Black Panther - King of Marvel?
Runtime: 135mins | Director: Ryan Coogler | Rating: 5 Stars
By now you’ve likely seen and heard the rave reviews for Black Panther, the latest instalment for the seemingly unstoppable force that is Marvel Studios. If you haven’t, I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under, but I’m impressed!
Either way, I’m here to tell you that it is worth every piece of praise it receives – it is phenomenal.
Taking place after the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) during Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must return home to take his place as King of Wakanda, and earn the title of the Black Panther. After he takes the throne, however, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) resurfaces and begins causing havoc. Klaue isn’t T’Challa’s only concern though as he soon finds himself caught up in a conflict with an old enemy which not only threatens his title as King of Wakanda and Black Panther but also the world.
First things first – I have been a long-time fan of Black Panther’s director, Ryan Coogler since I saw his first feature film, Fruitvale Station.
For those who haven’t seen it, Fruitvale Station depicts the death of Oscar Grant, a young African American who was murdered by an American police officer which was caught on film and went viral. It was one of the most iconic police brutality cases in America, and one which is credited along with others for helping to ignite the Black Lives Matter movement.
Why am I talking about Fruitvale Station in a review about Black Panther you may be wondering? Because both films have a very common theme – they speak very openly, honestly and proudly about the African American experience.
It’s undeniably fun to get caught up in the fantastical and fictional side of Black Panther which at its most basic is a superhero film, filled to the brim with futuristic technology, armoured rhinos and other dimensions. But, that being said, Black Panther is a lot more than this. It’s a proud celebration of African culture – both traditional and new.
And who better to celebrate this on the silver screen than an A-List cast of black actors who all help to make this film the important breath of fresh air that it is: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett – the list goes on and on.
That being said, the cast aren’t the only ones who help to make this film the resounding success it is - the entire production team do too. Whether it’s an aerial view of the exotic, misty rainforests surrounding Wakanda, or the futuristic metropolis itself, Rachel Morrison doesn’t hold back at all– she works miracles with the cinematography. This coupled with the vivid costume design by Ruth Carter are a glorious combination and one I won’t forget anytime soon. Particularly the scenes at Warrior Falls.
*SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN, BE WARNED*
One of the biggest triumphs of Black Panther though is that it finally succeeded where so many of its predecessors failed – it created a villain with believable, compelling motivations for their actions.
Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a product of America and its lingering racial inequality. As a result, his actions are greatly shaped by his time spent in America as someone who’s black, which naturally leaves him feeling bitterly resentful. This creates a fantastic contrast between himself and T’Challa who grew up a native of the beautiful, reclusive Wakanda – the polar opposite of the concrete, racially charged streets of Oakland.
Ultimately, Killmonger wishes to use the incredibly powerful Wakandan technology to further the position of Africans across the globe, raising them out of the poverty they are currently so often subjected to. T’Challa, however, believes it is not Wakanda’s place to interfere in the world’s affairs as it would jeopardise their safety and long-standing lack of conflict. This contrast in ideologies is what makes Killmonger such a persuasive villain. Rather than indulging in fiction like Ultron or The Mandarin, he is grounded in reality and seeks to change a very pressing, real-world problem.
To highlight this need for change, as with Fruitvale Station, Coogler doesn’t pull any punches in relation to the inequality black people have had to face. Towards the end of the film during their inevitable showdown, Killmonger says to T’Challa, “my ancestors knew it was better to die than be kept in bondage”.
These references are important but are done tactfully in a way that doesn’t feel forced or alienating of white audiences, similar to Get Out. There’s no air of accusation in this film, only a need for change.
All that being said, Black Panther isn’t perfect.
Whilst I’m an open lover of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and think it deserves praise for greenlighting films like this to be made, it is a double-edged sword.
Benefitting from what Marvel has to offer also entails abiding by a certain narrative formula, and whilst, for the most part, I don’t mind this, in Black Panther I did.
By focussing on T’Challa for most of the film and making the tension points revolve around his personal stakes, this made it a lot more enjoyable than most. The Marvel films where you have less investment in the hero’s character and they jump straight to the classic “if we don’t stop X, Y will destroy the world” I always find less enjoyable. A good example of this is Thor: The Dark World.
Part of what made Black Panther so refreshing is that for the most part, it seemed as if it was going to entirely abandon this formula and buck the trend. Instead, right at the end, it refuses to take the final leap of faith and reverts back to this worn out, old formula.
Seemingly out of nowhere, stolen Wakandan spaceships which have the capability to destroy the world are suddenly thrown into the fray and mankind’s last hope to stop them is Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) sat in an arcade-style virtual cockpit, shooting them down. Not only did this feel entirely out of place, but very distracting and disappointing.
Why do this? There was no need.
My second criticism, which may well have a legitimate answer, is that for a film which so openly celebrates black talent, why wasn’t Samuel L. Jackson slotted into the film somewhere?!
Given the astoundingly talented black cast, this film has to offer, to me, it seemed a snub that Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t given a cameo seeing as he’s been in the Universe since Day 1. I assume it’s due to narrative inconsistency or scheduling conflicts, but I’m sure they could have worked out a way, had it even been a third credits scene.
Despite suffering from the entailments of being a Marvel film, Black Panther is, without doubt, one of the best Marvel films to have been made. This, along with Thor: Ragnarok seems to be heralding in a new era of the Studio which rewards difference rather than discouraging it.
Not only is Black Panther a refreshing film, but it’s also an important one. Having seen all the photos and videos of black communities hiring out cinemas to watch it together, going in traditional African clothing, and young black children aspiring to be Black Panther rather than other potential role models is something which cannot be understated. In many ways, it is the Wonder Woman of the Marvel Universe.
With stunning visuals, an A-list cast and one of the best villains in a film to date, Black Panther is a must see. Don’t miss out seeing it on the big screen – you’ll regret it.
(Thor: Ragnarok is still my favourite though. Sorry, T’Challa!)
To watch the trailer - click here!