Review: Black Panther

An excellent film on multiple levels, Black Panther belies its Marvel movie status as a self sufficient, visually memorable, considered blockbuster and cultural event.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) – the Black Panther – returns to his secretive, highly advanced home of Wakanda to be crowned king. Faced with a threat to his rule from exile Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), T’Challa must measure his willingness to open the nation to the world, or keep its secrets.

On first glance, you might think this is another attempt at broadening out Marvel’s stable of heroes. This however is more than that: it’s an cultural marker, a blockbuster featuring a nearly all black cast, directed and written by a black director. Both a true cinematic and societal trailblazer, a little bit of pressure for all involved has naturally come from that to succeed!

Director and co writer Ryan Coogler (alongside Joe Robert Cole) effortlessly swats these expectations away and makes a stirring, gripping, quippy and distinctive film, evading the usual Marvel complaints and devising something new, unique and fresh. Only his third film (at 31 for goodness’ sake), Black Panther goes far beyond its superheroics in overall quality, and demolishes a long held Hollywood myth that a film with a black cast would not be popular (this was, unbelievably, commonly believed).

You won’t need to look far to find stories of just how stunningly well this film has done at the box office, and Coogler deserves nearly all the plaudits. He weights the movie between drama and action, between cinematic universe needs and individuality, and paints a vibrant Afrofuturism onscreen alongside an insightful script and message.

The duality of the main character and antagonist is remarkably sketched out and expanded upon, to the point that this superhero movie muses on slavery, police brutality and stereotyping. Moreover, main villain Killmonger comes from a point of view we can understand, creating a surprising dramatic tension compared to the usual view of bad versus good and nothing in between.

The balance between action and drama takes a while to work, with a slightly slow start, but once everything starts to take off the film does a great job of setting the scene and letting everything happen. It also helps that this doesn’t really count as an origin movie, so it doesn’t have to hit the same beats – giving it freedom to breathe and expand into its weightier elements.

In terms of action, there isn’t anything jaw dropping, but the intrigue and the settings are more than interesting enough to make up for this. A huge set piece in South Korea more or less covers people like me for our action fix anyway! My doubts are probably down to sometimes ropey effects, though for simpler elements they work nicely, such as with the Wakandan technology on show.

Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is one of the main technical elements that helps differentiate events from the usual, flushed out Marvel look, with blues, greens, bright sunrises and vivid sunsets melding together with incredible set designs. A number of scenes set in the astral plane sumptuously depict purple haze sunsets, while the sheen of the vibranium technology gives other scenes a futuristic, techie feel.

Ludwig Goransson’s music matches proceedings perfectly, authentically African throughout and featuring a very clever juxtaposition of hip hop beats for the American Killmonger versus the African drums and percussion of Wakandan T’Challa. African singing only adds to this feeling of place, while T’Challa’s main theme appears sporadically but is stirringly memorable when it does.

Chadwick Boseman gives a reserved, imperious performance as T’Challa, softly spoken and witty, but with a balance of a benevolent ruler. Where he develops with the plot and the character’s motivations paints a surprisingly open, malleable man right at the centre of events, and he’s an understated but strong lead.

Michael B. Jordan’s villain is perhaps the best Marvel has offered yet. ‘Killmonger’ has a drive and a worldview utterly rooted in global history, and as such his arguments and justification for his actions are completely understandable. The actor’s performance is coiled, tense and bubbling with rage, wildly different to his other characters, melding a West Coast accent with some strong, passionate scenes that are searing in their truths beyond the screen.

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One particularly great element of the cast is the strong, distinctive female characters. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is ostensibly love interest and ally to T’Challa, with her role as a spy for once not a plot device for backstabbing! She strongly portrays the steely character, whose distinctly un-damsel role in T’Challa’s life comes of being aware of the power she has over her king.

Danai Gurira’s blend of cutting humour and stoic, stern duty works perfectly for Okoye, the leader of Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all women royal guard. She manages to deftly balance this contrast, as well as illuminate the interesting question of what she is prepared to do to compromise her role in the monarchy and her duty.

Finally, Letitia Wright’s Shuri is the unsung star, as T’Challa’s endlessly snarky, genius little sister, puncturing his self belief but importantly also held in esteem by her brother. This is a great role Wright inhabits with warmth, and she’s a delight to watch – hopefully in films to come we’ll see her bringing all the other nerdy white male heroes down to size.

The remainder of the Wakandan cast also make an impression, from Forest Whitaker’s reeled in performance as elder statesman and trusted adviser Zuri, through to Daniel Kaluuya’s comedic yet driven warrior W’Kabi – the actor building on Get Out with another noteworthy appearance.

Angela Bassett brings a strong regal sheen to T’Challa’s mother, while Winston Duke’s M’Baku is another highly amusing bruiser in the vein of Drax, though featuring an edge and also contributing to the film’s message of which path to take going forward.

The two white actors (or the “Tolkien” white guys, BADUMTISH) are also memorable for their duality on this same theme. Andy Serkis’ Ulysees Klaue is a delightfully skeezy, odious white African villain, and you wish there was more of him, Serkis clearly absolutely loving getting to play a real person and giving the character a greasy presence in every scene.

His view of Wakanda as something to be exploited and revealed contrasts with Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, whose presence in Wakanda during the film is curious to the locals and to himself. Playing an American, Freeman’s standard British angst is dialled down and he makes an impression as the fish out of water who realises his place, rather than becoming the standard white saviour.

Finally, I must mention Sterling Brown’s N’Jobu – T’Challa’s uncle, who appears in a few small scenes but has a big impact. Coming to my attention in The People vs OJ Simpson last year, Brown is able to do so much and project strong emotion with only a few lines and speeches, and it’ll be exciting to see him appear in more films going forward.

A brilliant, well made and impressively deep Marvel movie, Black Panther is a welcome diversification for blockbuster, mainstream cinema that ought to have a huge impact going forward.

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