Ryan Coogler has done something extraordinary with Black Panther. In a market that was in very real danger of having superhero fatigue, he has managed to breath new life, energy and a brilliant, exciting vision of a world into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther feels like the beginning of not only a new chapter for Marvel, but also a bar-raising challenge to every other superhero film to come.
Set immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film introduces the world properly to the country of Wakanda, located somewhere roughly in the south of Africa. To everyone on the outside, Wakanda is a land of poverty, farmers and struggle, but in reality it is the most progressive and most technologically advanced country in the world. The story follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he takes up the mantle of King, and the Black Panther, after his father’s death in Vienna. The transition however is not as straightforward as one would hope, and the repercussions of his father’s action come back to haunt T’Challa as he tries to reconcile Wakanda’s place in the world with his own personal vision for the future. There’s very much a Greek tragedy sensibility to the film, issues of fathers and sons, blended with an Afro-futurism that sings on the big screen and is a beautiful celebration of blackness.
Everything about the film is bright and beautiful, with Wakanda as a fully drawn society that had vibrancy and colour and fun, but still struggling with issues between the various five tribes that make up the country – and a special mention has to go to the head of the Jabari tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) for one of the best lines in the film that got a big laugh in the cinema I was in.
Chadwick Boseman in the lead role simply excludes kingly confidence but also vulnerability as he struggles to adjust to his new role as king, and deal with aspects of his father’s past. Micheal B. Jordan is a revelation as Killmonger, the antagonist who demands to be avenged for past mistakes, managing to blend anger with a deep hurt that feels very different from ordinary superhero villains, big metal robots, or aliens with huge armies. Instead it is just him, fighting a war all on his own that has haunted him his whole life.
And the characters. In 2018 it is still naff that I have to specifically mention this, but the fact that there are not one, but several complex, funny, real and incredible female character honestly feels like nothing short of a miracle. There’s the teasing, incredibly intelligent Shuri played by Letitia Wright, T’Challa’s younger sister and technological genius, Danai Gurira as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje the personal army of the king whose serious demeanor is punctuated with humor, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, a spy and all round boss who is also T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the Queen Mother and one of the king’s key advisers who simply exudes queenly intelligence wherever she goes. None of these characters are the “token female”, but instead drive the narrative, charge into fights, are not afraid to challenge the king on his ideas and are interesting, good characters.
With this, Ryan Coogler has pushed the boundary of female representations in not just superhero films, but hopefully mainstream cinema as a whole. And this is why huge franchises need to be opened up to filmmakers and creatives from different countries, worlds, beliefs, ethnicity and genders, whole other viewpoints and interests and writings emerge that challenge that sometimes stale “norms” of blockbuster cinema.
There’s no real other way to end this review except for this: Wakanda forever!