is raised within the kingdom, which was divided into five tribes; four of these support the king, but a fifth has chosen exile and freedom over servitude.
Indeed, the motivations of the movie’s supposed bad guys are rooted in actual concern, rather than simple evil.
And, if “Black Panther” does a remarkable job of painting full-blooded portraits of its black characters, just look at how many strong women are represented here. The main character is often shown flanked by powerful, smart women.
The credits also reveal Coogler hired an army of women behind the scenes, including current Oscar nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”).
These may seem like simple things, but in today’s climate, they are bold statements, and small revolutionary acts.
As last year’s “Wonder Woman” inspired a generation of young women, it’s possible that “Black Panther” could do the same for a generation of African-Americans, or perhaps even a generation of people, period. It’s an excellent, proud movie, and it has a lot to be proud of.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Based on characters created by: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Running time: 2 hours 14 minute