Glorious 'Black Panther' is a Marvel blockbuster with teeth

Review: Marvel creates a dazzling fusion of high-tech superheroics and gloriously unapologetic blackness.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Marvel Studios

One of the powers of Black Panther, Marvel's latest big-screen superhero, is his suit's ability to soak up the punishment from any attack -- and then fire it right back at the attacker. 

That's a nifty metaphor for this absolute riot of a superhero movie: a righteous riposte to centuries of oppression, absorbed and answered with a glorious, joyous celebration of blackness.

" Black Panther " continues  Marvel's  run of eye-popping and surprisingly emotional superhero spectaculars, brimming with awesome action in a setting as richly imagined as any in Marvel's history and peopled by characters who are a blast to spend time with. It's easily one of the strongest debut solo adventures for a Marvel character, if not one of the strongest films in the 10 years of the Marvel cinematic universe.

And with actor Michael B. Jordan playing baddie Erik Killmonger, it's got, for my money, the MCU's most compelling villain yet.

Black Panther is the guardian of Wakanda, an African El Dorado concealing mind-bogglingly advanced technology behind the illusion of a poor Third World nation. Passing through the force field that surrounds Wakanda, our hero breathes, "I love this part", and it's not hard to see why. 

In Wakanda, we're introduced to a new Marvel realm even more vibrant and detailed than the likes of Asgard and Sakaar. The clothes, the hair, the sets -- they're a feast for the eyes. From a towering waterfall arena to a high-tech lab covered with traditional murals, from armoured animals to gizmos concealed in beads and necklaces, Wakanda is a sublime visual fusion of fun futuristic tech and eye-catching African culture.

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Black Panther is feline fine as he makes his way into the Marvel cinematic universe.

Marvel Studios

Utilising this tech, Wakanda's king traditionally wears the mantle of the Black Panther. The latest in this line is T'Challa -- until he's challenged by a conspiracy involving a vicious arms dealer and a ruthless mercenary with a special interest in Wakanda's secrets.

Played by a quietly assured Chadwick Boseman, T'Challa is quite an easygoing king. It's refreshing to see a young monarch on whom the crown doesn't rest too heavily, but the script still tries to slip in the occasional "I'm not ready" speech, despite the fact that they don't ring true to the rest of Boseman's performance. He certainly has his badass superhero moments and his soulful emotional confrontations, but it's a relatively low-key rendition of a troubled king.

Watch this: The best (and worst) things about Marvel's 'Black Panther' (CNET Top 5)

T'Challa is surrounded by an entertaining court of lively characters. From gruff bodyguard Danai Gurira and earnest spy Lupita Nyong'o to hilarious tribal leader Winston Duke, everyone in the extended cast seems to get dramatic and comedic and badass moments. It's hard to tell if a lifeless Martin Freeman is let down by the script or just doesn't know why he's there, but Andy Serkis seems to be having the demented time of his life. And mischievous Wakandan princess Letitia Wright is effervescent doling out Black Panther's gadgets like a hipper version of James Bond's armourer -- Q meets Q Tip, if you like.

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Black Panther

Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright have claws for celebration.

Marvel Studios

One downside of the engaging and entertaining supporting cast is that Black Panther himself fades into the background at times. Boseman's understated performance is particularly eclipsed by the intensity just radiating off Michael B. Jordan. Jordan gives an incandescent turn as main bad guy Killmonger, a son of Africa burning with the fury of an African sun. Marvel has a history of forgettable villains, even when played by seriously weighty actors, but Jordan sears the screen with a combination of raging bitterness, muscular physicality and vitriolic wit.

Like all the best villains, the zealous Killmonger thinks he's the hero. A furious and furiously self-centred demagogue who upends the accepted order, he forces the people of Wakanda to decide whether they follow the nation, or the ideals on which the nation is meant to be founded.

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Michael B. Jordan burns up the screen in "Black Panther".

Marvel Studios

He also kinda has a point: Wakanda's advanced technology could help the oppressed peoples of the world. Beneath the superheroics and the music and jokes, there's an undercurrent of anger in "Black Panther": It's a celebration of black identity from a basketball court in California to an African throne, but it also bitingly alludes to centuries of foreign meddling, violence and slavery. 

Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler doesn't shy away from weighty themes in his flamboyant superhero extravaganza, but the subtext never overpowers the story. In fact it's when emotion is prioritised over action that "Black Panther" is at its best.

Which isn't to say the bit where Black Panther surfs on a car then punches through an SUV isn't cool. But for all the dizzyingly shot battles, the highlight of the action set pieces is a bludgeoning confrontation when the combatants cast off their superpowers (and their shirts).

If there's a weak link in "Black Panther", it's the source of the Wakandan hero's powers. 

Vibranium is the hardest metal on Marvel's Earth, so it's great for making shields and weapons and lofty skyscrapers. That's a no-brainer. Vibranium also allowed the Wakandans to develop advanced technology like hover-trains and hologram systems. Sure, why not? And it's absorbed into the country's flora and imbues superpowers. Huh? OK, this is a comic book movie; you can have that I guess. And it's facilitated medical advances that can basically heal anything. Wait, what? I buy the idea of keeping advanced weapons secret, but how can anybody justify keeping that from the world?

Watch this: Chadwick Boseman loves a good challenge

Vibranium is so advanced that a theme of the film is knowing when to dial back on the technology. Sometimes that means characters turning to tradition and spirituality, and sometimes it means literally ditching the cutting-edge visual effects for real acting. In today's computer-graphics-enhanced movie landscape, it's so, so cool to see a movie turn off the CG for the big showdowns. If you're sick of boring, weightless CG baddies in films like "Wonder Woman" and "Justice League", this is the movie for you. There's a bruising realness to the conflict, both emotionally and physically.

And there's no CGI required when your characters look this good with their shirts off.

A triumphantly fresh vision for Marvel superheroics, "Black Panther" claws its way into theatres from 12 February in the UK and 16 February in the US.

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