Film Review | Black Panther

We finally catch up with Marvel Studio’s game-changing – politically if not narratively – tale of T’Challa, the beleaguered new king of the hyper-advanced African nation of Wakanda • 3/5

Hail to the king: Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa/Black Panther
Hail to the king: Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa/Black Panther

Well, better late than never. Between shuffling from one film to another at the Berlinale – making up for an eclectic array of cinematic experiences – and catching up with the Oscar favourites, along with notable Netflix releases (last week’s Annihilation review deserved that two-pager, no matter what you may think), I’ve had nary a chance to take Marvel’s latest box-office smash.

But here we finally are, and as it happens, Black Panther signals the “better late than never” adage in more ways than one. For it is, finally, a Marvel Studios release that places characters of African origin front and centre, and populates its roster of characters with a healthy number of strong female supporting players (they remain supporting, true, but that’s another discussion for another day).

Having encoutered him in an earlier film forming part of the Avengers umbrella, we now home in on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who is anointed to become the king of the African nation of Wakanda in the wake of his father’s tragic death in a terrorist attack. But sitting on the Wakandan throne comes with a unique set of responsibilities. For in the eyes of the outside world, the place is just another sad story of post-colonial ravage and internecine tribal warfare; a third-world country subsisting on sheep-farming and little else. But in actual fact, the Wakandans have literally cloaked their advancements – enabled for the most part by an indigenous rare mineral, Vibranium – from the world at large, for fear that their utopian existence would be compromised if exposed to the vagaries of the global reality.

However, it’s a status quo that now threatens to blow up in the faces of the Wakandan elite, consisting of T’Challa, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), the priestly figure of Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) – a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s former lover, whose conscience compels her to do “good works” beyond her native country’s borders.

And as it turns out, a better outreach programme would have gone a long way towards solving a fresh headache for the new king, who now has to contend with a radicalised second-generation Wakandan, N’Jadaka or Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who blames Wakanda’s isolationist philosophy for the mysterious death of his father many years ago, and who wants to seek his revenge on both Wakanda’s political elite, and the world at large, with the aim of fomenting a large-scale race war.

Competently directed by Ryan Coogler – a canny choice for the project, given his previous racially-sensitive features Fruitvale Station and Creed – Black Panther also owes plenty to its vibrant cinematography by Rachel Morrison and an impeccable costume and production design team, as Wakanda and its inhabitants are rendered with an inspiring oomph so lacking from the “orange-and-teal” wash of previous Marvel features.  This jolt of colour is matched by the film’s equally refreshing wins in the ‘representation department’. Naturally, any film about the Black Panther angle of the Marvel Universe is bound to have a higher ratio of African-American characters than average, but Wakanda’s female population is presented to be eminently ‘fierce’ and likeable too – with the wise-cracking and super-smart Shuri already becoming a fan favourite, while Okoye is a badass fighter for the ages.

While these wins are significant – as are the post-colonial undercurrents, dealt with the same surprising frankness one will also find in the likes of Thor: Ragnarok and the Luke Cage Netflix series – it’s not exactly a perfect ride. This being the eighteenth (yes, eighteenth) Marvel Studios feature, some narrative box-ticking is evident. This is down the predictable-to-the-point-of-Pixar story beats, as well as dime store-Freudian thematic re-treads of sons confronting the sins of their fathers, which we’ve had a demonstration of as recently as last year’s Thor: Ragnarok.

Nevertheless, the action set-pieces are still as satisfying as they come, and a three-sequence finale hits the hi-octane sweet spot.

Though little about the film-proper is sweeter than the – once again, equally perfunctory for Marvel – post-credits sequence, during which T’Challa exclaims that the wise will seek to unite the peoples of the world, “while the foolish build barriers”.

Representational win:  Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright
Representational win: Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright

The verdict

Despite a largely predictable narrative beat, Black Panther succeeds in ushering in a new world order of superhero films, as far as representation is concerned. With a game cast and an impeccably rendered world – where bright colours are weaved like a beacon of resistance in and of themselves – director Ryan Coogler has helped to create a space for the black community at the heart of the mainstream. Here’s a film that finally gives them a hero to root for without caveats or compromises; with an equally powerful and diverse cast that will find real-life surrogates in a wide swathe of interracial, international cinemagoers. “Wakanda forever”, indeed.