Review: Black Panther

Director: Ryan Coogler

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira

Black Panther is against binaries. It’s against simplistic divisions such as seeing the world as East and West; Northern and Southern hemispheres; first world and third. It’s against selective thinking that reduces arguments to black and white; selective thinking that can slice a crisis along border lines. It’s a comic book superhero movie about breaking down walls, both physical and merely perceived. In the process it’s single-handedly the most important and interesting in the MCU. It’s also the best.

It’s taken 17 movies for us to get here, but Marvel seem to be listening to a fan base hungry for representation. Inclusion they’ve covered previously; these movies are well served by diverse casts, but Black Panther feels like something different and vital, while still filling the glass slipper of what a pre-loaded MCU franchise movie is supposed to be. Set largely in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, Ryan Coogler’s film manages to create a smart, vivid and layered reality, one which provides both a sense of realism (see the relative gritty mundanity of our first encounter with the hero) and the scope of the best of epic fantasy cinema. Both feelings manage to coexist comfortably within the same space. Remember we’re rejecting binaries here?

Following his fine-for-now introduction in Captain America: Civil War, its pleasing to get to spend some real time with Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa; a grieving son and the newly crowned king of Wakanda. The opening pours in the exposition so as to get it out of the way and sell the concept to the unfamiliar. Wakanda is a unique African nation. Formed around the crash site of a meteor, the country comprises of several tribes of people all benefitting from a huge reserve of Vibranium; the strongest element on Earth (and extraterrestrial in origin). Thanks to this, the Wakandans are technologically in advance of the world around them. In order to protect themselves, they have hidden this fact, shielding their great cities with holograms. The meteor has also given rise to a unique flower that provides supernatural strength. The king who unites the tribes of Wakanda drinks an elixir from this source and becomes the Black Panther.

We meet T’Challa still finding his feet in the role, surrounded by strong women intent on helping him to do so. In the West we have grown used to seeing monarchs as diplomatic figureheads and tourism draws. How invigorating, then, to see royalty who step into harms way on the international arena (albeit stealthily) to fight for and protect their country. Together with proud warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa strives to protect Wakanda’s secret. At home, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) watches his back with an array of her own inventions.

Principally Wakanda’s secret is in jeopardy thanks to arms smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He has obtained a Wakandan relic made from Vibranium and the royal team are out to ensure that this doesn’t leave them exposed. Cue a visit to a South Korean nightspot that feels cast straight out of Craig-era Bond rather than any Marvel movie. The pride and empowerment veritably bursts through the screen as Coogler’s all-black cast of heroes play intelligent and powerful defenders of their nation. Black heroes in superhero movies aren’t unprecedented, but there’s an aura of collaborative spirit here – and by turns strength – that gives these characters electricity. Coogler captures a thoroughly modern sense of kineticism reminiscent of the sense of ownership that ran scattershot through 1970’s blaxploitation cinema. Here, however, it feels fully formed; a tribute, no doubt, to the vast array of talent behind the camera. Speaking of kineticism, even T’Challa’s suit feels like a prickled metaphor. It works by storing up the kinetic energy of attacks which can then be harnessed and magnified in response; the more you put him down, the fiercer his reprisal.

With sleek world-building achieved with great economy, Black Panther does the duty of an origin movie but doesn’t remain shackled to its constraints. By the end of the first hour it has successfully established a whole new arena of play, along with several complex character dynamics, all without feeling bogged down by the need to do so. It is then free to behave like its own sequel. Black Panther expands in ambition greatly, and it is this process – made to look ridiculously easy – that transforms it from small-scale smuggling caper to a grand piece of cinematic spectacle. Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole have gone to great lengths to establish a sense of history and culture here (from language to textiles to ceremonies and traditions). With this in place they’ve savvily cottoned on to the hunger for smart fantasy escapism. There’s more than a dash of Game Of Thrones to the gigantic finale here as families are pitted against one another. All thanks to would-be usurper Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan).

Let’s talk about this cast. Coogler and Jordan have worked together before, and Jordan’s work on Creed was impressive. Here he brings an altogether different feeling to his performance as Killmonger, yet his presence is astonishing. It is most noteworthy for the restraint of his decisions, achieving with a look or a minute gesture what others might approach with a shout. In keeping with that philosophy of rejecting the binary, the plotting of Black Panther rejects the usual notion of simplistic good vs evil. Killmonger’s methods and goals are hostile, but we are allowed to understand his motives. Not only that, but he puts forward a strong argument. After the repetitive simplicity of Phase Two, Marvel are learning and evolving. Black Panther picks up what Spider-man: Homecoming started running with and accelerates down the track. Give the bad guys some due and they’ll enrich your movie. The whole thing is better for it.

Elsewhere, Coogler has an embarrassing array of talent at his disposal and nobody is phoning this in because it’s a ‘silly blockbuster’. Gurira is more expressive than she’s generally allowed to play in The Walking Dead and it suits her. Nyong’o is typically great. And everywhere you look there’s someone who can capably hold their own movie. Notable support comes from the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whittaker, Angela Bassett. This is the best performed Marvel film. If it had arrived a couple of months ago, who knows? There may have been a supporting Oscar nod here.

There certainly would have been an array of technical ones. The design work is superb. Black Panther crackles with Afro-futurism. Costume design is incredible (look – look! – women fighting and their armour is practical). The film sounds interesting (music is both supervised and produced by Kendrick Lamar, embracing the 80’s idea of a pop film having a curated soundtrack, while the score’s a kicker too). Rachel Morrison knocks it out of the park as director of photography… in virtually all avenues the creative team here go beyond the necessary with the evident passion to create something special. It pays off. The only visual element I’d bemoan are some slightly unconvincing CG rhinos.

Despite the dependency on a huge cinematic universe (sigh, those post-credit sequences), Black Panther feels wholly a beast of its own. It is serious without taking itself too seriously. Dramatic without feeling overblown. It requests your involvement in its characters and receives it. There’s emotion here amid the action. More than any other prior Marvel outing. More than any prior superhero movie, really. That’s what representation will do for you, I guess. The spirit within this thing is gigantic and it pays dividends. Can’t we just have 17 more of these?

Oh, and that Black Widow movie too, please.

Score:  

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