Ryan Coogler delivers a formulaic but visually stunning vision of a pan-African utopia in the first proper outing of the first proper black superhero.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Latitia Wright
Runtime: 132 minds
Release date: 13 February 2018
The first time we see Wakanda’s capital city, it’s really something. The boundless savannah, so intrinsically associated with an unindustrialised Africa, melts away to reveal an unseen technological marvel. The gleaming city is a melting pot of African influences, simple tribal architecture transformed into towering skyscrapers. It’s a sight which immediately sets Black Panther apart from the rest of the Marvel canon (aesthetically at least – more on that in a bit), and perfectly encapsulates the message of this latest superhero adventure: pan-African power.
The wondrous city, and all of the fictional nation’s advanced technology, is made possible by the fictional metal vibranium, found only in Wakanda. A prologue details how a meteorite of the metal fell on Africa, and how five tribes collaborated to use the metal to build a hidden nation. Things get uncomfortable when the animated soil of the prologue shows the powerful Wakandans ignoring the Atlantic slave trade, despite having the means to put an end to the atrocities.
Don’t worry, though; Wakanda’s extreme isolationist policies form the thematic meat of Black Panther. The film proper opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assuming the Wakandan throne after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. TChalla, having spent the past year searching for his father’s assassin, is fully aware of the dangers of the wider world. But he is also aware of how much Wakanda could help that world. T’Challa finds himself caught between tradition and progress as he asks himself: just how long can Wakanda keep itself sequestered away, especially when it has the resources to help so many?
In Black Panther’s search for an answer to this question, seemingly every character becomes a cipher for one of the multitude of ideologies surrounding Africa. The Wakandan royal court (populated by a veritable who’s-who of black character actors, including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Forest Whitaker) represent the isolationism that has dominated Wakandan diplomacy for centuries. Ulysses Klaue (the fantastic Andy Serkis, here giving Sharlto Copley a run for his money in sheer acting spectacle) is the face of white imperialism, having no interest in Wakanda beyond exploiting her resources. The only other prominent white character, CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman, whose American accent has improved since Civil War), is the patronising goodwill offered to Africa by a well-meaning but ineffectual West.
Then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s villain (obviously, with that name), who embodies Wakanda’s potential for violent domination. Killmonger wants to distribute Wakanda’s advanced weaponry across the African diaspora and lead a violent revolt against white oppression. While Killmonger’s murderous intentions clearly put him in the wrong, Jordan’s nuanced performance, and the smart script by Joe Robert Cole and director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), allows us to at least sympathise with his motivation.
These ideological explorations are surrounded by the kind of action, humour, and story beats we’ve all come to expect from a Marvel film. That the punching, jumping, and exploding are so familiar could perhaps work against Black Panther – after all, I can’t be the only one getting tired of seeing the same basic beats time and time again – but they actually give the film’s political and racial aspects room to breathe. A wild profusion of inventiveness might have distracted from the important and timely message.
That’s not to say that Black Panther‘s action isn’t any fun. As king of Wakanda, T’Challa is also the eponymous superhero, protector of his homeland. His bulletproof super suit fits inside a stylish necklace, and can store kinetic energy for spectacular discharges, allowing for some pleasing destruction. The suit is designed by T’Challa’s exuberant sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), as is a plethora of advanced weaponry. (It’s worth nothing that Black Panther is one of the very few Marvel films in which women have an important and direct role in the plot.) Also, there are armoured rhinos. Let me say that again:
As the latest in the insatiable juggernaut of a franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther sits proudly near the top, although it can’t reach the giddy heights of Guardians of the Galaxy or last year’s Thor: Ragnarok. As aesthetic spectacle, it’s unrivalled, in this or any other franchise. Wakanda is a glorious fusion of African styles, a celebration of the huge array of cultures present on that single continent.
But where Black Panther really shines is as a speculative signpost pointing to Africa’s potential place on the global stage. As Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman, Coogler has finally given a far too under-represented demographic their very own super icon. More than that, Black Panther presents a pan-African utopia that could, maybe, be the first step towards genuine global solidarity. That the film is a lot of fun to boot almost feels like merely a bonus.