In the overstuffed but hugely enjoyable Captain America: Civil War we were introduced to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, who adopts his heroic mantle after the death of his father to wreak vengeance on the man responsible (thought at the time to be Cap’s ol’ mate Bucky, and thank god we cleared that up). The Panther cut a striking figure in his brief but instantly iconic turn, all sleek athleticism and stentorian pronouncements of honour and retribution, but that’s all surface razzle dazzle. Now, in his eponymous solo outing, we get to dig deeper into T’Challa, his world, and his meaning as symbol, and we are not left wanting – although we may be left somewhat exhausted.
He’s a difficult character to sum up, after all. What if Batman was an African king? What if James Bond was black? What if Tony Stark put his incredible technological prowess towards bettering the world instead of building armour? What if The Phantom wasn’t weighed down with a shedload of White Saviour nonsense? The Black Panther is vast; he contains multitudes. It’s perhaps a bit of overcompensation rooted in the character’s creation at the hands of comics giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966; in making one of the very first black superheroes, they made him the best at everything – he’s a high tech magical ultra-rich super genius who wields massive political power to boot. Thankfully, over the years a multitude of creators, mostly African American, have managed to synthesise T’Challa’s hodge-podge of super-attributes and, more importantly, humanise him, culminating in this take by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).
And so we have a man struggling with both his place in the world, and his country’s place in the world. The plot sees T’Challa returning to Wakanda to deal with the rites of succession following the murder of his father, T’Chaka (the great South African actor John Kani), and ascend to the throne – a task he feels no small trepidation for. T’Challa’s personal crisis, however, is well and truly overshadowed by our introduction to Wakanda – or should we say WAKANDA; the fictional country makes such an impact, it feels like it deserves all the capslock.
An absolute monarchy, Wakanda’s chief resource is the insanely valuable fictional metal Vibranium (Captain America’s shield is made out of it), not that anyone outside the nation’s borders would know about it. To the outside world, Wakanda is a third world country of little consequence on the global stage, but inside its borders? Flying cars! Towering skyscrapers! Holograms! Nanotech! The works. It’s an afrofuturist near-utopia, rendered in a stunningly vibrant sub-Saharan palate that’s like nothing else we’ve seen on screen before – a mix of traditional indigenous African cultures and the dizzying techno-mythic dreams of Jack Kirby.
Note the use of “near” to modify “utopia” though. Wakanda’s prosperity comes at a cost: absolute isolation and secrecy. There’s little diplomacy, no trade at all, no immigration, and the government is effectively a benevolent dictatorship, built on a deep foundation of tradition and inculcated loyalty. The chief concern of of the film is set up in a prologue flashback in which T’Chaka, in his role as the previous Black Panther, punishes a Wakandan operative gone rogue in America: what is Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world in general, and the African diaspora in particular? Is it just to prosper while you brothers and sisters suffer in American ghettos?
T’Challa’s military regent and right hand man, W’Kabi (Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya) counsels reforming the outside world by force, but traditionalist factions in Wakanda’s power structure prefer the status quo. The largely hypothetical debate gets forced to crisis when the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, a striking and, crucially, understandable antagonist) starts making his move. A special forces veteran and international terrorist, Killmonger knows more about Wakanda than any outsider should – enough to make his designs on the throne a reality by manipulating the culture’s rigid codes of honour and custom. With his kingdom taken from him, Black Panther must gather all his strength and… well, you know how it goes.
With its blend of mysticism and futurism and its concerns with dynastic power struggles, Black Panther resembles nothing so much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune, with T’Challa as the messianic changer of ways at the centre. That’s all macro, thematic stuff, though; Black Panther also sings in the more tangible details. It’s a film that feels alive, taking us into a culture and a situation that feels organic, lived-in and vital, stepping away from the now familiar Asian-by-way-of-Blade-Runner or boy-wasn’t-2001-a-heck-of-a-film visions of the futuristic that have dominated cinema for decades (and let’s not even go near Star Wars).
This includes the characters we meet, and the film does a bang-up job of introducing a packed ensemble, including Okoye (Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead), the fierce traditionalist leader of T’Challa’s personal guard; Shuri (Letitia Wright), his tech-genius teen sister, already a strong contender for breakout character; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) his ex- and no doubt future-girlfriend; political rival turned ally M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a fierce tribe who worship mountain gorillas; lorekeeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). And let us not forget the Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent caught up in all this malarkey, and Andy Serkis having an absolute ball as venal South African mercenary Ulysses Klaue.
They’re all deftly sketched and leave an impression regardless of their screen time, but the film is careful to keep its focus on the battle between Black Panther and Killmonger, and rightly so. Marvel has been justly criticised for defaulting to the “dark mirror” antagonist model too often, but it’s never been better handled than here. Killmonger is a monster, an unrepentant murderer, but his agenda makes sense in the context of his life: orphaned, raised in poverty on the street and then taken into the military like so many African American men before him, and then to be confronted with a black-run paradise he has been unequivocally denied access to, unless he takes it by force. He is, as T’Challa calls him at one point, a monster of their own making, and a remarkably sympathetic one, thanks in large to the charismatic performance from Jordan.
He’s perfectly countered by Boseman’s knowingly regal yet warm and thoughtful portrayal of T’Challa, a man raised in privilege and opulence who knows that the traditions that brought him to such a high position must change for the good of all – something Thor: Ragnarok tackled as well. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, the saying goes, and our hero is troubled by the notion that he must wear a crown at all – surely down the track we’ll be seeing a film dealing with the possibility of Wakandan free elections?
Which all sounds like Black Panther is a rather moribund treatise on globalism, colonialism, and privilege, but never fret, the action kicks well over the requisite amount of ass; indeed, the first act rather plods until we get to a top notch extended action setpiece when T’Challa and company head to South Korea on the trail of some stolen vibranium – a sequence that the 007 crew should be taking notes from, by the way. The whole shebang builds to an epic crescendo, effectively Wakandan civil war – there are Battle Rhinos, team, and you’d have to be pretty jaded not to want to see that. The action never quite hits the level of visceral engagement that Coogler’s boxing matches in Creed did, but perhaps that wasn’t the target; still, there are a couple of moments where the action defaults to “CGI things hitting each other” that rather lets the side down.
There are a couple of tone deaf line readings where the script tries to make its subtext just plain text that feel a little insulting, too, as though the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to pick up what it’s putting down, and one undercuts the power of the emotional climax a little. Which is to say that Black Panther is not flawless – it’s just very, very good. It’s a vision, and a remarkable one; perhaps the most complete on-screen encapsulation of the wild flights of imagination comics are capable of, grounded in astute, modern political sensibilities. See it, see it a couple of times, and marvel (heh) at the idea that, this far into the age of the cinematic super hero, we’re still seeing films this bold, striking and fun.