If someone had told me, twenty years ago, that Black Panther would be a major motion picture, whilst Daredevil and The Punisher were relegated to TV, I wouldn’t have believed them. In the Marvel comics, T’Challa’s adventures were usually as a supporting act for another character, his native Wakanda and its source of vibranium being of more importance.
But here we are with Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s eighteenth movie in the ten years since its inception.
First, let me get something out of the way. I care very little about diversity in movies, or any other art form. My view is that it is up to the artist to realise his or her vision as they see fit. The audience is not part of the creative process. Black Panther scores no extra favour from me for its diverse cast of, mainly, African-American actors.
On its own merits, Black Panther is a very, very good film. And it is a credit to the actors and film-makers regardless of their ethnic background.
From the opening animated montage giving viewers the low-down on Wakanda’s history Black Panther gets stuck right in. We are told about the vibranum meteor, the country’s isolationist attitude and the incredible technology that it hides from the rest of the world. We see how the Wankandans watched, without action, as the Western world conquered and enslaved its neighbours. Even if you takeout the Marvel Comics tie-in, it’s a what if scenario that makes for quite a weighty thematic bedrock.
The film starts with a sequence, set in 1992, that sets up one of the most grounded, and realistic villains that we’ve seen in a Marvel film. Traditionally Marvel have opted for over-the-top villains that with every additional film seem to get more and more outlandish. For this film we have an angry young man left to fend for himself as a result of Wakanda’s protectionist stance. It’s a villain created by one bad decision of the former King, himself.
With this important bit of exposition out of the way, Black Panther continues the story set-up in Captain America: Civil War. After the death his father, King T’Chaka, Prince T’Challa returns to Wakanda to claim the throne.
Of course, it’s not as easy as that. T’Challa’s leadership faces a challenge from M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe who have kept themselves separate from the other united Wakandan tribes. This results in an excellently choreographed leadership challenge, setting the high bar for action-packed combat that the movie continues to raise for the entire running time.
The film’s fight choreography is outstanding, set to African-styled drums, but modern enough to not sound like something from The Lion King. The spear-wielding antics of the incredible female royal guard, the Dora Milaje, are particularly stunning.
Chadwick Boseman plays the young T’Challa to a tee. We see an awkward vunerablity alongside his sibling, Shuri, played by English actress Lettita Wright, but we also see T’Challa the noble king.
It’s always a pleasure to see Andy Serkis out of the motion capture suit. Here he reprises his role as South African merc, Ulyssess Klaue, from Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s also nice to see Martin Freeman, who gets to do a bit more this time as Everett K. Ross, than he did in Civil War.
As interesting as the characters in the movie are, the big Macguffin is the country of Wakanda, itself. To the rest of the world it is a third world African country, but it doesn’t ask for aid and generally keeps itself to itself. The perils of Wakanda’s protectionism is personified by Erik, AKA Killmonger, the half-Wakandan child T’Chaka left in the US as a young boy, rather than return with him and expose a terrible secret.
The movie flows well with only the odd hiccup, if anything it’s shoehorning the wider Marvel Universe and what audiences expect from a Marvel movie that creates the weak spots. The incredibly fortunate reveal that Martin Freeman’s Ross is a former fighter pilot, a half hour before needing to do a bit of fighter piloting made be groan a bit. But I’m splitting hairs here.
Black Panther is a fresh idea set to a beautiful backdrop. The film sticks close enough to the comic book incarnation whilst delivering a cinematic experience that would still make for a great film without being a Marvel superhero movie. At the same time, Wakanda’s introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a high-tech African country, is going to be a game-changer for future films. Hopefully with the Disney/Fox deal we will see the equally interesting Marvel countries of Latveria and Genosha in future movies.