Review – Marvel’s latest superhero behemoth ‘Black Panther’ is infused with a rich cultural awareness

Poster for 2018 superhero blockbuster Black Panther

Genre: Superhero
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 13th February 2018
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B Jordan, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman
Synopsis: As T’Challa ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a face from his past arrives and threatens to expose the existence of Wakanda’s technologically advanced society to the world.

 

 

Something of a rut has begun to set in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the sense mounting that everything is simply building to this year’s gargantuan smackdown with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. In the midst of that landscape, it seems an odd time to go ambitious with an Afrofuturist blockbuster headlined by the company’s first black leading man and featuring a cast almost entirely comprised of African-American performers. The risk, however, has completely paid off with Black Panther, which is a compelling superhero adventure only bolstered by its woke credentials. Black voices have been quiet in cinema for too long, which makes this a hell of a rallying cry.

The story unfolds in the technologically-advanced African nation of Wakanda, which has separated itself from the world in order to preserve its stockpiles of vibranium – a substance so powerful that it must not fall into the wrong hands. New king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and military leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) are tasked with tracking down arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen vibranium. Klaue has joined forces with ruthless CIA operative Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), who has his own connection to the Wakandan royal family.

All of the ingredients of the Marvel formula are present and correct, but writer-director Ryan Coogler, working with a canvas far broader than Creed or Fruitvale Station, infuses every frame with a unique sense of cultural influence. It would have been simple for Marvel to just play the hits with a more diverse cast, but that diversity bleeds into the story of Black Panther, which uses the real world heritage of black people in order to weave a sophisticated battle between the ideologies of good and evil. Though, in this case, evil really has a point too.

 

 

In Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, Marvel finally has a villain who is an equal match for its hero. He’s a brutally powerful man, brawling with T’Challa in one of the film’s several gripping MMA-inspired fights atop a waterfall. There’s also a core to the character that is entirely justified in his actions and merely taking a different approach to the issues that also trouble T’Challa. The superhero movie genre has often trafficked in pitting heroes against mirror images of themselves, but Killmonger is more nuanced. He’s not so much an evil twin for T’Challa as he is a slightly distorted reflection of the Wakandan ruler. Jordan plays every nuance of the character beautifully, with the sort of effortless charisma that would make him a wonderful Batman.

That’s not to underplay the excellent work carried out by Chadwick Boseman. His appearance in Captain America: Civil War was one of the movie’s many highlights and he’s equally impressive here as a grieving son thrust into leadership while questioning everything he thought he knew about his father. No one doubted his action credentials after Civil War, but the most surprising thing is how well he handles the signature Marvel brand of humour. Coogler doesn’t pack the movie with jokes, preferring to pick his moments so that every quip lands, especially from Black Mirror‘s Letitia Wright as the sharp-tongued head of Wakandan tech research – Q Branch with the ability to kick arse if required.

Black Panther feels more character-driven than many of the more recent Marvel efforts, focusing as it does on two characters with opposing ideological stances. There’s also an intriguing debate around loyalty and respect for authority, whether it’s warrior Okoye’s fierce loyalty to the Wakandan throne or Daniel Kaluuya‘s security chief, who prizes the protection of his nation above all else. The plotting is not sophisticated, but it’s the richness of the world and the intensity of the themes that propels the movie forward, with real depth for the entire ensemble of characters, creating the all-important stakes that so many of these films lack.

Michael B Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya in Marvel's Black Panther
Michael B Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya in Marvel’s Black Panther

Coogler is effortless in bringing the audience into Wakanda, with its complicated traditions depicted through action and character rather than leaden exposition. A hip-hop infused score from Ludwig Göransson keeps things moving at a speedy pace, with several of the more memorable character themes in Marvel history. It’s only in the final fight scene that some overly engineered CGI takes away from the potency of the action, which otherwise feels physical, violent and genuinely life-threatening – a far cry from the heartless nonsense of Justice League‘s pixel onslaught.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Black Panther when it comes to representation. A superhero world packed with people of colour is a stunning rebuke to the white hegemony of Hollywood, particularly in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and just a year after Get Out put racial politics on the movie agenda. However, Ryan Coogler has also constructed a thrilling superhero movie that introduces its audience to a new corner of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a towering achievement for the MCU and a bold step forward for the representation of people of colour on the big screen. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B Jordan are a stunning hero-villain combination and the nation of Wakanda opens up to reveal a uniformly excellent ensemble of characters, all of whom merit further exploration in the franchise.

There’s the odd CGI misstep but, as recent Marvel movies go, this one is up there with the best of them.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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