Upon the death of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the throne of the secretive and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. His reign appears short-lived, however, when it is challenged by the skilled and dangerous rogue known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Marvel Studios have been running for a decade now, and while their films continue to draw in massive sums of money and dominate the pop cultural landscape for me they have started feeling relatively underwhelming. With three feature releases every year, familiarity is breeding… well hardly contempt, but certainly no small degree of restlessness for the world’s widest movie franchise to deliver something memorable and new.
Director Ryan Coogler has achieved that in spades with Black Panther, the eagerly awaited solo outing for the Marvel Universe’s African superhero. It feels like a groundbreaking film, because it highlights an African experience more than any previous Hollywood blockbuster. It feels like a hugely worth one too, because it is enriched with a cast that features some of finest actors of colour working in the world today. It also feels like the best Marvel feature since Guardians of the Galaxy, since it combines strong performances and great characters with tremendous costume and production design and a really fresh sense of showing the audience something genuinely new for a change.
Wakanda feels exceptionally well developed, showing off a hypothetical African utopia that was never pillaged and enslaved by European interests. It has its own design aesthetic and culture, and an absolutely beautiful sense of costume. Within this world Coogler establishes T’Challa as a distinctive hero that stands out from his Marvel contemporaries: part king, part superhero, and part African James Bond. An early sequence in the Korean city of Busan manages to be both tensely staged and edited and outrageously funny. Later action sequences are rather more conventional, but still find time for the odd delight or surprise (war rhinoceroses immediately spring to mind).
Chadwick Boseman makes for a great T’Challa, rich with dignity and vulnerability, but in all honesty the film’s highlights are in his supporting cast. Michael B. Jordan shows that, even in the most commercial of vehicles, he is still one of the strongest American actors of his generation. He is gifted with a comparatively rare thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a villain that resonates and actually makes a weird kind of sense. Through Killmonger the film actually engages with the political ramifications of a nation like Wakanda, giving the story a texture that lesser blockbusters would not bother to include. Dania Gurira makes a powerful impact as the Wakandan special forces commander Okoye. She is just one of several strong female roles depicted in the film, which also include Lupita Nyong’o as fellow agent – and T’Challa’s love interest – Nakia, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri. It is Wright who gets most of the best comedy moments, and she makes an enormously likeable impression. It is interesting that, while almost all of the attention of audience and critics has been on how Black Panther pushes representation of African people, it is likely the best big screen representation of women that Marvel Studios have ever achieved.
This feels like a critically important film, and a huge step forward in giving an African voice to mainstream cinema. It is not by an stretch the last step, since it is effectively an American presentation of that African identity. It resonates so powerfully though. It demonstrates just how much creative territory is available for filmmakers to explore. It points in a potent direction. On top of all of that, it’s a great action film pure and simple. You could point out flaws, but by the end of the film none of them really seem to matter all that much.