To say that Marvel Studios’ Black Panther arrives at a somewhat crucial time in cinema history is akin to saying “two plus two equals four.”
For those not au fait with the Black Lives Matter movement, the under-representation of people of colour in cinema’s ongoing fight and the fallout from the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, as well as a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has been largely fronted by white dudes during the last decade – the time really is now for a change.
And yet to simply acclaim Black Panther for breaking this mould is also to do it an injustice – after all, a large portion of these movements are about offering fairness and treating subjects equally.
So, in terms of the superhero movie, and moving away from the important fact that black people deserve to see heroes of their own on screen, Black Panther more than matches the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – even if it does repeat some of what has gone before.
Focussing on Chadwick Boseman’s stoic Prince T’Challa, who’s forced to take the kingdomship of his own Wakanda after the death of his father, what follows in Black Panther is a largely self-contained story that eschews away from the wider ramifications of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its ongoing mythology and revels in the political machinations of a new leader taking the reins of power.
Wakanda is a hidden kingdom deep in Africa’s world, one which has grown its own technology thanks to the plentiful source of mysterious element vibranium (right up there with James Cameron’s unobtanium from Avatar in terms of element-naming) and has shied away from sharing it with the rest of the world.
But when T’Challa comes to power, a decades-old struggle is reborn – and coupled with T’Challa’s desire to catch a war criminal and arms dealer from the outside world (played with hammy glee and Afrikaans accent by Andy Serkis), the Black Panther/T’Challa learns the responsibility of power is a heavier burden than expected.
Mixing tradition, colonialism, cultural identity, Bond movies, tinges of Thor and Iron Man, some tightly-shot and executed choreography, a villain with a genuine emotional edge rather than his one-dimensional predecessors, and touches of humour, Black Panther is perhaps a more nuanced Marvel movie than we’ve seen for a while.
There are some moments when it falters – a reliance on debate to further the plot may cause some restlessness in the younger elements attracted to the MCU for the whipcrack Avengers style banter; and a conclusion that relies on a white guy to save a part of the day is a little troubling in some ways.
There’s also a distinct feeling at times that it follows a formula set down for the Marvel franchise alone. Even if some of its action sequences bristle with cultural colour and tribal tradition, there is still a car chase which feels like an extended advert rather than a narrative necessity.
Plus placing a central cast member in peril is severely undercut by the fact they’ve been viewed in the Avengers Infinity War trailer – Marvel marketing really must do better.
And yet, despite the richness of culture and depth of acting talent, there’s still a feeling of indifference in Black Panther’s appearance.
Michael B Jordan has depth, Letitia Wright steals the show as the Q-inspired tech-obsessed sister of T’Challa, Danai Gurira continues to kick as much ass as Michonne does on The Walking Dead and Boseman imbues the Black Panther with the necessary gravitas.
Ultimately, while Black Panther is a fresh origin tale which feels reflective of the times and desires of the cinematic universe and world, it’s fairly formulaic Marvel fare.
Setting aside the vital empowerment message, Black Panther really does nothing new with the franchise – aside from its casting and representation.
Sagging in parts, and grasping for greatness, its aims and ambitions can’t be faulted – and its execution is well-realised by Creed director Coogler, but this Black Panther doesn’t unfortunately quite roar when it should – even though it bares its teeth often enough.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira
Director: Ryan Coogler