Think of Black Panther and one thing comes to mind. As the first black superhero movie, much of the noise surrounding its release has focused on the landmark statement of intent it makes for inclusivity in Hollywood. Quite rightly, too, given that, for all its recent forays into far away galaxies, quantum realms and astral planes, the MCU has remained tightly bound to its white male superstars. Yet perhaps Black Panther’s greatest achievement is that, once you’ve settled down with your popcorn and gallon-sized cup of cola, you’ll forget all about the game-changing importance of its mere existence. Instead, you’ll simply be blown away by a searingly intelligent, exhilaratingly well-crafted piece of filmmaking.
After a potted Wakandan history lesson, which cleverly establishes the secretive, technologically advanced nation while laying the seeds for an engaging mix of geopolitical thriller and complex family drama, we arrive in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War. With his father murdered in a bomb-attack, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to be officially crowned Wakanda’s king and super-powered protector Black Panther. His rule is immediately beset by challenges, however, as rivals line up to take his crown and political tensions quietly simmer between his most trusted advisors. When his kingdom comes under threat from canon-armed weapons smuggler (a gleefully unhinged Andy Serkis) and a rogue US black-ops solider, Black Panther is forced into action to protect his throne and Ulysses Klaue stop the world from discovering Wakanda’s secrets.
What is immediately striking is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s (Creed) emphasis on eschewing reductive African stereotypes, particularly in the vivid, jaw-droppingly detailed realisation of Wakanda itself. A lively, Afro-futurist utopia, the hidden nation is a thriving metropolis, boasting advanced medicine and superior weaponry thanks to an abundance of vibranium laying beneath its lands. Coogler grounds these fantastical elements by throwing in plenty of African cultural influences, with separate languages, shirtless ritual combat and brightly-attired tribal leaders, serving to compliment a richly complex landscape that feels wholly unique, and yet entirely believable.
Such an intricate cultural backdrop allows Coogler to touch on several weighty political issues. While Wakanda has remained hidden for decades in order to protect its resources, many of its tribal leaders disagree over whether this remains the best course of action as the outer world dives deeper into turmoil. Is the country safer on its own or as part of a global community? Does it have a moral obligation to share its wealth with poorer nations? Coogler poses many difficult questions in the kind of powerfully thought-provoking drama not seen since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
While its themes run deep, Black Panther offers plenty of ferociously paced, dizzyingly exhilarating action sequences to keep its Marvel rivals on their toes. From a chaotically inventive brawl in a South Korean casino, to a wildly intense car chase through neon-lit city streets, to a heart-poundingly brutal fight atop a cascading waterfall between T’Challa and Michael B Jordan’s highly-skilled Killmonger, the movie offers plenty of whizz-bang for its buck.
That latter sequence is so gut-wrenchingly tense at least in part due to the powerful, commanding presence of Jordan’s Killmonger – one of Marvel’s best villains in a long while. Although viciously monomaniacal in his intentions, there’s an understandable, deeply emotional rationale to his desire to use Wakanda’s technology to arm the world’s oppressed minorities. Jordan sells Killmonger’s unflinching commitment to his cause with a bitter, savage swagger that neatly contrasts Boseman’s poised assuredness.
As good as they are, though, there’s a number of charismatic supporting players who threaten to steal the show from underneath them. Daniel Kaluuya is quietly composed as W’Kabi, the leader of Wakanda’s Border Tribe, while Danai Gurira is confidently aggressive as Okoye, head of the all-female special forces team that protects T’Challa. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright enlivens every scene as T’Challa’s cheekily intelligent, tech-savvy little sister Shuri, who builds and develops all of Wakanda’s tech. What makes them all so compelling is that every one of them posseses an emotionally engaging throughline – W’Kabi is frustrated at his king’s failure to catch his parents’ killer, while Okoye finds herself torn between her heart and her sense of duty – and Coogler ensures everyone gets their moment to shine.
Yes, there are flaws. Some of the early action sequences are clumsily edited and the climatic battle suffers from Marvel’s usual overload of CGI gadgetry and giant creatures. But at a time when MCU movies have becoming increasingly cookie-cutter in style and tone, Black Panther dares to be different. It delivers glorious visuals, insane action sequences and an absorbing, complex story filled with rich, fully-rounded characters that elevates the superhero genre to extraordinary new heights. It’s mightily impressive.
Runtime: 134 mins (approx.)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Danai Gurira, Latitia Wright