Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Micheal B Jordan
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running Time: 134 mins
Synopsis: After the death of his father, T’Challa (Boseman) returns to the secretive African nation of Wakanda to take up the mantle of king and become the super strong Black Panther. A powerful enemy reveals himself threatening the ideals of this closeted society and the newly crowned leader. T’Challa must rally his allies and release the full power of the Black Panther in order to protect his people.
Despite what some stuffy critics (and even myself at times) may say so called ‘important’ films, ones that preach deeper themes and societal issues, are not found within the low budget independent pictures. Yes they may be more complex, more restrained and more artful, but when your film is usually only seen by a small number of film savvy audience members real change is not likely to follow. Take last years Oscar winning Moonlight, a beautiful powerful exploration of race, class and sexuality, but outside of that envelope snafu on the big night few can argue that it resulted in a mainstream cultural milestone. It is in the multiplex movies, those that reach the largest audience possible, that can have the strongest chance of truly informing a mindset change. Last years Wonder Woman is a case in point, a triumph of female empowerment, inspiring a new generation of capable strong women. It cannot be coincidence that the rise of #MeToo came soon afterwards. Black Panther is also one of those films. A movie representing a culture without the need to dumb down or make palatable for any specific member of the crowd.
The fact that this comes from within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is even more impressive. 10 years ago, when Iron Man kicked off this new superhero craze it was hard to see them getting the confidence to deliver a film such as this. One that has nary a shred of studio tested alterations to broaden its appeal. Marvel have come to realise that in order to hit the jackpot you need to do just one thing, make a damn good film, primarily from trusting singular voices. No more is that voice heard than with Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Black Panther. There is an unwavering commitment here to setting, character and theme without the need to over explain its elements, only a clunky exposition heavy opening overwhelms with information. Marvel movies are not known for their political viewpoints, content to use the thinnest of real-world ideologies to build on their fantastical stories (take governmental oversight in Civil War), but right from the beginning writers Coogler and Joe Robert Cole build racial issues into the very fabric of their story.
A flashback sets the tale in California 1992, the economic strife of the coloured population seen but never explicit, as we see two young men prepare for a violent political statement against those who’ve persecuted them. The arrival of T’Chaka, king of Wakanda and current Black Panther, twists your expectations and sets into place events that carry real weight as the film progresses. Flash to present day, and with the events of Civil War just days behind him, T’Challa is returning to the secretive nation to take up the mantle of king. A marvel of technological might and scientific breakthroughs, thanks to their mining of the rare element Vibranium, but one they refuse to share with the world for fear that their peaceful existence will be raked over by profiteering outsiders. However one man disagrees with this closeted ideology, half Wakandan, half African-American Erik Killmonger, who has seen the sufferings his people around the world have faced and believes Wakanda could provide the tools to help them fight back. In terms of story that is pretty much it. Black Panther using this focused powerful throughline to build its characters, its themes and its unique universe.
Design wise the film is rapturously evocative to watch. Costume work is phenomenal, set work is rich with detail and the use of Afro-futurist imagery is immensely enthralling. African culture is buried within this films very soul; dialogue interactions, make-up work and music (the score is tribalistic and operatic) all add up to a mood that captivates. All of this would be for nought if not for the total and utter dedication of its diverse hugely talented cast. Boseman continues to mine deep rivers of fragile nobility as the tormented newbie King, and Micheal B Jordan more than matches him with one of the MCUs best villain turns. A primal emotional performance, one with no grand world conquering ideals just the desire to see justice for his people. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman also show up as the only real white faces but are never used as audience focal points (as films of this nature would’ve used in the past as White America surrogates), rather hyper verbal villain and helpful friend respectively. Both seem to be having huge fun in what amounts to peripheral roles. The only real weak link in the male side is Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, who whilst giving a solid performance, suffers from a script that requires him to turn on his old friend T’Challa with very little motivation.
For all Black Panther’s noble and effective work on cultural diversity, it is even more of a success in its portrayal of women. Each of them are formidable, capable individuals who elevate and support the Panther, he is stronger and wiser in their presence. Letitia Wright is Queen of them all as T’Challa’s sparky spunky sister, adept with a witty putdown as she is with a far fetched gadget. She is Shuri, the resident Q of Wakanda and she breathes added energy into the film whenever she is on screen. Likewise Danai Gurira is a stoic, kick ass delight as T’Challa’s loyal bodyguard Okoye. Flinging her spear around with a graceful brutality, but never shy of a scathing one liner or jovial tease at her stuffy male counterparts. Lupita Nyong’o finishes the triumvirate of females as the Panther’s love interest Nakia, never becoming mere subservient eye candy rather a socially conscious formidable fighter herself. We first meet her attempting to free captured women from a Boko Haram type group (something I never thought I’d see in a Marvel film).
All these deeper world themes, seriousness of purpose and diverse representation is all well and good but Coogler is smart enough to keep the entertainment front and centre. This is a blockbuster Marvel film after all. Although not as jokey as their recent Thor Ragnarok there are still numerous bouts of levity to break the tension. Surprisingly the film doesn’t lean heavily on the far too easy fish out of water comedy they could’ve used once Martin Freeman’s CIA agent arrives in Wakanda. It is just one of many expectation skewers present throughout the film. The only real downside is that the action showcases Coogler’s relative inexperience in the field. Too often shot in darkness and lacking a clear sense of geography, it feels sadly lacklustre. A final act set-piece is multi-faceted and exciting but lacking in any real memorable moments, even with the armoured rhinos. The only exception is an extended sequence in Seoul, a tightly constructed one shot punch up in a casino leading out into the streets that is wildly inventive. Dialogue can also suffer from slight tin-ear, coming off as clunky and on the nose when the subtlety that is displayed elsewhere could’ve been more effective.
Black Panther is by far and away though a huge success. Managing to standalone with a vital muscular intensity and visually sumptuous palate whilst feeling very much a part of the wider Marvel universe (of course there is the token end credit scenes). It is in its total and loving embrace of its culture and the use of myth as a torch lighting up racial prejudice that makes it truly sing. Coogler finding an auteurist focal point amongst the trappings of a larger action film. It is a film that rewards intelligence, remarkably at no point does Coogler show racial abuse explicitly, knowing that his audience in this time of Trump can see for themselves the larger implications. Black Panther vividly brings to life a new exciting part of a universe that continues to evolve and surprise. It is a truly and deeply ‘important’ film!!
Verdict: Black Panther sees Marvel carve out a new visually distinctive part of its expanding universe, steeped in thematic detail, noble representation and a cast of immensely charismatic performers.