Black Panther (2018)

Chadwick Boseman is the legendary Black Panther in Marvel’s solid comic book outing

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka/Erik Kilmonger Stevens), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), John Kani (T’Chaka)

Marvel’s comic book world is now so stuffed with characters, worlds and dimensions that it is remarkable how many of its heroes are white and male. Black Panther does something completely different, giving us a set of African heroes and placing the common framework of a Marvel film within a very proud, and distinct, African heritage. So you can pretty much guarantee you ain’t seen a comic book film quite like this one.

After the death of his father (in Captain America: Civil War), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of the secretive nation of Wakanda. Camouflaging itself as a poor and unadvanced nation in order to avoid interaction with the rest of the world, Wakanda has in fact for centuries been mining a remarkable metal, vibranium, that has helped the nation become hugely technologically advanced. Its king also bears the responsibility of being the “Black Panther”, ingesting a vibranium-infused herb to gain superhuman speed and strength. However, others have their eye on the throne, not least Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who wants to turn Wakanda into a force that could protect the black people of the world from their historical oppressors and avenge centuries of slavery.

Black Panther never fails to be entertaining. The film is shot with a genuinely vibrant excitement, and I love the way it proudly embraces a comic book twist on African tribal heritage. In fact the film’s depiction of an African nation which is secretly the most powerful and advanced nation in the world is really quite an impressive political statement.

Ryan Coogler directs the film with flashy brilliance and comes up with a few ways of presenting what are (essentially) action sequences we’ve seen many times before in unique new ways. The stand-out is an early action scene in a Korean bar, filmed to appear as an immersive single take around a large set, the camera dipping and zooming from character to character. Coogler also brings a fair amount of visual wit to the fights while not losing the emotional and character depth the story is aiming for.

The film also has some fine performances, with Boseman dripping dignity, nobility and decency as T’Challa. Regular Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan gives a great contrast as bitter LA slums kid turned misguided would-be dictator Kilmonger. Danai Gurira stands out as proud general Okoye, torn between duty and personal loyalties. Hell even Forest Whitaker – clearly loving every moment of this OTT Marvel world – gets some weight and dignity out of his typical grandstanding style.

It’s another mark for the film that the world of Wakanda is so effectively gender neutral. Kings of Wakanda have a Praetorian Guard of female warriors, most of the leading voices on its council are women, and its technical genius is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright in a charming, star-making performance). Sure it doesn’t feel like the role of Black Panther himself is up for grabs for anyone lacking a penis, but this is a world where women are equal, if not leading, partners in the action.

The film also addresses issues of post-colonial struggle, not least attitudes towards slavery and oppression handed out to Africa over centuries. Kilmonger’s fiendish plot is, in many ways, actually quite sympathetic – he wants to use Wakanda’s resources to protect those of African descent across the world. Jordan gets some good moments from his speeches laced with anger at the historical treatment of Afro-Caribbeans and, to be honest, it’s hard not to see his point. So hard in fact that the film has to drop hints that Kilmonger is a potential tyrant to stop him from seeing too reasonable. 

This is where the film’s plot starts to get slightly hazy. The character arc of T’Challa himself is pretty unclear. Traditionally in these films, the character must embrace his destiny. Problem is, a lot of this arc was covered in Captain America: Civil War. The writers are unable to give him a truly compelling replacement arc here. T’Challa drops a few references early on to not feeling ready – but basically swiftly embraces it. He never outlines a real alternative agenda to Kilmonger – there are characters in the film who argue “Wakanda doesn’t get involved in the world”, but he isn’t one of them, so there is no journey towards engagement with the outside world (on far more humanitarian terms than Kilmonger advocates). 

Frankly, Okoye is given a better character arc than T’Challa, beginning by advocating “we must serve the throne and respect our traditions even if we doubt them”, and learning later to follow her own conscience. T’Challa, in contrast, is no discernibly different at the end of the film to how he was at the beginning. 

T’Challa’s journey is basically getting something, losing it and then getting it back. Strip away Boseman’s performance and the character is basically pretty dull. He partly suffers, as does the rest of the film, from an overstuffed cast spreading the focus of the film far too thinly and leading to character arcs and interconnections feeling rushed. Kilmonger’s connection with T’Challa is forced – they only know each other for at best two days! – and there is a superfluity of villains. There’s not only decoy antagonist Klaue (and his gang) hanging about for a good chunk of the film, but also Daniel Kaluuya’s ill-defined best friend turned opponent, W’Kabi. Combining Kilmonger and W’Kabi would have helped no end, allowing two different, divergent agendas to develop and cause a relationship rift between two friends (Kaluuya is instead totally wasted in a nothing part, whose allegiances change depending on the demands of the plot). 

The good guys fare no better: Lupita Nyong’o is completely wasted as a love interest who feels stuffed into the movie because, y’know, these films gotta have one. She does nothing in the film that could not be easily done by another character, and nearly all of T’Challa’s emotional scenes – and personal motivation – are tied into his sister rather than this are-they-aren’t-they-a-couple. 

It’s all part of the traditionalism that underlies the film. Its structure is familiar and, like many Marvel origin films, the villain is a dark reflection of the hero with similar skills. The final battle is traditional and a little dull (and feels very similar to Avengers: Infinity War). The film avoids showing T’Challa torn between isolation and intervention – he in fact advocates both in the first 15 minutes – and doesn’t really make much of the prospect of a hero changing his mind or developing his views to embrace a wider world.

But it stands out because it is different. And it deserves no end of praise for making such a film so full of love and respect for its heritage. It walks a very difficult line between enjoying the bright exotic colours while not making the film patronising or overly “other-worldly”. How many other Hollywood films have, at best, two white characters (well played in both cases by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis)? How many others would dare have the villain make a defiant, sizzling and emotionally inspirational speech about racial oppression and the hypocrisy of the West (though the film goes easy on America, with the speech taking place at the hilarious “Museum of Great Britain”. Where is this place – please get my tickets!).

That it slightly dodges and fudges the implication of these themes in its plotting and the conception of its hero – who is basically a dull character played by a charismatic actor – doesn’t reduce its pleasure at doing something different. I’m not sure it will stand up to repeated viewings – look past the setting and it does little new – but it’s a worthy entrance in a crowded universe.

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