Representation in blockbuster cinema is quite the topic these days and rightly so – after all, making contemporary movies with settings and story themes that draw heavily from other cultures is a wonderful way to give old genres a shot in the arm with renewed vigour and bring us all closer together as we enjoy the shared experience. It’s a nice thought and a truly important aim, but after all this time Hollywood could still be accused of taking baby steps toward this goal.
Cut back to 2016 and bask in the seismic introduction of Prince T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War; a noble man, a dutiful son and – in his costumed guise of the Black Panther, the symbolic protector of his native land – a man who can lay an impressive beat-down on such opponents as Captain America and Bucky Barnes. The world sat up and took notice – who the fuck was this guy, where did he come from and (most importantly) when would we see more of him? In 2019, the game would change…
Returning to the technologically superior nation of Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War left his father in an extreme state of being dead, Prince T’Challa, the current protector of his people as the Black Panther, takes up the mantle of king, only to find numerous forces moving to take the throne. The obvious suspect is M’Baku, a seeming barbarous leader of another tribe, but moving behind the scenes is rogue merc “Killmonger” (a wonderfully intense Michael B. Jordan making up for Fantastic 4 in droves) and deranged weapons dealer Ulysess Klaue (Andy Serkis returning from Age Of Ultron and relishing every minute being free of a mo-cap suit), who between them have cooked up a plan to destabilise the notoriously secretive nation for their own ends. As T’Challa embarks on a doomed mission to arrest Klaue for previous crimes against Wakanda, he runs into CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman looking permanently flustered and/or confused) and is forced to take him back to his kingdom, however Killmonger has secrets for T’Challa that may tear everything down his beloved father has built and our hero has to surround himself with his trusted family and advisors to protect everything that he’s fighting for – but will they choose him or be forced to obey the throne?
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a man no stranger to diving into established movie universes having made the second best Rocky movie ever in Creed, flourishes here. Given an entire nation to play with he creates a world that’s a literal game changer not because just of the innovative things it does, but because of the ground breaking things it doesn’t do. In Wakanda we have an entire civilisation that has risen to a place of prominence, free of colonialism and slavery that has thrived and created it’s own culture. It’s remarkably refreshing, especially considering how the Wakandan’s amusingly treat white people in positions of authority who talk down to them, used to getting a certain reaction. However, playing an even larger part in acknowledging the real world in this action fantasy is Killmonger’s painfully timely motive to avenge the centuries of abuse and mistreatment of black lives by using Wakanda’s vast reserves of vibranium to wage war on the rest of the world and restore balance by force. You can’t deny the man has a point and only his methods mark him out as being an actual “villain”, but the result is possibly Marvel’s most nuanced antagonist since Loki.
It’s these weighty themes that firmly plant Black Panther as something decidedly head and shoulders above your usual superpowered fare and despite the vast size of the project, Coogler manages to still keep things personal – the 90’s flashback that open’s the movie is set in Oakland, California where the director grew up – and even has T’Challa surrounded and supported by a loving matriarchal inner circle.
This is where you’ll find most of Black Panther’s scene stealers (although Serkis tries his damndest while singing Baby Don’t Hurt Me to a nonplussed Freemam); the flawless Lupita Nyong’o takes point as T’Challa’s flame Nakia while The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira proves to be an action legend as awesomely fearsome general Okoye. We never got the dream casting of a younger Angela Bassett as Storm, but we do still get her with platinum white hair and a native accent as the royal mother and Letitia Wright keeps it light as T’Challa’s super smart, super precocious sister Shuri meaning that the movie’s gender politics is as innovative as it’s approach to race (although I really need more Winston Duke in my life as M’Baku).
Of course last, but certainly not least is the late great Chadwick Boseman himself and while the appearance of so many interesting characters and shameless scene stealers initially made the Black Panther feel a bit like a supporting character in his own film and yet repeated viewings exposes the quiet, dignified and hugely passionate performance that ultimately carries the movie. This truly was a man who gave us a lot and yet tragically most likely had his best roles still ahead of him. We will be missed.
With everything I’ve just listed, you may wonder why I’ve only granted Black Panter four stars and that’s because of the film stumbling slightly at the final hurdle with it’s big, typically Marvel, finale. The action up to that point has been great with a crisp, cool, James Bondian casino rumble and car chase throughout Busan scoring highly, but the final act showdown between the two leads frustratingly lacks weight as the two characters wear similar suits, display similar powers and are reduced to CG stuntmen, swapping CG punches on an underground CG railway line (can’t ignore the symbolism, there). Plus some of the visuals during the large rumble above ground is frequently sub par too and really throws off all the hard work the movie has achieved up to that point.
But honestly? These are minor niggles compared to how many barriers Coogler has smashed through (with any luck, we’ll never get anything like Shaq in Steel ever again) while still delivering a fun, thoughtful and hugely important instalment to the Marvel Cinematic universe and the comic book genre in general.
In the wake of Boseman’s tragic passing, it’s currently a mystery where this part of the MCU will go next, but with his memory, Coogler’s talent and a magnificent pool of characters to choose from; you can bet that we’ll be chanting “Wakanda Forever!”, forever.