With a total of eighteen features to its name since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become something of a cultural phenomenon with its grand narrative, interlinking an array of comic book characters in an ambitiously cohesive continuity. While this is commendable, the individual films have struggled to define themselves from one another in terms of any loftier thematic ambitions. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War hinted at an interrogation of contemporary democracy and all its private and public blemishes. But overall, Marvel simply wishes to entertain: while this is no flaw, it seemed a shame that a studio as huge as Marvel couldn’t dabble in some key conversations happening today.
Enter Black Panther, a Marvel blockbuster that looks set to change all that with a vital political core, signalling it as a cultural event in and of itself. Directed by African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, starring a dominantly black cast and set within an Afro-Futurist environment that proudly places African culture front and centre, Black Panther is a significant benchmark in terms of representation. And yet below the film’s surface, there’s a subtle yet relevant anger bubbling beneath, touching on injustices committed against the black community that is beautifully and confidently handled, and so utterly necessary within our confrontational reality.
Black Panther follows the journey of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who, following the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in Captain America: Civil War, is preparing to be crowned king of Wakanda, the secret capital of the African continent that houses the world’s most advanced technologies and materials. However, T’Challa’s coronation and country are put into jeopardy by the arrival of a prospective usurper, the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Standing alongside his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his on-and-off partner Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his loyal bodyguard Okoye (Danai Guirira), T’Challa hopes to see off this unexpected threat so as to bring peace to Wakanda and establish himself as an eligible ruler.
While this sounds like a typical solo outing for Marvel – the hero who overcomes adversity in order to prove himself worthy of his mantle – Black Panther is a far cry from their previous offerings. While his superhero mantra is in the title, this is not T’Challa’s movie, but more of an ensemble piece that endearingly seeks to give a voice to all involved in his arc. While this could have resulted in a cast of thinly written characters, writer and director Ryan Coogler, along with his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, have achieved quite the opposite: a roster of well-rounded individuals who each offer a unique perspective on the events of the film.
Amidst this excellent cast of characters, it’s the women that steal the movie. As Shuri, Letitia Wright offers a quirky, loveable genius whose proficiency with all things technical beckons comparisons to James Bond’s affable quartermaster, Q. As Nakia, Lupita Nyong’o provides a stronger influence than is usually given to the love interest, advising T’Challa on how she thinks he should rule, and how he should be true to himself in the process. But the standout is Danai Guirira as Okoye. As the leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces outlet, Okoye is snarky at all the right moments, yet formidable when it comes to taking action, a physical heroine that will finally put to rest that worthless old stereotype that only men can kick ass. It’s this refreshingly confident take on women within the film’s narrative world that really stuck with me as the credits rolled.
That’s not to say that Boseman and Jordan don’t deliver in their respective roles as the hero and villain of the piece. Boseman projects a searing authority in his performance as T’Challa, a strength that will certainly have you chanting ‘All Hail The King’ whenever you see a poster or image of the eponymous hero pop up.
Jordan is also granted a surprisingly deep character motivation with his villain, Killmonger. Where Marvel films have failed before has been in their weak characterisations of villains: lifeless entities who want to destroy the world just because. But Killmonger has a rage buried within him, based on his experiences in the outside world, our world, with the terrible treatment of African Americans by the authorities. This is where Black Panther’s social commentary really makes its mark, encouraging a sense of sympathy for a man who has been forced into violent action by a society that offered him no alternative. It’s powerful stuff that recalls the tempestuous passion of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, giving dramatic agency to the action as it unfolds.
And what action it is. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, fresh off her first Oscar nomination for Mudbound, has outdone her previous work with a contribution that brings eye-popping visuals and a delectably expansive scope to proceedings. One particular sequence – a car chase through the streets of South Korea – is indicative of this craft at its finest: as the camera zips and glides around the action, you’ll feel breathless by the time that it’s over.
I will say that I was disappointed by the general absence of Kendrick Lamar’s touted soundtrack. If anything was going to amplify the social context of the film, it would be the presence of the poetry of Lamar, who’s become something of a contemporary prophet, speaking out against the prejudices of civilisation. There is the occasional, background appearance of his work. But mostly, it’s left to Ludwig Göransson whose composition is noteworthy in itself, building on the culture represented within the film with a percussion heavy score that still manages to add real character to both the action and the film’s more dramatic moments.
Black Panther is a tremendous achievement overall, an expertly crafted superhero flick with a strong cultural showing and a subtly synthesized social commentary that adds a great amount of meditative value to the whole package. This isn’t a film you’ll forget the day after. Coogler and co. do enough to encourage you to ask those bigger questions, but are more than happy for you to settle down for a rollicking adventure with characters that are a pleasure to be in the company of. All that’s left to say is this: