Ryan Coogler | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Xhosa & Korean | 12A / PG-13
Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to star a person of colour in the leading role — not by a long, long shot. But it does look set to be the most successful. In part that’s down to its association with the MCU (the last time one of their movies grossed under $500 million was the first Captain America, 13 movies ago), but it’s also due to a general underrepresentation of non-white heroes right now — Black Panther may not be the first, but it may be the most mainstream. It also won’t hurt that it’s a very good action-adventure movie in its own right, and one that feels especially fresh thanks to tapping into an under-utilised cultural milieu.
Picking up shortly after the events that brought the title character into the MCU (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), the film begins with T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returning home to be crowned king of his country, Wakanda. A scientifically advanced African nation, with incredible technology fuelled by its deep reserves of the extraordinary metal vibranium, Wakanda has kept its abilities hidden from the rest of the world, who believe it’s a third world country of farmers. However, T’Challa must face forces from within and without who think Wakanda should play a greater role on the global stage — in particular long-time enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his new partner in crime Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to rule Wakanda and then the world.
A villain who wants to rule the world? Black Panther doesn’t spell out his goal quite that bluntly, I don’t think, but that’s what it is. It’s just one of several clues that this is, in many ways, a James Bond movie… only one where James Bond is a black African king with superpowers. The film’s whole structure is more Bond than Marvel, though: most obvious is the gadget-explaining Q scene, but then it becomes a globetrotting adventure (the film sets significant sequences in California, Nigeria, London, and Busan (though they don’t get there by train, thankfully)), complete with undercover operatives, a casino, car chases, and a plot with significant geopolitical elements. I’m not claiming you can map this one-for-one onto the Bond template, but the inspiration (consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers) is certainly there. One Letterboxd user described it as “The Lion King meets Skyfall”, which might sound pithy but is also surprisingly accurate — and Skyfall in particular, not just any old Bond film; but there we’d be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself after you’ve seen the movie.
An even more significant influence, for numerous reasons, is African culture. Much has been made of the film having a predominantly black cast (aside from (to use an already well-worn joke) a couple of ‘Tolkien’ white guys), but it fully embraces that too. It isn’t nominally set in Africa with faces that happen to be of a different colour to the blockbuster norm — African traditions, designs, and ways of life have been woven throughout the film. Are they real ones the filmmakers co-opted or were they just inspired by the iconography of the continent? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s a different flavour on the blockbuster stage, and that adds freshness to just about everything.
For one, it helps the film to look beautiful. It’s colourful without being cartoonish, the vibrant palette coming through via costumes and locations in a very real way. Design is naturally a big part of this — make-up; costumes; however the production design department breaks down across locations, sets, props, etc, etc. They were obviously able to cut loose, finding inspiration from different places to usual (i.e. Africa) and imagining a whole alternate world, similar to ours but a bit more Sci-Fi.
There’s the light, too — this is frequently a gorgeously shot film. Not just the quality captured by DP Rachel Morrison (who made headlines recently when she was Oscar nominated for Mudbound), but also the shot choices and editing — it’s filmic, whereas too many Marvel movies look like TV but with a humungous effects budget. Director Ryan Coogler stages the action well too. Across the board, the visuals don’t feel so generically “Marvel”, while also not forcing themselves so far outside the house style that it doesn’t feel like A Marvel Movie. Put another way, it’s probably not that radical, but it is fine-tuned.
The music is oftentimes striking as well, with Ludwig Göransson’s score and various songs* mixing different styles for a heady but effective blend. In fact, the music occasionally achieves a feel or atmosphere that I don’t think Marvel’s usually-generic soundtracks have reached before, and not necessarily ones you’d expect.
The film is rich and fresh in plenty of other ways too. The story is loaded with varied thematic concerns: there’s politics, both on the world stage and internal; the battle between tradition vs modernity; the pros and cons of both isolationism and being open to the world; issues of colonialism and its aftereffects (and the morality of a possible reversal thereof)… Obviously race is a factor as well, but in specific ways rather than some kind of generic “hey, look, black people can do this too!” I feel like there are many different things to read into and out of this film — numerous facets that could be focused on either singularly or in various combinations — and that, actually, the film would reward such a close reading, rather than falling apart when put under a microscope.
Yet another thing it juggles well in this mix are the characters and the performances behind them. There are a lot of people to get to know here, but they’re all so effectively sketched that most are interesting, likeable, or memorable (or all three) within just a few moments. The film may be called Black Panther and he may be the central hero, but he’s not the only strong, capable, heroic figure here — far from it. Indeed, another aspect that will surely generate plenty of discussion is the film’s strong female roles. The Q figure, currently at the forefront of all Wakanda’s incredible technology, is T’Challa’s younger sister (Letitia Wright); the army (or security service? I’ll confess to not being 100% on Wakanda’s military structure) is made up of women, led (of course) by a female general (Danai Gurira); their best spy is also a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); and the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is a powerful figurehead who gives strong advice.
The film doesn’t make a big to-do about all this — it doesn’t boast about how well these women are doing, or have people try to “put them in their place” only for them to overcome it — it just gets on with them being awesome. Obviously the race aspect is going to be the most talked about thing here, at least initially, but I’d wager Black Panther is second only to Wonder Woman in its foregrounding of exceptionally capable female characters in the superhero genre… and, considering how many of them there are in this, one might argue it surpasses even that. Although the lead’s still a bloke, so…
Said bloke is an interesting lead character. He’s often quite quiet and thoughtful, very different to the wisecracking action men who typically lead Marvel movies. I’d guess he’s going to get on well with Captain America come Infinity War because they both have that stoic intelligence. It means that Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have the easy likeability of jokes to fall back on, as has so benefited… well, all those other Marvel leading men. But quiet strength is its own reward, if slightly slower burning, and T’Challa is ultimately a very engaging hero. On the other side of the equation, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is one of Marvel’s rare strong ones — in fairness, something they seem to have been improving since everyone pointed it out. While Erik is unquestionably a bad guy doing bad things, he has an understandable motivation, and Jordan even makes you feel for him a bit by the end.
Marvel Studios have often talked about trying to mix other genres into each of their movies, to try to add some much-needed variety to the familiar superhero movie formula. On the whole I’d say the effect is minimal — I’m always minded of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they tried to push as a ’70s-style political thriller, but which I thought was still very much a superhero movie with a dash of political thriller in the mix. Although maybe that’s enough. Anyway, Black Panther is once again undoubtedly a superhero movie in more than just the literal sense that it’s adapted from a comic book about a superhero, but this particular mix of varied influences — some familiar (it’s not the first movie to imitate Bond), others less so (African culture in an action-adventure blockbuster) — does make it feel genuinely different to the norm.
I know some people say this every time the studio releases a new movie, but it probably is Marvel’s best film to date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it 4 stars again; but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s time to break my duck and make this the first Marvel movie I’ve given:
Black Panther is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.
* I’m sure there was a “songs by” credit, but I can’t remember the name and it doesn’t seem to be in any of the credits lists online. ^