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Miss Congeniality

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Black Panther is mighty good, but, like Wonder Woman, it’s also an easy target for hype and hyperbole.

Wakandan Soul

T'Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)

It’s a big movie that has interesting stories to tell, both off-camera and on-screen.

Think about it.

Sure, there’s the easy stuff everybody’s talking about — the big-ticket race items. It’s the first big-budget superhero movie in which the cast is almost exclusively black. It’s the first one to be directed by a black director (Ryan Coogler, Creed — the Rocky spinoff). The screenplay? Co-written by two black screenwriters (Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, FX’s American Crime Story).

Their significance is certainly not to be dismissed. But there are other interesting things to note.

The cinematography’s by Rachel Morrison (Coogler’s Fruitvale Station). Even Wonder Woman didn’t have a female cinematographer.

Aside from a few scenes set in Oakland, Calif. (birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966, albeit neither the party nor the comic book character in actuality begat the other), the bulk of the action takes place abroad — in the fictional country of Wakanda and in the very real Busan, South Korea.

And the token white American male is portrayed by a British actor (Martin Freeman, BBC’s Sherlock). To further the irony, U.S. State Dept. agent Everett Ross is, at one point, dissed with the nickname “Colonizer.”

Which leads to the observation the story has a slight apologist bent, kicking dirt at the U.S. even as the characters’ co-creator, Stan Lee, puts in another cutesy cameo.

Poetic Justice

Last summer, Wonder Woman rode a similar buzz. It was groundbreaking for being the first big-budget superhero flick built around a female character (well-played by Gal Gadot) and helmed by a female director (Patty Jenkins). The movie overcame pre-release rumors of reshoots and edits that cast doubt on the film’s likelihood of finding success — not to mention the fact it had to overcome audiences growing wary of anything under the DC shingle, following the less-than-fun experiences Zack Snyder was shoving into cinemas.

Now it’s Black Panther’s turn to break ground — and box office records. It’s a solid effort, although, similarly to Wonder Woman, it suffers from rather rushed CGI work that doesn’t hold up well in the huge IMAX format. And some of the large-scale action scenes — particularly on the battlefields of Wakanda — are a little clumsy. Then again, there are a surprising number of sequences in Black Panther — presented in full-frame IMAX glory — that shine.

As for the on-screen story, it offers plenty of pleasant surprises. Foremost, it starts off as less of another rote superhero adventure and more of a spiffed-up James Bond mission in which the sister of the titular hero, also known as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, 42), also serves as a fresh spin on Bond’s quartermaster, Q. In this case, Shuri (Letitia Wright, Urban Hymn) is equal parts sassy and savvy; Wright lights up every scene she’s in. And Shuri’s tech is hot stuff.

That tech is one of the movie’s thematic hooks. Wakanda, as a nation, has intentionally kept itself off the grid of international affairs — and free of Belgian, British, American, German, Italian, French — any Caucasian — colonists. Wakanda has been content to be seen by the world as nothing more than a third-world country, shrouded in fog (kind of like Themyscira in Wonder Woman). It turns out, though, Wakanda is actually El Dorado, misplaced by adventurers who sought it in South America. Wakanda’s technology is more advanced than anything Apple or Samsung have to offer and its principal (hidden) wealth is found in vibranium, a most precious metal that even serves as the source material for Captain America’s shield.

Get Out of Your Own Way

This all leads to an exciting theme and question: Why is Wakanda still hiding?

On the one hand, there’s an evil force, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Creed), who wants to ramp up Wakanda’s resources and put them to work in a quest for world domination. On the other hand, T’Challa sees the changing times (following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War) and considers the need to put Wakanda on the world stage as a force for good.

Therein lies the real magic of Black Panther.

For one thing, it takes care in establishing the back story of the “bad guy,” Killmonger, and puts his story in the context of abandonment and the expensive toll some decisions and actions take on the lives of the innocent, particularly children.

The story ultimately sets aside the apologist tones and seeks out a new, level playing field that is fully revealed in an end-credits scene that focuses on optimism.

So. Yes. Black Panther is historic for a number of behind-the-scenes reasons. But all the hype behind those headline-grabbing back-stories threaten to overshadow what is — for a lack of a better way to put it — a pretty beautiful storyline crafted by Coogler and Cole.