Coogler delivers a fabulously empowered ensemble in this game changing addition to the Marvel stable. Brains and brawn marry spectacularly.
History weighs heavy on the shoulders of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest standalone superhero outing, Black Panther.
Proudly featuring a predominantly POC cast, expectations were sky high for this one and the troll contingent low as they go, much like the reaction to Wonder Woman and its female lead. But thankfully the shoulders of director Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman are more than a match for the burden.
Introduced in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman’s Prince T’Challa – masked defender of the secretive African nation of Wakanda – had greatness cruelly thrust upon him following the tragic death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), in a terrorist bombing attack designed to frame the Avengers.
Black Panther picks up in the immediate aftermath as T’Challa returns home to bury his dad and take on the mantle of royalty in an Afro-futurism inspired land of incredible technological advances, turbo-boosted by a soil imbued with the unimaginable power of the meteorite-delivered vibranium that forged Cap’s shield.
It’s a richly realised land of tomorrow that’s also anchored in ancient tribal culture, where T’Challa must walk with his ancestors in a dreamscape and be de-powered by poison to face all challengers to his title. And there are a few, including M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of an estranged mountain-dwelling tribe with beef and a more existential threat in the shape of a scene-stealing Michael B Jordan as Erik Killmonger.
There’s an intriguing moral dilemma built into the fabric of Wakanda – the nation has enjoyed its close to utopian peace by hiding its true wealth and wisdom from the world, posing as a developing nation whilst also minimising outside contact, and therefore doing very little to help its poorer neighbours. That policy begins to sit heavy with T’Challa the more he learns about it, something he attempts to broach with close adviser W’Kabi (Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya), before being confronted violently by Killmonger.
Raised in poverty in Oakland, California, this self-scarred upstart has a complicated link to the promised land to which he feels he is entitled, and a belief that the only way to combat entrenched racism and centuries of persecution of his people is to fight back hard. It’s difficult not to cheer him as he relives a British museum of its Wakandan relics, even if his brutal methods – assisted by Andy Serkis’ deliriously wicked South African mercenary Ulysseses Klaue first spotted in Avengers: Age of Ultron – are terrifying.
In their opposing though not entirely at loggerheads positions, it’s easy to hear an exaggerated echo of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the complex birth America’s incredibly nuanced civil rights movement. [Pop fact: though the Wakandan superhero debuted in the Fantastic Four comic book in 1966, the same year as the political party that coincidentally shares his name, he did so months before its creation.]
That’s an exciting basis for a Marvel film, even if a magnificent Jordan is, as is often the case in this franchise, a little under-served, having to share antagonistic duties with both Duke and Serkis. And while we’re on the topic of scene stealing, a regally reserved Boseman magnanimously shares the spotlight with the film’s most joyous element, the Dora Milaje.
While Marvel’s rightly bemoaned failure to deliver a female-led movie still stands, the shaven headed female security detail that protects not only Waknadan royalty, including the king’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), but also the very honour of the nation, is a huge part of this film’s appeal.
An empowering Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), slaying with side eye, is spectacular at its no nonsense honourable head Okoye, upending the notion that a woman cannot hold her own in battle whilst also rocking a flowing red tribal dress. Lupita Nyong’o is also brilliant as fiercely independent spy Nakia, a former lover of T’Challa who rails against Wakanda’s protectionist nature, as is effervescent British star Letitia Wright as the Q-like tech wiz Shuri, the younger sister of the king who refuses to take his oft-furrowed brow too seriously. This fabulous trio deserve their own spin-off stat.
A segue in South Korea with a casino showdown and thrilling car chase fuses the Bourne and Bond franchises to great effect. If the final showdown feels disappointingly Marvel by numbers, unwisely throwing away a key player, and CGI armoured rhinos aren’t up to scratch given the money involved here, then the stellar ensemble’s megawatt charisma more than makes up for it.
Coogler, who made a big impression with debut Fruitvale Station and followed strongly with Rocky extension Creed, was an inspired choice to bring this rich new world to life, greatly aided by the fact he’s also on writing duties alongside Joe Robert Cole, a rarity in the MCU that pays mighty dividends. This is a film steeped in African mythology and spirituality that also navigates complicated contemporary politics both on that continent and incredibly fraught race relations in the US. All without ever feeling stodgy or preachy.
Black Panther is a blockbuster that’s not afraid to flex its grey matter, and in so doing venture into decidedly grey areas, leaving the MCU markedly changed by its conclusion. I, for one, cannot wait to revisit Wakanda.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords