T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.
Marvel’s latest film is their first to feature a black superhero in the leading role since 2004’s ‘Blade: Trinity’, and their first within the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’. In that sense (and many others) ‘Black Panther’ is groundbreaking, but that can only get you so far and fortunately the story of T’Challa and Wakanda is so much better than being a mere nod to diversity and it’s one of the best Marvel films of recent times. Introduced in ‘Captain America: Civil War’, the character of T’Challa (or ‘Black Panther’) gets a full origin story in this solo outing that focuses on his rise to the position of King in his home country of Wakanda after the death of his father. Standing in his way is an old adversary who arrives to challenge T’Challa’s claim to the throne and his views on how he should lead his people in an increasingly global world. The film has a good story, strong characters and villains with complex and believable motivations and I was gripped and entertained by the film in equal measure.
If Civil War was our introduction to T’Challa, ‘Black Panther’ is our introduction to the nation of Wakanda. And what a world it is. On the outside it appears to be a stand in for any other African country, but that masks a portal into the real Wakanda, an advanced thriving nation with technology beyond anywhere else in the world. It’s terrifically realised on screen and I was impressed with how succinctly Ryan Coogler introduces the ecosystem and provides the audience with a clear idea of who the main players are and how they fit into both the fabric of the nation and the narrative of this film. This is all told against a backdrop of breathtaking visuals and colourful costumes, introducing Wakanda as a country that encapsulates the best of African culture and the best of advanced science and technology. The Wakandans are a people who don’t trade or take aid from any other nations, nor do they allow outsiders into the country, marking them out as particularly elusive in a global context, and naturally that elusiveness attracts some unsavoury characters such as Ulysses Klaue, the scenery chewing smuggler portrayed by Andy Serkis. His quest revolves around smuggling a lethal and highly valuable substance known as Zibranium out of Wakanda, and in seeking to fulfil this mission he is joined by Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a former black-ops soldier with links to the country.
The film has an incredibly strong ensemble, full of memorable characters and energetic performances. Chadwick Boseman was really good in his introduction in ‘Civil War’ and he’s good again here, portraying the character with more depth as the responsibility of being King starts to weigh heavily on his shoulders. Letitia Wright is terrific as his sister and both villains (Andy Serkis and Michael B. Jordan) deliver memorable performances, particularly impressive as the vast majority of recent Marvel (or comic book villains in general) have been terrible with poor motivations. Jordan’s Killmonger is the antithesis to this, and my only complaint is that we don’t spend more time exploring the merits of his position against T’Challa’s values, but then again Marvel movies are not generally the place to find nuance on some of the more complex themes introduced. The action is well choreographed, mostly avoiding big CGI sequences for personal battles focusing on character more than firepower, and spending the vast majority of time in Wakanda gives the film a self contained nature that makes for a better story with a greater focus.
I’ve been quite vocal about my growing apathy towards the finely tuned machine that is the Marvel franchise, but in ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, the capacity to tell really good, entertaining stories in this universe remains and given we’re not going to be shot of comic book films anytime soon, long may it continue.
Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis