Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan & Lupita Nyong’o
Rating: 12A Duration: 134 minutes Release date: 13 February (UK)
You really do have to hand it to Marvel Studios. After 10 years and 18 films they have constructed a universe from nothing. Back in 2008, household names such as Spider-Man and the X-Men were busy marking the end of their trilogies with films that were lacklustre in the very least. Meanwhile DC were riding the crest of a wave with the huge success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Marvel had just got the rights back a variety of heroes, and with Iron Man they were embarking on something bigger than we could all imagine. Despite all the good Marvel have done, the one thing they have failed to produce is a superhero film led by a person of colour. Black Panther arrives with much fanfare after a starring role in Captain America: Civil War and it can’t have come soon enough.
Civil War introduced us to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) whose father was killed after a terrorist attack propelled those events forward. Now, T’Challa is about to be crowned King of Wakanda, a nation that has been kept secret from the outside world in order to protect their riches and their people from external threats. This causes conflict among the tribes of Wakanda as their new King must decide on how best to honour his father’s legacy. Meanwhile Andey Serkis’ Klaue – previously seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron – is out to sell Wakanda’s richest mineral, Vibranium, to the highest bidder. By his side is Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, a former US Black Op who has his own designs on the throne.
After the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Star Lord and Spider-Man have all been given their due on screen, the timing for Black Panther could not have been more apt. Despite these films featuring multiple black actors, their roles have been limited to that of a sidekick or comedic folly. Not so here, Black Panther is imbued in black culture. From the opening narrative on how Wakanda was formed, to the streets of Oakland in 1992, and how or why an African nation deep in money and natural resources should share its wealth & scientific advancements with a world that once sold it to the highest bidder are pertinent points. There are astute political points made and a truly absorbing speech from Boseman’s King on how together they can make the world better. The film is full of interesting narratives and for a film about a guy in a cool, bullet proof suit, it makes them without feeling forced or unwarranted.
What director Ryan Coogler has done well is to give every character a reason to be here. A brief overview of the cast list could make the film look stuffy, but Coogler makes everyone relevant and no one seems undercooked. Putting Boseman and Jordan aside for one moment, Black Panther is literally filled with talented actors. Daniel Kaluuya’s leader of the border tribe and Winston Duke’s warrior & leader of the mountain tribe may well be secondary characters, but their presence in the film is enormous and engage in some of Black Panther’s key moments. Likewise, veteran actors like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are there to impart their wisdom as Queen Ramonda and the tribes elder who are given very substantial roles, with Whitaker’s Zuri carrying a heavy burden throughout the film. The whole film is nearly stolen by the trio of Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright. Gurira’s proud Okoye leads Wakanda’s royal guard and gives the film an interesting dynamic, which allows for some intriguing scenes between herself and Boseman. While Nyong’o’s role could have easily been written off as the love interest, her Nakia is much more than that and the young actress has come on tremendously since her debut five years ago. It’s Wright though, who lights up every scene as T’Challa’s little sister and her role as the tech guru is a real compliment to Boseman’s more mature performance.
Meanwhile Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan have a real sense of rivalry here. Thankfully, Jordan’s Killmonger is more just another version of the good guy, but with evil intentions. Killmonger has seen the world outside of Wakanda and even though it is difficult to side with him, it is not difficult to empathise with him or his actions. Marvel have not been great with their villains for the large part, but Killmonger will surely rank up there with their very best. Similarly, Boseman has the charisma to lead the film and provides a cool head and calm shoulders for the film to rest upon. Bond like in his charm, this superhero does indeed feel more like a globe-trotting spy and Coogler acknowledges that with a spectacular scene that takes place in a South Korean casino.
There are some negatives, however. Despite a strong start, the film does sag in the middle, albeit picking up terrifically well in the final act. The humour seems unbalanced when compared to the rest of the film and some scenes agitate due to either being poorly lit or having to keep track of a guy in a black suit who seems to fight mostly at night. These are niggles though. Because, Black Panther is not just a good superhero film from a studio high on confidence, but it is also a film monumental in its relevance. We’ve waited too long for a film like this, let’s hope it’s not long before we get another.