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'Black Panther': A Smart Action Smash That Makes History

At last, a Marvel superhero flick that's worth a grownup's time

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 14 minutes

Stars: Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan 

Director: Ryan Coogler

Even if you hate superheroes, Black Panther is a must-see event for grownup viewers — a phenomenon that box office analyst Jeff Bock calls “capable of breaking through all demographics.” Its storytelling tops all 17 previous Marvel movies, replacing the genre’s stale sameness with a fresh Africana infusion, as Coco refreshed animation with Latino culture. Director Ryan Coogler, who only makes game-changing hits (CreedFruitvale Station), is helping Marvel’s hero series threaten Star Wars, which may have peaked with The Last Jedi (whose stars appear on the AARP 2018 Movies for Grownups Awards, Feb. 23 on PBS).

This ripping yarn has important ideas, insanely great production design by Moonlight's Hannah Beachler, a heart, characters with believable motives, a brainy script by American Crime Story’s Joe Robert Cole, and action scenes where you actually know where the fighters are in physical space.

movie still from 'Black Panther', featuring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, and Letitia Wright


Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright try to protect their secret kingdom in "Black Panther."

Besides, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, who’s also starred in Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall biopics) has scads of gizmos that make Iron Man look like a dinky tinker: hover bullet trains, spaceships shaped like African masks, armored rhinos, holograms made of dirt. He’s the new king of Wakanda, apparently a mysteriously never-colonized Third World nowheresville but secretly humanity’s most technologically advanced society, powered by mining vibranium — the same magic metal that makes Captain America’s shield absorb death-ray energy and bounce it back at assailants. Vibranium stealth tech hides Wakanda, which looks like Seoul redesigned by Jetsons who took The Matrix's blue pill, from the world. There’s an Afrocentric Game of Thrones look and vibe in Wakanda’s five tribes, whose royal elections involve prizefights at the edge of waterfalls made spectacular by Rachel Morrison, earth’s first female cinematography Oscar nominee (for Mudbound).

Two villains steal vibranium wizardry: fun, cackling neocolonialist Klaue (Andy Serkis, 53) and glum Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the most interesting villain since The Dark Knight. Killmonger is bitter because a political rival killed his Wakanda prince dad, so he grew up on the mean streets of Oakland, Calif. (Coogler’s hometown). His view, rooted in Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth inspired the real Black Panthers, is that the world’s blacks should unite and fight white power — how can Wakanda hog the tech weapons that might save their people?

This is less silly than, say, Lex Luthor’s bitterness that Superman accidentally made him bald while saving his life. (Actually, in 1940 a freelance cartoonist accidentally drew redhead Lex as a cleanhead, forcing writers to invent a reason.) Killmonger gives Black Panther — who wants world peace, and to keep Wakanda safe by keeping it secret — a worthy counterpart, and something more than power or hair loss to argue about.

movie still from 'Black Panther', featuring Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios/Disney

Angela Bassett plays the mother of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

The big themes and complex backstories are smoothly joined to an innovative action blockbuster — an exhilarating highlight is a Bond-like Korean casino shootout/chase scene. But what anchors it is emotional authenticity, and grownup actors are a key resource. Angela Bassett, 59, has gravitas as Black Panther’s mom, and Forest Whitaker, 56, is his Obi-Wan. South African stage great John Kani, 75, whom Nelson Mandela awarded an honorary doctorate, is deeply moving as Black Panther’s father, giving him courage and advice in dreams (since assassins killed him at the United Nations for being a peacemonger). As a CIA comrade in arms, Martin Freeman, 46, gives his quizzical eyebrows a workout. He and fellow Lord of the Rings star Serkis were referred to on set as "the Tolkien white boys."

Even small roles are played by giants, like Get Out’s best actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther’s right-hand man, and women get way more autonomy than usual: Letitia Wright as Panther’s teenage, Q-like gizmo-maker, Kenya’s first Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o as his fond ex, and The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira as the leader of Wakanda’s female killer elite, aptly called “Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks.” She’s bald on purpose and angrier than Lex Luthor.

In the end, Black Panther is basically a really satisfying thrill ride. But because it’s virtually certain to be the most popular February film ever, it will change Hollywood history. And whoever thought a popcorn movie could be food for thought?