When Disney acquired Marvel at the end of 2009, it also gained a bit of a marketing puzzle. To which audience should it target its Marvel label films? Disney’s traditional market of families with children? Or, adult fans in their 20s and older?
Since Marvel adventures automatically come with action violence included, this could be a tricky dance. How much violence to include and for how long? “Black Panther” (rated PG-13 by the MPAA for prolonged action violence) is an example of the way in which Disney is hoping to appeal to both target groups, yet is ultimately going for adult fans via the level of on-screen violence and some language.
The trailers before “Black Panther” (at least those shown by the AMC theater chain), clearly reflect that reality. Ads for R-rated “Red Sparrow” featuring prostitution, murder and attempted rape and the not-yet-rated “Mission: Impossible- Fallout” with torture scenes are paired with Disney’s upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” (PG) based on the kids’ Newbery award-winning novel and “Rampage” (not-yet-rated) starring family favorite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with a lovable, volatile gorilla as his ally.
“Black Panther’s” plot (by director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole) is dominated by a procession of fight scenes, its hero’s life endangered at every turn with few breaks for him, or the audience, to take a breath. Despite this, “Black Panther” does have some real strengths. The story begins as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, no stranger to playing real-life heroes having starred in “42” and last year’s “Marshall”) is named the heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda. This fictional African nation possesses a rare ore, vibranium, which has great power.
The Wakandans have kept their possession of vibranium a secret from the rest of the world, using its powers to hide their kingdom and to create technologically advanced machinery including highly sophisticated aircraft. At the same time, they have retained pride in their African heritage. They have also sent secret agents throughout the world to fight injustice. These agents are identifiable by a glowing tattoo inside their lower lip.
Before the coronation, T’Challa goes with his loyal guard, Okoye (Danai Gurina of TV’s “The Walking Dead”), in search of his ex-girlfriend turned secret agent, Nakia (the consistently impressive Lupita Nyong’o). He hopes that Nakia will attend his crowning. T’Challa, as the Black Panther, helps her free kidnapped Nigerian women. This is an effective present day reference to the real-life hundreds of Nigerian girls taken prisoner by Boko Haram terrorists. If only freeing them was this easy and successful.
Back in Wakanda, T’Challa’s ascension to the throne is challenged by M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the Jabari tribe. M’Baku and T’Challa must enter into a fight to the death. While both men are top fighters, T’Challa also possesses wisdom and compassion. Those traits lead to an outcome that will prove fortuitous later on.
In the meantime, South African arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis reprising a role he introduced in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) has arranged the theft of an African ax on display at a London museum. This ruthless criminal doesn’t flinch at murder. He wants the vibranium ax head because he plans to sell it to the CIA.
Klaue is a wanted man in Wakanda, having killed multiple citizens including the parents of T’Challa’s best friend, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). T’Challa’s father had tried in vain to bring Klaue to justice. Now T’Challa takes up that challenge with some unexpected consequences. In his quest, T’Challa will be joined by Okoye and Nakia, plus his technological genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright in a role similar to Q from the James Bond series), and CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman- will the Marvel films eventually pair him with his co-star from TV’s “Sherlock,” Benedict Cumberbatch who portrays the label’s Dr. Strange?)
“Black Panther” excels in what it borrows from African culture. Visually it is engaging and impressive. Neither director/co-writer Coogler nor production designer Hannah Beachler had visited the African continent before teaming for “Black Panther.” The colors, patterns, and landscapes they saw on their travels resonate throughout the film. Wakanda’s capital city is modern yet features design elements from traditional African landmarks and housing. Beachler’s sets range from the complexity of Shuri’s technological lab to the Jabari throne room dominated by stone and suspended wood.
Costume designer Ruth Carter features a multiplicity of styles in her designs for the various Wakandan tribes. The coronation scene at Warrior Falls especially celebrates the beautiful diversity of traditional African clothing styles and patterns.
Likewise, director Coogler has brought to the screen multiple African heroes and heroines. Boseman’s T’Challa is both an action hero and a thoughtful, judicious ruler. As his little sister Shuri, Wright makes being a “tech geek” look ultra-cool. Her character is quite the STEM for girls spokesperson, despite being introduced jokingly flipping off her brother in a very un-Disney move.
Both Nyong’o and Gurina portray fierce and beautiful warriors, unafraid to defend what they value. And Freeman’s Ross is a willing and loyal ally as long as he’s told the truth.
In addition, the cast is further strengthened by the presence of Angela Bassett, regal as Wakandan Queen Mother Ramonda, and Forest Whitaker as spiritual leader Zuri. Also making a cameo is Marvel founder Stan Lee.
The script’s villains are not as successfully individualized. As written, Klaue and accomplice Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) are a perfect example of “birds of a feather flocking together.” They are both violent and have no respect for any human life other than their own. In addition to being cold-blooded, they both possess belligerent attitudes. And, they both feel anger toward Wakanda. The main things distinguishing them are skin color and nationality.
In addition to the seemingly obligatory Disneyland reference, “Black Panther” has a post-credits scene for Marvel fans. But, the real reason to stick around for the credits is the beautifully rendered digital cast visuals accompanying the film’s inspiring soundtrack, coordinated by hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar.