‘In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers’.
Picking up shortly after the events of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther starts with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) on a recon mission ahead of the ceremony to crown him as the King of Wakanda, and solidify him as its protector – the Black Panther.
Meanwhile, ex-soldier Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan, and so named because of his effectiveness at ending lives) helps Andy Serkis’s South African menace Ulysses Klaue to steal an artefact dripping in Vibranium, the strongest material in the world and native to Wakanda, from a London museum.
As T’Challa takes up his reign, he struggles to align his duty to protect Wakanda with the pressure to share their riches and intelligence with those in need across the world, whilst defending his country from Killmonger’s attempts to claim it for himself.
The cultural significance of Black Panther cannot be overstated. Whilst it’s not the first time we’ve seen a black superhero on screen (previous ones include Wesley Snipes in Blade, and Mike Colter in Netflix’s Luke Cage), it’s perhaps the one that has had the ability to make most impact, being part of the behemoth box office machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And make an impact it has, and not just culturally – Black Panther is putting its money where its mouth is. It’s smashing records for Marvel, with the fifth biggest ever opening weekend and second biggest second weekend of all time in terms of US box office sales. It’s thought to be going to move to the third highest third weekend ever (behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar), and is heading towards $800 million dollars worldwide. The argument that ‘people don’t want to see these kinds of movies’ should be in the ground for good, and it’s hardly surprising. What else would you expect when you finally make a movie that so effectively represents the huge percentage of the population that Hollywood has neglected for so long?
Putting aside the question ‘what took Hollywood so long?’ – though that’s most certainly valid – Black Panther is an incredible moment for diversity and representation. With an almost entirely black and dark-skinned cast (the exceptions being Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross) there is a multitude of complex, relatable, strong, empowered black characters on show. At one point, the white guy is actually prevented from speaking – and it feels like about time too.
The women in particular are given so much room to shine that this film feels like a feminist moment as well as a racial one. Danai Gurira is Okoye, the general of the all-female guard that protects the King and the greatest warrior in Wakanda – not to mention, she ain’t a fan of unnecessary wigs. Lupita Nyong’o is Nakia, super spy and T’Challa’s former love, whose calling is to go out into the world and fight for those who can’t protect themselves. Angela Bassett is the regal Queen Mother, and Letitia Wright is the absolute stand out as T’Challa’s cheeky, genius little sister Shuri. The head of Wakanda’s technological developments with Vibranium, she would likely give Tony Stark a run for his money if the two brainiacs were ever to meet.
There is a shit ton of female power, emotion, camaraderie, honour, strength and intelligence on show. Seeing those ladies fight to the death and protect their King so effortlessly, and without question, is akin to watching the Amazons riding in on horses to battle the Germans in Wonder Woman – as a woman, you can’t help but feel uplifted.
The guys do pretty good too. There’s a stellar cast of some of the finest talent in television and film right now, and that’s aside from Chadwick Boseman’s mightily regal but internal depiction of the Wakandan King that had such an impact in Civil War.
Michael B. Jordan is all kinds of good, a lethal ball of anger and energy, but so deftly tapping into heartbreak and frustration at the discrimination against his people. Sure, he’s the antagonist of the piece – but it would take someone pretty heartless to not understand where he’s coming from. He’s trying to rectify the racial imbalance and injustice in this world by taking Wakanda for his own – and that’s a noble goal. It’s just his bloodthirsty method that means he must be stopped.
Daniel Kaluuya and Forest Whitaker are elegant and understated as tribe elders, Sterling K. Brown does a lot of heavy lifting with a small amount of air time, and Winston Duke brings some comic relief as well as some primal punches. It’s a joy to see these actors performing together on this most memorable stage.
A criticism often faced by movies in the MCU is the repetition in structure and plot. It’s usually justified, and if there’s one thing to pick out about Black Panther that could be improved, it’s the mechanics of the story. Whilst it’s not exactly hard to predict how things are going to go, and the pace feels a little slow at times, the delivery and details of the plot are intricate and interesting enough to make it more unique. Yes, we’ve seen elements of Black Panther before – but the setting of Wakanda and context of what’s at stake elevates it to something new.
The thing that differentiates Black Panther from potentially blending in to the Marvel maelstrom is how it thoroughly immerses you in African culture. This is only 31 year old Ryan Coogler’s third feature film, after indie Fruitvale Station and the acclaimed, award nominated Rocky sequel Creed, both of which also starred Michael B. Jordan – but there’s no signs of naivety. Coogler’s directorial vision is stamped all over this film, aided by the fact he brought on previous colleagues including director of photography Rachel Morrison, and Creed production designer Hannah Beachler (who does incredible work here).
Coogler has talked about visiting Africa once he knew he had the Black Panther job, in order to truly get under the skin of the culture informing the film. You can see the influences he picked up everywhere – the differentiating nature of the five tribes of Wakanda, facial ornaments and markings, clothing of all colours of the rainbow and subtle drum music that intermittently makes up the thrumming soundtrack, along with perfectly placed hip-hop. Every inch of Black Panther feels African, as you’d hope it would. It could so easily have been a diluted version, but instead we have a full film that hardly leaves the secretive nation of Wakanda and isn’t any less impressive for it.
It’s authentic, then – but also undeniably empowering. We’re so used to seeing African countries as third world, in need of aid. Black Panther flips this on its head. It shows us a nation more developed than any other, lightyears ahead of the Western world and making the decision to withhold its intelligence to protect itself.
The film doesn’t shy away from this assumption that African means weakness or helplessness. At several points throughout, the ability of Wakanda to provide anything of value to the world is questioned – but its people (and we as the audience) know the truth. And Black Panther isn’t shying away from the wider issues of race, either. The defining decision of T’Challa’s reign will be whether he uses Wakanda’s wealth to help their brothers and sisters facing discrimination and poverty across the globe. This is a superhero story rooted in the real world – Killmonger talks of victims of slavery jumping from boats, making the gut punching statement that ‘they knew death was better than bondage’, and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is reluctant to open the doors to Wakanda because ‘you let the refugees in, you let in all their problems’.
Visually, the Vibranium that is so vital to the Wakandan story helps to create a neon motif that seeps into almost every scene. The contrast of this and the futuristic technology against the mountains and vast African landscapes feels unexpected but gives the film a distinct look, a mix between new and old, the future and tradition.
Aside from the representation and the big picture questions, Black Panther is, at its essence, a classic hero tale. It’s able to skip the origin story we’ve seen so many times before thanks to T’Challa’s introduction in Civil War, whilst introducing us to the Wakandan people and traditions concisely and effectively.
And, as you’d hope from a Marvel blockbuster – it’s plain good fun too. Great action set pieces (a car chase in Korea with a swooping, one-take-style shot being a particular stand out) quippy one liners and moments of levity, big scale fight scenes; Black Panther has it all without ever losing its sense of humour. The final act may not be the strongest we’ve ever seen, but it’s far from the weakest, and Coogler balances epic moments with light-hearted ones perfectly.
It’s probably a bit premature to assume that this is the start of a new, more diverse era in Hollywood, but with Jordan Peele’s Get Out making such big waves and Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time coming out shortly, we’re seeing a plethora of fantastic black talent of late. The success of Black Panther can only help to ensure it continues.
There was a lot riding on Black Panther, but Coogler and co. have exceeded expectations and more. A huge cultural moment, a showcase of incredible talent, and just a great Marvel movie, Black Panther gets a nearly-perfect-but-not-quite 4 stars. Wakanda Forever!