The problem with a really good trailer is that it leaves a lot to live up to. Black Panther had a really, really good trailer which promised a mix of Afro-futurism, kick-ass fight scenes and some interesting new characters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film lives up to it.
Symbolically this is an important film as we all know by know. Marvel Studios’ first black superhero movie (though let’s not forget Luke Cage has had his own TV series and Wesley Snipes’ Blade in pre Marvel Studios days) doesn’t just have a man of colour as the lead, it’s a film largely set in Africa with a mostly black cast. It feels like a big moment culturally to have a big slab of mainstream entertainment that’s driven by a non-white perspective (albeit with Marvel and Disney pulling the strings). But the best thing about Black Panther is that it’s not good because it’s politically correct, it’s good because it’s a very entertaining film that takes us places we haven’t been to before with superheroes.
Black Panther is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a nation of advanced technological achievements powered by a rare and powerful metal called vibranium. Wakanda remains hidden from the outside world choosing to keep its superior tech to itself, no outsiders knowing that beneath a dense rain forest lies a thriving city state with magnetically propelled trains, spaceships and hover-bikes – it’s the sort of place Elon Musk dreams about.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended to the throne after the death of his father, but is challenged by the leader of the mountain tribe for the right to rule. He triumphs but his problems are only just beginning as he tries to prevent mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) selling a vibranium spearhead stolen from the Museum of Great Britain (eh?) with the help of Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a former US special ops soldier with links to Wakanda and his own motives, beyond profiteering, for getting involved.
Black Panther is a vibrant addition to the MCU breathing new life into the superhero formula and shaking up our expectations along the way. In Wakanda writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) creates an exciting vision of Africa that challenges all the usual cliches around poverty, corruption, and the whole ‘Third World’ discourse we’re so used to. Wakanda embodies both Africa and progress, an alluring vision of what might have been without centuries of colonialism, oppression and exploitation. Tradition and technology sit happily side by side in this idyllic nation though the issue of whether Wakanda emerges from its reclusive, non-interventionist standing in the world is the bigger narrative underlying the plot.
In Klaue and Killmonger, T’Challa not only has worthy, dangerous opponents – they’re villains that have character and motivation beyond the usual generic comic book type. Klaue is an amoral mercenary with a manic streak as wide as the Great Rift Valley while Killmonger’s righteous anger is fuelled by the plight of black people at the hands of white Westerners both historically and in the here and now. Moreover, his grudge against T’Challa has personal origins as well as political motivations.
Black Panther is also a big leap forward for superhero movies in terms of female representation. In Wakanda, women aren’t just peripheral, token or decorative. They hold positions of power, influence and authority, they are key to the story and the action… and they kick butt.
T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a tech whizz, the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond; the general of his elite guard is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who’s a fearsome warrior leading a group of equally fearsome female warriors; T’Challa’s love interest Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a spy; and his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), like other women, holds a position of influence on the Wakanda’s ruling council. They are his most trusted advisors.
Boseman is the perfect blend of nobility, sincerity and slivers of uncertainty as T’Challa with just a sprinkling of humour too. He gets great support from the powerful women around him as well as eye-catching turns from Forest Whitaker as a shamanic figure, Daniel Kaluuya as a tribal leader and Martin Freeman as CIA man Everett Ross who accidentally (and often comically) gets tangled up in Wakandan affairs.
Coogler ensures things zip along nicely and provides us with some rather different fight scenes and battles to what we’ve grown used to (no devastated cities here) though the climactic fight does feel a little underwhelming.
But Black Panther as a whole is very satisfying, from its range of characters to its visual design and story arc. It’s another big Marvel success and the perfect way to follow the kaleidoscopic cosmic comedy of Thor: Ragnarok. It leaves Avengers: Infinity War, out in a couple of months, a lot to live up to.