Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is the eighteenth in the MCU and the last before the superhero slobber knocker Avengers: Inifinity War. We take a look at the much anticipated movie, and see how it stands up alongside its predecessors.
Black Panther is a movie that’s been released under a Vibranium level shield of protection against negative criticism. Which is understandable, considering just how anticipated its release has been, especially in the black community, who’ve waited longer than they should have to see a relatable hero in a movie of this magnitude. Sure, people will be quick to remind you of Blade or Hancock. And yes, those movies featured a black hero front and centre, but’s it’s important to remember that those heroes were never portrayed and celebrated on screen or in society to the levels white heroes have been. Blade fought in the shadows without recognition, often in literal sewers, and Hancock was a homeless alcoholic before a random white guy ‘saved’ him and helped him become a hero. Black Panther on the other hand is the god damn king of an African nation. A nation that is flippantly dismissed as a third world country by the West, but is in fact more progressive and technologically advanced than any other on Earth. It’s also a movie that’s cast almost entirely with black actors, and throughout African culture is proudly celebrated. So yeah, Black Panther is immeasurably important.
But does it live up to the hype? Largely, absolutely.
Story wise we pick up with T’Challa following the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which his father was killed in the bombing at the UN summit. T’Challa has returned home to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. But when a powerful enemy suddenly reappears, T’Challa’s mettle as king, and as Black Panther, gets tested as he’s drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people.
Marvel obviously does spectacle brilliantly, there’s no doubt about that. But the most memorable movies in the universe are those in which the heroes have compelling motivations over flashy set pieces. When the choices the characters struggle with not only challenge their perceptions of themselves and their world, but also those of the audience watching, that’s when Marvel is at its best. Iron Man and Captain America: Winter Soldier for example, although about superheroes, make genuine commentaries on and challenge society. Black Panther perfectly fits that mould, it’s not the action and big fights that will stay with you, it’s the motivations of the characters and the internal conflicts they’re battling, as well as what they make you think about our own society.
It’s important to note that it never does this in a preachy way though. Any revelations about race or privilege are never directed overtly at the audience, they’re brought up organically when characters are challenged to question their own morals and beliefs. For example, although Wakanda is thought to be a third world country, historically it’s leaders have been happy to let this belief continue. They’ve been able to eradicate poverty, disease and many other issues through their abundance of Vibranium, and the technological advances it has brought. Why share that with a world that has shown it’s determined to destroy itself? These are the questions that many Wakandans ask themselves, T’Challa included. But over time he begins to release that although he has a duty to his nation, perhaps he has one to the world, too.
In Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa is played steady. Poised and composed. Regal. He is a proud and dignified African Prince, now King, and a lifetime of ritual and impending duty have moulded him. This is absolutely the right tone for the character, but it does mean you won’t find him quipping like Tony Stark. Which might be difficult to accept for some, especially as Black Panther is preceded by Thor: Ragnarok, which was perhaps the most joke heavy Marvel movie to date. What it does mean though, is that the more emotional moments do carry the weight they should, which can’t be said for Ragnarok.
Most of the lighter moments instead come from the ensemble cast, and especially T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Unlike T’Challa, Shuri hasn’t been burdened with the responsibility of spending her entire life being prepared to rule, and is therefore a much more laid back presence. She’s had the freedom to become whatever she wanted, which happens to be a technological genius, whose inventions are at the forefront of Wakanda’s success. Essentially Shuri is the ‘Q’ to Black Panther’s ‘James Bond’. She’s also generally mischievous, and clearly relishes teasing her stoic brother, which is great to watch.
The entire cast is solid, and director Ryan Coogler does a great job of ensuring each character is well fleshed out so you completely understand their motivations throughout. T’Challa’s bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), is patriotic to her core, and will defend her nation and her King over everything and everyone else, even her lover W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), a Wakandan general with his own ideas of how the nation should use its impressive resources. T’Challa’s love interest is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a fearlessly independent Wakandan spy, whose many missions outside of her homeland have shown her how much help Wakanda could offer the rest of the world. Then there’s also Hollywood veterans, Angela Bassett who plays T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, and Forest Whitaker, as shaman figure, Zuri. Also returning are Martin Freeman as CIA Agent Everett Ross, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. That right there, is a damn fine collection of talent.
Marvel may have also finally found its best villain since Loki in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Like the best movies being the ones that challenge your own morals and beliefs, the best villains are the ones that can make you see their point of view. This is definitely the case with Killmonger. Although he’s undoubtedly a bad dude, you can completely understand why he thinks the way he does and what he’s fighting for. He’s a twisted guy, full of hate for T’Challa and the way his family have ruled Wakanda, but if you put yourself in his shoes you can understand how his experiences set him on that path. Jordan plays Killmonger with the perfect amount of pain, angst and determination, and his physically intimidating presence means he’s a completely believable threat to T’Challa.
Visually, Black Panther is a stunning movie. African culture is proudly on show throughout, and the colours and landscapes of Wakanda are beautiful. Many of the action scenes don’t quite hit the mark though, which is surprising as Coogler directed some of the best action in recent years in Creed. Civil War did an amazing job of introducing Black Panther as a physical force of nature, and he never reaches the same heights here, which feels like a really disappointing step back for the character’s stand-alone movie. There’s also some CGI that frankly looks unfinished, which for the eighteenth movie in the Marvel universe is almost inexcusable. There are moments that look so obviously fake that you can’t help but be taken out the scene, which is a real shame as it’s something that’s completely avoidable.
Ultimately though, what will stay with you are the excellent performances and memorable characters on show. Each has a journey that challenges them to question their own morals and beliefs, and in turn you will likely question your own. When you consider that you’re watching a Marvel movie about a hero who fights in an indestructible suit of armour, hidden in a tribal necklace, that’s a seriously impressive achievement. That the hero is also the proud African king of the most advanced nation on Earth, well that’s pretty special indeed. Wakanda forever. Long live the King!