Black Panther (Cert 12A)
US (2018) Dir. Ryan Coogler
One noted surprise for Marvel fans when Captain America: Civil War hit the screens in 2016 was the appearance of Black Panther, a hitherto overlooked member of the Marvel universe, among the line-up of familiar faces. With Hollywood embroiled in a diversity scandal, this was a welcome development, so the next logical step was to give Black Panther his own film so less clued in fans (hello) can find out what he is all about.
And here we are. But not only do black audiences now have a superhero to look up to but another ceiling has been broken within the comic book movie diegesis with the cast being predominantly black and proud!
A brief animated history of the Black Panther legend opens the film, explaining how a meteor hit Africa containing the powerful metal called Vibranium that suffused itself into the land. By utilising this, the hi-tech country of Wakanda was created, where humans who imbibe the Heart Shaped Herb gain the power of the Black Panther with each reigning King adopting this persona to protect the country.
Set after the events of Civil War, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the current Black Panther, returns to Wakanda to assume the throne after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). At the same time, South African black marketer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few people aware of the existence of Wakanda’s Vibranium supply, steals a Wakandan artefact which he plans to sell in South Korea.
However one Klaue’s team, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) possesses an extraordinary knowledge of Wakandan history for an American guy, but soon reveals his true colours and his affinity with Wakanda, threatening to ruin the harmony in Wakanda and start a possible war against the west.
Forgive the glibness of this synopsis but the plot is multi-tiered and going into precise detail would mean recapping the entire film as well as spoiling many of the twists and key revelations. It is not so much that the storyline is particularly sinuous or holding back on the audience but director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have essentially crammed a whole series of connected adventures into its 135-minute run time.
Black Panther is part origin story without really being one for the character itself, instead spending the time establishing the world of Wakanda and its culture. A sort of Blade Runner meets Middle Earth with a distinct ethnic foundation, Wakanda is a vast modern looking metropolis in a jungle setting, with futuristic buildings that scrape the sky and UFO shaped vehicles fly overhead.
Yet Wakanda is declared internationally as a Third World country, hidden behind an invisible shield to propagate this myth and protect the Vibranium that has helped them prosper. But this refusal to share it with the world despite promoting peace and altruism towards all humans is consider hypocritical by Klaue, hence his mission to expose them to the world by stealing and selling off Vibranium made weapons.
This gives Stan Lee’s perennial moral of “With great power comes great responsibility” a unique twist as T’Challa wants to achieve universal unity and support for all yet his first loyalty is always to his country. But when propositioned with the idea of sharing Vibranium to help black people around the world who are less well off than them, the fear of exposing Wakanda in the process provides a dilemma.
Our hero doesn’t work alone, boasting a cadre of solid support from three feisty black females, destroying two outdated comic book tropes in one go. T’Challa’s hip, younger sister Suri (Letitia Wright) is a tech genius, basically Q to T’Challa’s Bond; Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the formidable, highly quotable, spear wielding warrior; and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) also happens to be T’Challa’s ex.
Because of the infusion of African culture into the world building and mythos of Wakanda the film truly carves out its own niche, and aside from the return of US agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), it is a self-contained saga with little to connect it to the rest of the Marvel universe (although the second of two post credit scenes addresses this). In that respect, this stands as a breath of fresh air against the established MCU formula of the character crossover.
However, this only goes so far – there are two areas where Coogler slips into the same comfortable slippers as his MCU predecessors. The first is in not defining the villains as deeply as they could be, giving them flimsy or under developed foundations for their dastardly ways; the second is the climactic battle which again, is a tornado of visual marvels and kinetic action but the same bombastic overkill we’ve seen before.
Chadwick Boseman offers a solid turn since T’Challa is such a noble and quietly spoken hero as opposed to his quick witted, bravado fuelled counterparts, but grows in intensity as the film progresses. Andy Serkis, in his own skin for once, hams it up as the maniacal Klaue whilst Martin Freeman is, well, Martin Freeman. But it is the three women who steal the show, in terms of presence, character and sheer bad-assary, sure to inspire girls everywhere.
The presentation is everything you’d expect from an MCU film, filled to the brim with CGI effects, green screen landscapes and high-octane thrills, complete with physics defying manoeuvres and vehicular destruction. Coogler keeps thing moving throughout and doesn’t forget to include some humour in his script, but the feeling that too many plot threads were introduced remains a nagging one by the end.
What Black Panther ultimately achieves is proving that there is room for fresh ideas within an over-cluttered genre if you know where to look for them and believe in them. The progressive step forward in terms of diversity is less a gimmick and more a reality, enriching a tired formula with new flavours and textures.
A good start for this particular franchise if nothing else.
Rating – ****
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