Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
About half way through phase-three and 18 films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally gets its first solo hero film without a straight white guy as its central focus. Sorry War Machine, you may have been there since the beginning (with a few changes along the way), but Black Panther beats you to it.
With the death of his father (in Captain America: Civil War), prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must return to the African nation of Wakanda to assume the role of king, as well as maintain the role of their nigh mythical protector, the Black Panther. Although viewed by the rest of the world as a third world country, Wakanda is secretly an advanced technological super-power, thanks to an abundance of the rare element Vibranium. Maintaining that secrecy, and the safety that isolationist approach has afforded his country, is just one of the challenges that the new “would-be” king must face, as he begins the transition of power. However the return of an old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), could endanger that transition. Especially as Klaue’s off-sider, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has his own plans for Wakanda.
Black Panther is the most dynastic of the Marvel films, being almost Shakespearean in its approach. Which is odd, considering we’ve actually seen Norse gods squabbling over a golden throne directed by a renowned Thespian, but there we go. Black Panther tackles the issue with a much more serious intent, building the epic mythology of the fictitious African country of Wakanda, and ramping up the stakes involved. It’s less a traditional origin story or call to adventure, than a tale of working out what you stand for, and becoming worthy of it.
It’s not merely who sits on the throne, and the lives of their loved ones that is at stake here, but beyond the personal there are issues of national identity and the engagement with the world. Black Panther doesn’t shy away from the political issues, but instead tackles them head on. Should an advanced country merely engage in isolationism, or should it engage with the rest of the world? If it does engage, then should it push Imperialism, using its might to assert its agenda (no matter how altruistic those aims seem), or does it exercise “soft power”? As such Black Panther touches on the history of colonialism, both in the distant past, as well as its manifestations in modern history. It even inverts that, putting the First World on the receiving end of possible subjugation from a more technically advanced society. Just one of a few inverted racial tropes that the film accomplishes (Martin Freeman as the “token white guy” is probably the most obvious). All of which is mighty heady stuff for a superhero film, that should (and does) lead up to two guys in costumes, beating the snot out of each other in an appropriately climactic battle.
Black Panther also manages to solve a significant issue with the MCU, that of the villain being the weakest aspect of the film. Both Jordan and Serkis address this… especially Jordan. Where Serkis’ Klaue is a grotesque thug, played for laughs by a great actor, Jordan’s Killmonger is a rich and complex character. There is no doubt Killmonger is a bad guy, after all you don’t earn the name Killmonger from your CIA wet-work team for handing out kittens, but he also presents a legitimate alternative point of view. His methodology might be deplorable, his motivations may be questionable, but his cause could actually be looked upon as ultimately just. All this (plus a tragic origin story) gives Jordan a lot to work with, and he executes it perfectly, with a touch of swagger to boot.
Which places him in good company. From Boseman’s contained T’Challa, to Angella Bassett’s imperious Queen mother, to Danai Gurira’s hard as steel general of the royal guard (the Dora Milaje), there’s some staggeringly good performances here.
Then there is the vision of Afrofuturism that Black Panther brings to the screen. Although far from the first time we’ve seen this genre at cinemas (Space is the Place, 1974), it’s still relatively unexplored, and certainly never with this amount of budget. As such the look of Black Panther is revolutionary, blending the science fiction aesthetics with African culture. The result is a visual treat, imaginatively brought to life by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station).
The downside is that, as is so often the case, all this world-building comes at the cost of pacing. There’s a lot to set up in Black Panther, from the history and politics of Wakanda, to the personal stakes involved. Without the light comedic touches of say Thor: Ragnarok, this film, on occasions, drags a little as it deals with its weightier subject mater. Once it is up to speed, and all the pieces are in place, Black Panther certainly delivers on the excitement and action, but it takes a little patience to get there.
The result is certainly one of the top-tier Marvel films, delivering a spectacle which we’ve never seen before, as well as a much needed step for a more diverse representation of superheroes on the big screen. Wakanda forever!