Black Panther Review
There are few films that arrive in cinemas with so much expectation placed upon it. Not just to deliver something good enough to satisfy the army of fans ready to analyse its place in the Marvel canon but also not to waste an opportunity to stand for something. Lupita Nyong'o said in a recent interview she couldn't believe Disney had given the green light considering the themes and subtext director Ryan Coogler wanted to include. It's easy to see why Lupita, and no doubt many of the other members of the cast, were eager to be involved in a film about a character with a name intrinsically linked to a revolutionary period in recent history that could now serve as a moment of insurgency against the current cinematic establishment.
The arrival of Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War was a powerful one which threatened to steal the thunder of its two stars the longer he remained. Now given his own film it follows on from the death of T'Challa's (Chadwick Boseman) father T'Chaka and serves as our introduction to their home of Wakanda, seen by outsiders as a third world nation when in fact it is the most technologically advanced country on the planet. Vibranium, the world's toughest and most valuable metal, is the source of Wakanda's strength and powers the upgraded Black Panther suit worn by T'Challa. These symbols of black pride and power intertwine perfectly with superhero ideals and is the platform on which everything in Coogler’s universe is built.
The start takes us back to 1992 in Oakland, California, to see a younger King T'Chaka (Atandwa Kani) reprimanding his brother, N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and a baby-faced Zuri (Forest Whitaker). Once back in the present day we skip through the obligatory opening action sequence that launches Black Panther into battle, aided by the general of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira) while also welcoming Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy with a complicated relationship with T'Challa, into the fray. Once they arrive in Wakanda the king-in-waiting is greeted by his mother Romanda (Angela Bassett) and cheeky younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who gets to deliver most of the best lines.
Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) eventually emerges as the villain of sorts, although it's unfair to leave the picture painted in such simplistic terms. At first he plays accomplice to Klaw (played deliciously by Andy Serkis who is having a whale of a time) before emerging as a double to T'Challa, fuelled by a dark, complicated history and ideas that sit in stark contrast to the King’s own beliefs. Killmonger’s motivations are best left revealed while experiencing the story as they add to the intrigue and emotional power it generates. The divide between two superheroes wearing Black Panther costumes seeds itself in discussions that have existed in parts of the black community for decades: whether to fight oppression with aggression or to seek a more peaceful route towards change.
Right across the board the performances are mostly very strong (although Angela Bassett is always on the verge of chowing down on some serious scenery) and despite the duelling men at its centre the women in this world are superheroes of their own making. Okoye is a fierce warrior loyal to her duties to the throne, played with the right level of compassion and intensity by Gurira. Nyong'o has grown as an actress with every passing role and probably delivers her best performance to date. What Shuri lacks in physical ability she more than makes up for with her strength of mind and quick wittedness. Like any iconic hero Boseman feels like he was born to play the role and it’s impossible not to gravitate towards the warmth he brings to T’Challa. And once Jordan’s Killmonger comes to the fore his dominant presence stands over everyone else but despite his methods it’s hard not to be won over by the reasons driving his rage.
It would be remiss not to give mention to DoP Rachel Morrison, whose work in Mudbound earned her an Oscar nomination, and along with production designer Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter’s amazing costumes, Wakanda is beautifully realised in every way possible. Even Ludwig Göransson’s score stands out from the typical bog-standard Marvel fare and the inclusion of African musician adds to its rich heritage. In many ways it feels strange to be discussing a Marvel release on such grand terms but Black Panther actually means something. Ryan Coogler has succeeded at making a superhero film that meets genre expectations while delivering something far more. This is a film to get genuinely excited about, not just because it’s so damn good, but due to the possibilities it presents and the scope of change this could lead to in years to come.