Full of swagger and style, this stand alone Marvel film is a fantastic celebration modern black cinema.
In 2017 we found out that (shockingly) women could direct and front superhero films thanks to the critically and commercially successful Wonder Woman. Now in 2018, we have the surprising revelation that a superhero film can also be fronted and directed by a predominantly black cast – and it too can be a success. Removing my tongue from my cheek for a second, can I just express my joy that the film is as tonally and cinematically unique as it is, but simultaneously my frustration that in 2018 it was still considered “a bit of a risk” to make such a film. Stuffed full of strong female performances, an incredible visual palate and a thunderous soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar this film is an excellent stand-alone Marvel film, and feels like an important milestone for the mainstream Hollywood industry.
Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the events of the film take place almost immediately after 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Following the death of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must become the king, and the Black Panther – a hero with superhuman strength and agility. Due to having a mine of the worlds most powerful metal, Vibranium, Wakanda is a technologically advanced civilisation decades ahead of the west. In fear of colonization, the Wakandan’s masquerade as a poverty stricken country and use their technology to hide their immense natural resources. Usurper Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) feels that Wakanda should use their might to overthrow oppressed peoples worldwide, and T’Challa feels Wakanda could use its technology to help improve the lives of society globally. It is this which forms one of the main moral/political questions in a film – what responsibility does the state have to help improve the world. While its fears about foreign intervention or invasion are well founded, is it right for Wakanda to isolate itself from a world which it could clearly improve?
Grappling with these questions, as well as understanding what it means to be a leader, is Boseman, who puts in a stoic and suave performance as the titular hero. Boseman exudes effortless cool, and the section of the film that takes place in South Korea plays like a bond film. It features amazing gadgets given by “Q” character Shuri (Letitia Wright), a deal involving a casino, and the CIA (Freeman’s character Ross). This film inadvertently answers the question if James Bond can be played by a black actor – yes absolutely it can. Boseman’s performance is complemented by the supporting cast. Lupita Nyong’o is Black Panther’s love interest Nakia, first introduced as a spy taking down a Boko-Haram style cell in Nigeria, while Danai Gurira is the loyal head bodyguard Okoye. Each look resplendent in their costumes – a hybrid of traditional African tribal dress with technological enhancements. All of this goes to demonstrate that in this film, unlike so many other Superhero affairs, you don’t have to have a penis to have power.
The visual design of the film is also to be commended – production designer Hannah Beachler manages to make Wakanda look futuristic, but still incorporate African designs, meaning Wakanda feels very different to other Marvel megatropolises (Such as Thor’s Asgard or Sakaar). Indeed, it is commendable that Marvel Studio’s are allowing each director to imprint their own tonal backdrop on their films, from the neon craziness of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok or the “Afrofuturism” on display here. What is more concerning is how these disparate ideas and styles will mesh together in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War – with so many characters each with their own styles, how easy will it be to strike the right tone? In regards to the rest of the MCU, it was a wise decision to keep Black Panther as a relatively stand-alone film, free from much expansionary set up. While Marvel films usually handle these quite well, and are able to offer Easter-Eggs for future films to the die hard fans, they could have quite easily become a distraction from the hero himself.
The weakest part of the film? Unfortunately it’s the plot. Following a rigid three act structure, the story rarely deviates from this classic structure which makes the film feel quite predictable. As is invariably the case, the film culminates in a CGI stuffed fight out, but (other than Daniel Kaluuya’s character W’Kabi and his “war Rhino’s) it offers little of much interest. Perhaps taking risks in other areas of the film led to the studio feeling that a conventional plot line would be more of a safe but, but sadly the film suffers in areas because of it. Much more visually entertaining that the final fight is the car chase through Busan, South Korea at about the half-way mark. This scene is an excellent blend of futuristic tech and tribal African costume, and also highlights the brilliant portrayal by Andy Serkis of Ulysses Klaue – the deranged South African smuggler/arms dealer. So while the plot is a little thin on the ground, and some of the characters motivations a little two-dimensional, Black Panther succeeds on account of it’s brilliant design, powerful and diverse characters and important message.
Black Panther is out worldwide in cinemas now.