We’re currently living in a world that seems more inclined to build walls than to knock down them, making Marvel’s latest endeavour; a celebration of black culture and identity, something of a necessity. It’s a superhero film that scrutinises over the notion of heritage, and the value in learning, and appreciating where we’ve come from. It’s also an ineffably adventurous, vibrant and compelling production. It’s a blockbuster that is saying something, and believe me Marvel, we’re listening.
After the death of his father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), otherwise known as the Black Panther, is the new King of the isolated Wakanda, which is secretly the world’s most technologically advanced nation. Though a peaceful country, given their resources, and their harvesting of the elusive, powerful metal vibranium, it makes them a target for Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his accomplice Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), as T’Challa must return home and defend his homeland against these nefarious adversaries. Alongside his allies Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), as well as CIA Agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), they set out to win this battle and avoid a war. What helps their cause, is T’Challa’s diligent, whizz-kid of a sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is behind the Black Panther’s vast array of advanced weaponry, and his rather impressive new suit.
Director Ryan Coogler does a remarkable job imbuing Wakandan culture into the narrative, whether it be through the African martial arts that make for truly indelible combat sequences, or the way he uses African drums to build up suspense. In this instance, being from Africa is so much more than a mere plot-point, it’s their weapon, their advantage over their enemies. It’s what defines them. Though being from Wakanda has given these characters a somewhat unrealistic perspective on the world around them. Unlike their neighbours, they have never dealt with colonialism and poverty, and they aren’t able to see the world on the same terms as the rest of Africa does, or even for black Americans – such as Killmonger.
Killmonger is the star of the show too, with Shuri running him extremely close. And this leads into the film’s main shortcoming, which is T’Challa himself. The supporting cast are full of great cinematic creations, but the eponymous protagonist works as something of a cipher at times, perhaps just lacking somewhat in personality. In the MCU the Avenger at the core of the tale is often their respective film’s most charismatic character, such as Tony Stark, for example. Even Thor perked up a little in his last outing (must be the haircut). But Boseman just doesn’t quite have enough to work with here, and instead this feels more akin to the DC brand of protagonist; in the same ilk as Batman and Superman; a vehicle for virtue, and that’s about it.
That’s not to say the film is dour nor humourless, for there are many laughs to be had, as a film that is gloriously playful in parts, helped along by the incredible, ambitious aesthetic, as a world we enter and never want to leave. To correspond with the comedy, there is a socio-political undercurrent too, proving that often in cinema we need to step out of reality in order to best understand it. So while in many ways this feels like a departure for Marvel, it is very much of the same ilk; a hugely entertaining production with plenty to say. But best of all, it feels like a Ryan Coogler film, and given his quite astonishing career to date, that’s a rather high compliment to pay. And to think, he’s only 31 years old – but don’t hold that against him.
Black Panther is released on February 13th.