In 2016’s Civil War, Marvel’s first black superhero made his sensational debut, and now, nearly ten years after the inception of the MCU, his history, and that of his reclusive home country, Wakanda, are given the spotlight treatment. With a rich culture and beautiful, colourful aesthetic, BLACK PANTHER is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a cinematic universe that is over-populated with white guys, most of whom live in or around New York, and sets a new standard for exactly how unique a superhero film can be.
With the events of Civil War and the loss of his father hanging heavily over him, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to Wakanda, ready to officially ascend to the throne, and claim the mantle of Black Panther. After a short catch up with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of his personal bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, his tech savvy sister, Shuri (Letita Wright), and Wakandan spy/ex-love interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa engages in ritual combat to defend his claim against any who would challenge it, including M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the unsociable Jabari tribe. Elsewhere, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), returns from his appearance in Age of Ultron, stealing more Vibranium with the help of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a brash American with inexplicable knowledge of Wakanda. As the Panther and his spies move to intercept Klaue, it becomes apparent that CIA operatives, led by Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), also have an interest in catching the erratic thief, much to T’Challa’s chagrin.
Though a lot of characters and history are introduced in pretty rapid succession, the first act of BLACK PANTHER never feels overstuffed; the story unfolds quite naturally, looping in the relevant characters at appropriate times and ensuring that they are given space to make an impact before the next element of Wakanda is presented. The script, written by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, follows a fairly formulaic structure once all the introductions are done, with plenty of recognisable beats from other Marvel origin stories littered throughout. While this by no means diminishes the strength of the story – which is especially unique in this film thanks to the historic resonance and pitch-perfect casting – it does mean that certain plot points feel a little timeworn, and don’t carry the same dramatic weight that they may have when they were new. Though these occasional rehashes may surface, the overall product is mostly unaffected, as much of the focus is kept on the history of Wakanda, and the characters that inhabit it.
Boseman’s Panther slinks through action scenes with the effortless cool and quiet efficiency of a super-powered James Bond.
When he first showed up to the signing of the Sokovia Accords in Civil War, T’Challa immediately made a strong impression with his poised stature and soft, yet commanding voice. Suited up as the Black Panther, he inspired further awe with his sleek suit and keen agility, quickly establishing himself as a nimble force to be reckoned with as he hunted for the man responsible for his father’s death. Having made such a strong impact with a limited appearance in someone else’s film, Boseman takes full advantage of the spotlight afforded to him in BLACK PANTHER, as he explores the different layers that make up his king-to-be. The regal and distinguished portrayal returns as he finds his feet in running the country, but the added pressure is clear to see as he bears the burdens of kingship, and in the costume, Boseman’s Panther slinks through action scenes with the effortless cool and quiet efficiency of a super-powered James Bond.
The likeness to 007 is further exemplified by T’Challa’s relationship with his younger sister and full-time gadget supplier – Shuri. Easily the breakout character of the film, Wright’s sarcastic tech-genius is the Q to Boseman’s Bond, inventing and developing new contraptions for her big bro, all the while taking any opportunity to mock his fashion sense. The other women of Wakanda unfortunately don’t benefit from as much attention as Shuri: Gurira’s Okoye gets a few fun moments and some kick-ass fight scenes with her fellow Dora Milaje, but her marriage (which is weirdly straight-washed from her queer comic roots) doesn’t get the development it needs considering it’s relevance to the plot, and Nakia similarly shines on the battlefield, but is relegated to the Marvel standard of token love-interest, mostly wasting the Oscar-winning talents of Nyong’o. Faring slightly better is Freeman’s Ross, who enjoys a more expanded arc than his introduction in Civil War as he tries to wrap his head around the mysteries of Wakanda and its people.
Causing trouble for T’Challa and his Allies, Killmonger is first introduced on a heist with Klaue, and quickly goes on to challenge not only the king of Wakanda, but its people in how they avoid engaging with the outside world. Killmonger is unique among MCU villains, in that he is not a maniac who is seeking power for the sake of having it, rather, his motivation is complicated, and carries with it the full weight of 400 years of black oppression in America. Aiming to see this wrong finally righted, Jordan’s Killmonger isn’t evil or insane: he’s just incredibly pissed off, and he’s had enough. Fully realising the vast potential of the role, Jordan brings an intense ferocity to the film, most notably when talking about the atrocities committed against blacks across the world, instantly evoking the kind of passion that spearheaded the civil rights movement. This, combined with his emotive, personal beef with T’Challa, easily makes Killmonger the most relatable and dynamic antagonist seen in the MCU since the heyday of Loki.
Providing a smaller, but no less irritating thorn in the Black Panther’s paw, Serkis’ Klaue returns after his unfortunate run in with Ultron, now bearing a fancy new sonic arm cannon, and once again getting his fingers sticky with stolen Vibranium. Much like his fellow Hobbit star and Tolkien white guy, Freeman, Serkis’ character is paid a little more attention for his second appearance, with the first act-or-so filled with a manic, giddy energy as Serkis clearly has a blast in the role. Unfortunately, he is so much fun that, when the film turns its attention from Klaue to Wakanda, it can’t help but feel a little lacking for his absence, especially considering that the colonialist undertones of making him a South African could have led to some thoughtful and socially relevant stories in the future. Slightly making up for the loss, M’Baku feels like a more complete back-up baddie, with Duke’s imposing stature and sardonic delivery ensuring that he brings both rib-cracking fight scenes and rib-tickling laughs across his versatile performance.
Nothing brings out the unique and beautiful aesthetic of Wakanda more than the bright, colourful selection of outfits worn by its citizens.
Given the impact that BLACK PANTHER has made, starring a nearly all-black cast in a franchise that has thus far only featured a handful of black and minority ethnic actors in meaningful roles, it was appropriate that it was also the first to be directed by someone other than a white man. Not only the MCU’s first black director, but also its youngest so far, Ryan Coogler has a short, but successful history as a filmmaker, with both of his other feature films having won multiple awards. Here, his success continues with a dexterous style filled with sweeping shots of the beautiful and innovative Wakanda sets, as well as dizzying fight scenes as the Panther tracks his foes through the claustrophobic forests of Nigeria, and the neon-soaked streets of Busan. All of this action, be it a high speed car chase or ritual combat above a Wakandan waterfall, is elevated by Ludwig Göransson’s eclectic, yet completely harmonious score, that expertly represents the Afrofuturism that beats within the heart of Wakanda.
Though the makeup of T’Challa’s kingdom is built from a variety of sources, including the sets, music and the South African language, isiXhosa, nothing brings out the unique and beautiful aesthetic of Wakanda more than the bright, colourful selection of outfits worn by its citizens. Pieced together by costume designer Ruth E. Carter, each item of clothing is steeped in African tradition, and bears a distinctive look to represent the wearer’s heritage: the River Tribe Elder (Isaach De Bankolé) wears a sleek and stylish green suit, to reflect his dominance over the waterways, and a large plate in his lip that befits a man who has the ear of the king, the Jabari tribe have long rejected the modern ideals of Wakanda, and therefore M’Baku is swathed in thick furs and stiff leathers, all the better to keep him warm up on his mountain, and the royal family are similarly distinguished, with the Queen Mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), first seen in a radiant ensemble topped with a Zulu-inspired crown, cutting an instantly regal silhouette.
Though the bare bones of the story may follow a slightly formulaic path, the vibrant and beguiling culture of Wakanda more than makes up for it, presenting a country that feels as unique as it does familiar, and is an absolute joy to explore. Similarly, the criminally underused Klaue doesn’t detract from the sheer success that is the debut of Killmonger: bringing such a rare villain into the MCU who is developed enough to be relatable, while also being fierce enough to challenge the heroes and provide some visually pleasing fight scenes, is an event worth celebrating, even if the shadow he casts leaves the secondary villains somewhat in the shade. Overall, BLACK PANTHER is a compelling Afrofuturistic adventure that balances superhero action with a thoughtful commentary on modern issues, tied together with a celebration of African culture and heritage.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles