It is a rare thing for a Marvel origin movie to be a resounding success. I mean, out of our introductions to current titular superheroes Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Ant-Man (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and even the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) very few have left audiences both impassioned and awe-inspired. You see, it’s a hard combination to create, at least the first time around, with the studio usually more interested in carefully crafting the characters for their star-studded team-up flicks. Perhaps this is why Black Panther (2018) works so well, with director Ryan Coogler spending less time introducing us to his restrained and dignified main man following his launch in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and instead focusing his energy and expertise into bringing one of Marvel’s most beautiful realms to life. Here, he breathes life into a myth, building a groovy world worthy of the big screen and the landmark acclaim it is gaining.
We start in the aftermath of King T’Chaka’s death, as royal heir T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his technologically advanced homeland to take up the mantle of its monarch. Following a primordial challenge from the land’s four other tribes, the Prince emerges as Wakanda’s rightful leader and warrior. But just days into his reign he is forced to bring the nation’s greatest villain Ulysses Klaue to justice – a feat his father was unable to achieve for more than 30 years. It’s no wonder then that blood and betrayal run deep in the movie as it shifts to South Korea for its stylish and slick second half. Here our protagonist, his protector Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his feisty ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) take on their foes in a polished casino-heist style scene. No Marvel movie would be complete though without an all-out car race, this time sweeping through neon-streaked streets and providing the perfect opportunity for the Prince’s tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to shine. But it’s mercenary Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who takes centre stage come part three, putting a dampener on the ruler’s plans by challenging his right to sit upon the throne and causing the series second civil war to break out.
Visually the film is stunning. Gorgeous cosmic colours swirl through ancestral worlds and bleed into the gorgeous country of Wakanda. There’s a similar vibe in the music too, with an original soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar combining wild drumbeats with flourishes of frenetic hip-hop. It makes you want to get up and move, pulling viewers into the film and transforming them into more than just oblivious observers. Part of what makes the film great though is how seamlessly it blends the traditions of old with the technology of new. This is a country that exists with the greatest advancements in life - from hover trains to metal-balls that can save people’s spines - yet continues to conduct ritual bloodfights for its governance. Culture is important and no matter how far its people may progress, the sanctity of their customs and their desire to prove you can have it all sets them apart.
The star-studded cast are a step-above, but one wouldn’t expect any less from those who have mastered funk legends, slayed zombies and won Oscars. Boseman brings a serene presence to his King, funnier than we have seen him before, but still duty and honour bound. He is the wise leader, forced to understand how failure is crucial to making a great leader. In opposition, Jordan brings a reckless, snarky-ness to his scarred villain Killmonger. Yet despite his flaws, he is one of the most well-rounded and empathetic antagonists the Marvel universe has produced - his unwillingness to give-up on his beliefs demanding credit. Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker and Winston Duke all provide solid support in roles that could easily have been extended, but it is hard not to see how it is their actress counterparts that really make a mark in the film’s two-hour run.
Women are incredibly powerful in Coogler’s world, with their representation here among the best in Marvel’s history. While T’Challa may serve as King and hero, females form the brunt of those closest to him. His mother Queen Ramonda is a guiding force in who he becomes. His sister Princess Shuri provides the smarts behind his advantage over foes. And former flame and spirited badass Nakia is not afraid to challenge and push to be a better person. Then there is the King’s guard – the Dora Milaje - an all-female group of shaven-haired warrior women led by General Okoye. Little girls have long waited for Marvel to get their act together and give them someone more than just Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to aspire to, and here Coogler cocks his head and says screw waiting until Captain Marvel (2019). You want to be a cool scientist? Then study hard and do it. You want to be an activist and stand up for what you believe in? Make people hear your voice. You want to be someone other than the damsel-in-distress? No-one is stopping you. Not anymore.
Above all, race is the most crucial element here, there’s no denying it. Never before has there been a superhero movie with such a triumphant African-American cast, directed by an African-American visionary and with a budget this big to throw around. And Coogler makes it clear from the get-go that identity is at the heart of his blockbuster, whether that be a hesitant son trying to live up to his father’s name or a beefed-up outcast hitting back at the home he was never invited into. Our movie-maestro has been commenting on these themes for a while now, from his incredible introduction Fruitvale Station (2013) to his powerful follow-up Creed (2015). But everything about Black Panther (2018) makes it feel like he has simply been gearing up for an ultimate chance to comment on the politics that so deeply divide us. So, it’s no surprise he is keen to finish on a note of unity rather than division. It’s a representation that will make generations sit up and pay attention. And maybe one day, we’ll realise that difference isn’t something to be afraid of, but something to embrace.
Rating: 4 Wakandan Warriors out of 5
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