Black Panther (2018)


I hate to have to pull up the DC Extended Universe when talking about Marvel, but I’m sorry, the comparisons are inevitable. Here is a movie that will do for the black community everywhere what Wonder Woman (2017) did for women, but while the exhilarating romanticism of our first blockbuster female superhero has already been washed away by the stench of Justice League (2017), Black Panther arrives at a time that could not be more crucial for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the world in general. This is an important film, if not necessarily a great one.

As an origin story, Panther is neither a success nor a failure. It just is. But inherent within this fable is an abundance of joy and innovation; it’s a tried and tested story of a prince who has to fight for his throne (there are echoes of Thor and Asgard in here somewhere), set against a mouth-watering backdrop of an Africa that has been bisected by tradition and the ultramodern.

That is what really works here – the film’s energetic production design. The fictional kingdom of Wakanda is cradled somewhere in the mountains and visually sealed off from the world by some kind of force field, so we’re treated to mud huts and goat farmers before the camera swoops through the barrier to reveal an eye-popping futuristic utopia of towering spires and flying vehicles. It’s a place where the new is built upon the foundations of the old – it can be seen from the magnificent costumes (both rural and urban) to the graffiti that adorns an underground research lab. We get the sense that this is a city born from African soil and raised in its complex culture, not in the memory banks of a visual effects artist’s computer, and it’s splendid.

But the plot, it must be said, is rather ordinary. We are reacquainted with Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who, after his father’s untimely demise in Captain America: Civil War (2016), has to assume the throne and ensure the precious vibranium metal that accelerates Wakanda’s growth remain secret from the rest of the world. But there is dissent in the ranks and the emergence of a foreign foe, who has been sifting vibranium for years and selling it on the black market in an attempt to finally reach the mythical El Dorado and claim the kingdom as his own.

There are deep pockets of delightful moments, as when Black Panther tears through a car chase in South Korea, but for some reason many of the fight scenes take place in near darkness, and it doesn’t help that our hero’s costume is 98% black. There’s also a gorilla-inspired tribe whose arresting village is embedded in snowy mountainsides. It’s the closest Marvel has come to advertising a five-star getaway destination.

The large cast, in which I counted only two white men, is populated by quite an effective range of personalities, from Danai Gurira’s formidable warrior Okoye, to Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s enchanting younger sister who is apparently proficient at everything, including spinal surgery. Unfortunately, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is awarded pathos and a profound backstory but ends up shouting “BURN IT ALL!” and “I AM YOUR KING NOW!” a whole lot, y’know, like a bad guy. For such a sympathetic young man he becomes more like a brutish nuisance than an emotional nemesis.

Black Panther is nevertheless a success. It’s entertaining and confidently directed by Ryan Coogler, who has left enough doors open so that we may all discuss his movie’s relevance. The parallels are there for you to draw, if you so wish.

What’s left now is to see what Marvel will do next, because it’s imperative, after such a momentous step into the light, that these pioneering characters not be hustled back into the shadows by their white counterparts. They’ve proven they can hold their own.


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