What is Black Panther?
The latest standalone offering from Marvel, Black Panther tells the story of the catsuited superhero, first introduced as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. After the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa returns to his homeland of Wakanda to accede to the throne — at the same time assuming the role of Black Panther, protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is bestowed with special powers and wears a special suit that gives him additional abilities. Developed by T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech genius, the suit is made with Vibranium, a precious metal that is the source of Wakanda’s power and wealth. When an old enemy returns to pose a threat to Wakanda, T’Challa finds himself thrown in at the deep end as he meets his biggest challenge yet.
Handles Itself Faultlessly
Black Panther is a big deal. Just as Wonder Woman flew the flag for a woman superhero protagonist and became an unmitigated success, so Black Panther aims to put black characters front and center and make an indelible mark in mainstream cinema. And the thing is, it does a significantly better job of fulfilling its promise than Wonder Woman did – and it even makes tidier work of tackling Wonder Woman’s own aspirations, for which Patty Jenkins’ take on the Diana Prince story was widely praised.
Tackling representation of women as well, Black Panther never objectifies or marginalizes its women characters – who all emerge fierce scene-stealers in their own ways. Danai Gurira as head of an all-women warrior unit, the Dora Milaje, Okoye; Lupita Nyongo as a Wakandan spy and fierce humanitarian Nakia; and Letitia Wright as a supremely smart tech wizard, Shuri, all get to kick ass, as well as be funny, important, intelligent and interesting. Oh, and Shuri has the waviest garms in all of Wakanda, incidentally. Talk about squad goals. And that’s not to mention the rest of the sizable female cast.
There’s no question that Black Panther is one of the most important films in Marvel’s roster and, indeed, Hollywood’s. A film of this size and stature dedicated to an almost exclusively black cast of characters is unprecedented – so it’s crucial it stands up to scrutiny. And, ladies and gents, it mos’ def does.
What’s important in a Marvel movie? Well, worldbuilding is one thing. And Creed director Ryan Coogler does a grand job of bringing us imagery we’ve never really seen before to the screen – or at least among the usual places we might look. Black Panther is an Afrofuturist delight – the picture of Wakanda Coogler paints is one of sweeping, unspoiled landscapes full of natural colors, astonishing waterfalls, and the bright colors of tribal-wear. The cityscape he delivers has a feel of familiar metropolises and yet at the same time, it’s otherworldly. But not dystopian like Blade Runner. Yes, lived in. But loved.
Coogler also takes us to the Ancestral Plane, a celestial, ethereal, spiritual place which manifests itself at one point as a heavenly setting with iridescent skies. Wakanda and its culture are just beautiful. Wakandans celebrate life and that’s vibrantly, psychedelically apparent – and despite the fact that the five tribes who live there were once at war, they ultimately found a way to co-exist peacefully together. Essentially, it’s a utopia.
Solving Marvel’s Villain Problem
Villains are also important to a Marvel movie – but it’s something that the studio has struggled to get right time and again. However, in villainous duo Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) they’ve brewed a couple of bad guys that deliver the right balance of dastardly and likeability. And not just because the casting is spot on.
Klaue is deliciously over the top – he looks bad to the bone and relishes wrapping his tongue around that Afrikaans accent. Serkis brings real personality to Klaue – boldly reacting in unexpected ways — whether it be flippantly shooting a security guard in the back of the head after telling him he can go if he doesn’t tell anyone anything, or irreverently singing Haddaway’s “What is Love?” while tied to a chair in an interrogation room.
Killmonger, meanwhile, is a surprisingly heartbreaking character. Fully motivated, he’s well-rounded enough for us to feel his pain, and even empathize with him. His story is actually a tear-jerker – and it’s rounded off beautifully and bravely by Coogler, with a final line that’s like a dagger to the heart. Jordan’s Killmonger is a street-talking urbanite, who arguably gives us more to relate to than the stiff and stuffy T’Challa – although we know from the moment he grabs the girl for a snog in the getaway ambulance that it’s a sign he’s about to get very bad indeed. And his performance is one that steals the film right out from under Chadwick Boseman.
Killmonger also has a great line of jibes that serve Coogler’s political agenda. Notably when he references the white man’s plundering of the African nations. In an early scene in London’s fictitious Museum of Great Britain, he says to the curator of the artifacts he’s eyeballing: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
Later, in his young incarnation, he references the sad truth of inner city life when he says: “Everybody dies. It’s just life around here.” And while we’re on politics, it’s no accident that a couple of key scenes are set in Oakland, California, birthplace of the real-life Black Panther movement.
And Now the Bad Stuff
Action and effects are other important considerations in Marvel movies – and this is where the film lets itself down somewhat. A staggering, kinetic car chase through the streets aside (honestly, it doesn’t let up), action and fight scenes are a bit of a disappointment. It relies heavily on close shots, quick cuts, and shaky cam during hand-to-hand combat while the final battle is uninspired.
As for CGI, those war rhinos leave a lot to be desired – as does the setting for the Black Panthers’ final face off. It should have bested their earlier mano-a-mano scrap, but it didn’t even come close to T’Challa’s fight with a challenger for the crown earlier in the film. These are relatively minor blips in a film that mostly goes above and beyond.
Is Black Panther Good?
Black Panther isn’t just a superhero movie, it’s an espionage thriller with a hard-hitting political agenda that’s cleverly broached. It’s also, on a smaller scale, a family drama in which long-held secrets are brought to the surface. Oh, and let’s not forget it’s comedy – it’s got more than a handful of genuinely funny moments, in true Marvel fashion. It also enjoyably expands Everett Ross‘s (Martin Freeman) character — who has a significant role to play here.
While the final battle leaves a lot to be desired as both Black Panthers go head to head at the same time as the Dora Milaje take on Killmonger’s sympathizers, there’s one car chase that will get your adrenaline pumping. And while war rhinos and the effects during the Black Panther showdown might get your goat, Black Panther certainly offers a lot more than your average superhero fantasy-actioner. Its the 18th film in the MCU franchise, and it’s up there with Marvel’s very best.