T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is a king by day and the superhero, Black Panther, well, whenever the fictional African nation of Wakanda needs defending. In Black Panther – the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Wakanda is introduced as a nation with a lineage of rulers who take on the mantle of Black Panther to help keep the technologically advanced country a secret.
Wakanda offers no aid to neighbouring nations and they’re M.I.A at the United Nations. T’Challa’s head of border security, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), remarks: “if we take refugees, we inherit their problems.” Indeed, Wakanda’s extreme privacy settings have allowed their people to stay free from colonialism, famine, wars and diseases. The world has burned around Wakanda, and they’re just fine.
We’re used to our comic book movies featuring noble-hearted heroes, but rarely has border protection been high on their all-mighty priority list. In this way, Black Panther uses Wakanda’s position of privilege to examine what its king and his advisors stand for beyond mere patriotism, as well as highlighting the power of representation and visibility. For once, Black Panther proves a Marvel film can aspire to be something more; it has political bite, emotional depth, ethical dilemmas, and regal jostling, but it still manages to maintain a bombastic comic book aesthetic that’s spectacular.
Black Panther is a vital film for Marvel.
Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther is a king in training following the death of his father. T’Challa’s first assignment as ruler is to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice for stealing a stockpile of a precious metal native to Wakanda. But Klaue isn’t working alone, and T’Challa discovers the theft is part of plan to challenge the throne instigated by Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan).
Wakanda is alive in Black Panther: the world co-writer and director, Ryan Coogler, and his talented crew build inside a little holographic bubble is stunning. The film never feels tied to or defined by the gigantic Marvel logo in the opening credits, because it stands confidently on its own.
Wakanda has a history, traditions and rituals that help paint a vibrant picture of what this country means to its populace. Each costume tells you everything you need to know about the tribes of Wakanda – they’re all individual works of art by costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Each piece of Wakanda’s culture makes you believe the passion when they yell their battle cry, ‘Wakanda forever!’ But first and foremost, Coogler has instilled Black Panther with an incredible sense of pride. Wakanda is an African utopia that owns the title of the cradle of mankind.
When Black Panther travels outside Wakanda you feel the yearning for that sense of pride, particularly when encountering the racial inequality of the “real world”. Coogler shows black teenagers in Oakland, America, looking up in awe at one of Wakanda’s jets, with one of the kids remarking that it looks like a flying Bugatti.
In this clever, almost meta way, Black Panther makes the case for why a Black Panther film needs to exist. To those who are under-represented in pop culture, Coogler is saying: I see you.
The same sentiment applies to the plot, too, and the sublime villain played with heartbreaking vigour by Jordan. Boy is it tough not to empathise with Killmonger’s plan, as he makes the case to use Wakanda’s power to start a revolution – the moral and ethical challenges presented by the character are the hallmarks of a great villain.
Killmonger represents a kind of American radicalisation that leans into Wakanda’s own troubled history, and the extreme actions of past kings who tried to keep their country a secret at the expense of others. Killmonger is a villain who has never once seen himself represented, and his rage is misguided masculinity aching for an emotional anchor. The challenge Killmonger presents to T’Challa helps Black Panther find its nobility in heroics. It’s a film about a superhero settling on what they choose to stand for, and fight for, beyond mere self-interest.
The biggest surprise is T’Challa’s strength outside the Black Panther suit. Boseman’s performance is pensive and regal, but he gets moments to shine as he lets his guard down under the mounting pressure of tradition and while trying to forge a new path for Wakanda. The heartening moments of Black Panther are based on the actions of a man, not a superhero.
After all, for T’Challa to become a great ruler he must surround himself with the best advisors, and Black Panther is stacked with a sublime supporting cast, made up mostly of women who have as much to do as the title character – if not more. Lupita Nyong’o is the leader of a tribe and T’Challa’s choice for queen who resists being classified as a love interest in so many kick-ass ways. Letita Wright is the Q of Wakanda, designing technology to make Tony Stark look amateur, and Dania Gurira is awesome as the leader of Wakanda’s secret service. In the testosterone stakes, Winston Duke is a great diplomatic rival to T’Challa while Serkis makes a South African accent diabolical, working in the tradition of Lethal Weapon 2.
It must be said for all of Black Panther’s strength and independence within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a little of the woes of these films seep in. The action gets wobbly when the digital effects start to overwhelm. A sequence in which two costumed bodies fall while fighting looks more like something out of the virtual reality in Lawnmower Man.
Elsewhere, Coogler stages a cool, James Bond-inspired casino sequence which culminates in a confrontation that smashes its way through South Korea, but it’s tough to keep tracking the action with any sense of clarity. Coogler works better closer to the ground, especially in the hand-to-hand combat sequences, which isn’t a surprise, given this is the guy who directed the superb Creed. There’s enough time during these fight sequences to savour the physicality of each fight, the stakes of the battle and the importance of tradition.
Black Panther is a vital film for Marvel and one that’s overdue for a franchise pushing close to 20 films. Coogler takes a comic book movie beyond the realm of the acceptable, pleasing, same-same nature of a majority of Marvel’s output on the big screen. And though it might be a film with bombast, it has something more crucial: a soul. Coogler strives to make a film that’s greater than the constraints of comic book blockbuster filmmaking, and in turn, implores us to be better by following the Wakanda way.