After the barnstorming success of Wonder Woman comes another superhero movie that embraces the ethos of ‘we are all human beings, so lets treat each other with equal respect’. For many years, there have been a great many people who have felt less represented by blockbuster cinema and with comic book adaptation Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) does not just acknowledge African culture, he uses it to tell an entertaining story of power, hatred and the need for change.
The film sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) – fresh off his electrifying debut in Captain America: Civil War – learning how to deal with his new responsibilities as the king of Wakanda (a fictional and prosperous African country hidden away from the outside world). However, when a reminder of the past comes calling in the revengeful Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), this secret nation and its new king are thrown into disarray. Despite its billing by some, this is not the first superhero film with an African American lead (the Blade series, Spawn, Steel) but it is the first major blockbuster entry in the genre with a largely African American cast, which makes it culturally and historically significant event all the same.
It is little wonder that a film, which exudes such passion for the mythologies and accoutrements of African culture, has proved to be such a deserving hit with the audience. In Wakanda, the MCU receives its most alive and visually stunning world, with Rachel Morrison’s cinematography being one of the greatest aspects of the film. The design is immaculate and unique and the backdrops are at times breathtaking, as they burst with pride and imagination. Add to this a fantastic score by Ludwig Göransson, which balances tribal tones with blockbusting thrills. No doubt about it, Wakanda itself is the showstealer and the more of it we see, the more we wish to learn about it. There is also a modern beat throughout given by music from Kendrick Lamar that largely works, although there are some moments of jarring transition.
To that end, it is perhaps unsurprising that Coogler’s film is at its best when it is revelling in the richness of its unique setting. For the first three quarters of the film, the plot itself feels rather refreshing and the action (save for a tad too darkly lit early jungle scene) impressively staged (see the casino sequence). Unfortunately, the final act does succumb to the tropes a bit, as it heightens the CGI and thus shows up some of its shortcomings. While mostly excellent, the final fight especially feels a touch dodgy with some video gameish effects being shown up and the subway set piece in question is overall less effective than the earlier (rather gruesome) waterfall clash between the central hero and villain. In this respect the film recalls Iron Man 2, where the earlier fight between Iron Man and Whiplash far outdid the effects heavy confrontation that came later.
Still, despite some missteps, Black Panther’s narrative is less concerned with world building and more with its own vision. Painting a timely picture of a fractured surrounding world, which contrasts with the hidden and unmolested Wakanda, as Black Panther presents a genuinely interesting quandary for its hero. Does T’Challa ultimately protect his people by staying out of the turbulent affairs of the rest of the world or does he take a risk and offer this troubled outside world the technologically advanced gifts that Wakanda has to offer? What is ethically right? It is a very genuine and relevant conflict that gives the title hero his own journey of the soul to take and once again Boseman is terrific and in my humble opinion, I can see him being primed to replace Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark very soon as the head of The Avengers! And indeed he should.
Morals are further complicated by the villain Killmonger who is wisely updated from his comic roots and while not quite as present in earlier parts of the film, his arc of revenge is one that makes sense and his descent into darkness offers him a depth most MCU baddies (aside from Civil War’s Zemo) have lacked and Michael B. Jordan is emotional and ferocious in the part. In fact, the cast assembled here are all on form.
The standout of the supporting cast is undeniably The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira as the loyal warrior Okoye, a part she relishes with her badass gaze and complete toughness (though the film also allows the character moments of doubt and emotion too). Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright also have strong turns as T’Challa’s ex-lover and Wakandan spy Nakia and charismatic young tech genius Shuri respectively.
Amidst this fray of interesting new faces, it is sad that Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, Forest Whitaker’s wise elder Zuri and Martin Freeman – returning as CIA agent Everett K. Ross – feel slighter in the scramble for screen time. More time could also have been given to developing some of the family ties in the supporting cast, as Angela Bassett (playing T’Challa and Shuri’s mother Ramonda) does not get quite as much to do. Still, everyone here is clearly engaged with the material and there is also a gleefully insane turn by Andy Serkis (who goes all Sharlto Copley), back once again as mad villain Ulyssees Klaue.
Overall Black Panther is a real crowdpleaser, that has drive, desire and purpose and its cultural aesthetic gives it a striking appearance matched by its proud and loudly beating heart.