Black Panther – Review
We’re welcomed to mysterious homeland of the Black Panther, where they’ve managed to get the trains to run on time, made Rhinos more awesome than they already are, and introduced us to a retina-blinding array of coloured clothing. Oh…they also have a King who like to ride cars whilst dressed up in a bulletproof panther suit created from alien metal. Wakanda is making itself known to the world and we better be ready for it.
Marvel’s Studios domination of the world of cinema showed no sign of letting up with the release of its 18th feature film, Black Panther. It’s probably not an understatement to suggest that this film may have been, on paper, the riskiest film that they have undertaken since the first Avengers movie. There was always a worry that Marvel would play it safe in the run up to the first Avengers: Infinity War film later this year and curb the Afrocentric nature of the Black Panther character in favour of a generic origin story filler. Not a chance…WAKANDA FOREVER!
Where Marvel have decidedly taken risks in this, and their last film Thor: Ragnarok, has been in their choice of director. This is only Ryan Coogler’s third film as a director, and at 31 he’s considerably younger than the sprightly Taika Waititi. In Black Panther he’s brought together a fantastic mix of collaborators to tell a story that fits comfortably within the superhero cannon, whilst still being able to offer a fresh perspective. I notably emphasise collaboration in this film for one element that immediately strikes you when watching it. The colour and vibrancy within every shot is breath taking at times. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Production Designer Hannah Beachler, and Cinematographer Rachel Morrison must take credit along with Coogler for creating a Wakanda that is stunning to look at but also believably African even amongst its technological and comic book requirements. A similar appreciation must also go to composer Ludwig Göransson and Kendrick Lamar whose soundtrack is superbly matched to the film’s aesthetic, and doesn’t beat you over the head whilst doing so.
The story follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the titular Black Panther, returning home to Wakanda to assume his role as King following the death of his father, seen in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda, thought of by outsiders as a third world country of farmers, is shown to be a secret technologically advanced society that has cultivated this facade to protect themselves from the rest of the world. The alien metal vibranium is mined by the Wakandans and used to create the trains, vehicles, weapons, and clothing unlike anything seen around the world.
Marvel films can often struggle to introduce new locations or characters within the restricted timeframe of a feature film. The first Thor film and Doctor Strange often feel light and underdeveloped due to their overwhelming need to introduce the powers, back story, where they are from, and how they fit into the Marvel world, often to the detriment of storytelling. Black Panther is somewhat free of this criticism as we had already been introduced to a somewhat fully formed character, which says a lot about how well he was introduced in Civil War. Chadwick Boseman continues his excellent portrayal of the quietly dignified T’Challa and is even allowed a few moments to relax, most notably through moments with his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), Royal Guard Okoye (Danai Gurira), and ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
With the Black Panther already being established and accepted within the Marvel world, Coogler is free to concentrate on filling out these other roles. He does this with great relish and imbues these three women with qualities that make them interesting in their own right. Shuri is T’Challa’s Q to his 007, creating his vibranium laced suit, gadgets, and she appears to be the equal of Tony Stark in the intelligence stakes. Nakia is somewhat unfairly labelled the love interest, even within this review, but she is still given moments to show her ability as a warrior with the nous to take charge in T’Challa’s absence.
However, it is Danai Gurira’s Okoye who almost steals the show as the head of the Royal Guards charged with protecting whoever is King of Wakanda. These Royal Guards are formidable shaven headed women warriors, or “Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks” who show that they are not to be messed with. Okoye, much like Grace Jones’ May Day from A View to a Kill, is formidable and given some excellent opportunities to display her prowess throughout the film.
The attempt to capture vibranium stealing terrorist Ulysses Klaue – played by a clearly enjoying himself immensely Andy Serkis – from a South Korea visually echoes the casino scene from the Skyfall film where Bond has to take out a handful of hired goons. Here, it’s Okoye’s ingenuity and fight craft, especially in the moment she dispenses with the annoying wig she’s been wearing as disguise, that leaves you impressed as she dishes out some punishment on the heavies and their ‘primitive’ guns. She is physically formidable in all aspects of the role, but also noble in the moments where she is seen to be guiding the young King in his initial ascension.
It falls to Michael B Jordan’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens to throw a spanner into T’Challa’s reign as he arrives in Wakanda with a claim to the throne and desire for revenge that cannot be sated. Killmonger is that rare thing in a modern Marvel film; a villain who has complexity and, in some ways, a point. Some villains in past Marvel films have been so vanilla and one-dimensionally frustrating, especially to fans who follow the comic books (remember them), so it’s good to get one here who makes the audience question their allegiances. Michael B Jordan’s charisma makes Killmonger’s, potentially divisive, American cocksure bravado intriguing, especially in comparison with Boseman’s reserved T’Challa, and his anger at the hidden nature of Wakanda feels like a question that would be asked given the injustices imposed upon African cultures globally. Killmonger’s upbringing, aggression and anger drives the film towards his inevitable confrontation with Black Panther but it is the reasoning behind his actions that appears to resonate so strongly with audiences. The strength of these reasons is so prevalent throughout the film that it ultimately is felt by T’Challa himself.
Much has been made of the fact that this is the first predominantly black superhero film. This should be rightly applauded and here’s hoping that this is a step along the way to not having to express surprise at this fact. When you look at the acting talent in the main and supporting roles (Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Daniel Kaluuya) you can’t help but feel that this new mini-franchise is in the right hands.
This excellent cast is the icing upon an already very good cake that is established by Black Panther’s fully embracing of the vibrant African culture. Not since the Guardians of the Galaxy has there been a Marvel film that has felt as fresh as this. The fact that three quarters of this film take place in Wakanda is important. We get to see the differences in the five tribes that make up Wakanda, the rituals that take place (including one that takes place within an impressive waterfall) and there is little or no mention of any other superheroes. There are some drawbacks to this focus on Wakanda. Some of the city sets feel a little small in comparison to what has been seen in other scenes in the film, and there is the usual struggle of producing CGI to the necessary standards needed to envisage the technological advancements believably.
These should be recognised as the small flaws that they are, and don’t take away from what is a welcome addition to the Marvel cannon. I mentioned a worry at the start of this review that this would potentially feel like a warm-up or aperitif for the main Avengers: Infinity War film coming out in a couple of months’ time. The trailer from this film clearly indicates that Wakanda will have an important role to play in thwarting the actions of the all-powerful Thanos.
Whilst watching Black Panther I couldn’t help but be energised by new feelings of anticipation for the upcoming Avengers film, but also found myself wondering about the unlimited potential for inevitable sequel that’s bound to come given this films success. WAKANDA FOREVER…indeed.
So…does it make it on to The Rotation?
Hell, yeah! It’s a cool modern take on a new superhero world and I look forward to adding it to already established Marvel Studios list that’s become a significant part of The Rotation. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Wakanda and I’ll keep going back for a taste with this film.