I said while reviewing the last MCU film – the passable yet distracting Thor: Ragnarok – that this shared cinematic universe was side-stepping its way from being primarily superhero/action-adventure focused, to being primarily comedy films, and that this was not something I was all that into anymore. But I also said that the next MCU release – Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther – was a film I would still be supporting, because there were other, very important, reasons for doing so. The quality of the film was, in many ways, immaterial. Much like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman last year, making sure that Black Panther was a success is a goal in itself.
And I would be churlish if I was to claim that the need for Black Panther to be a success does not colour my thinking on the film. The world of film and Hollywood needs more diversity, be it in gender or be it in race: a megabucks MCU project with a largely black cast is Marvel Studios answer to that call from the community (while we still wait on that female-led film). Chadwick Boseman stole the scenes he was a part of in Captain America: Civil War, but a full-length feature is a bit different, but look at this cast – Nyongo, Bassett, Whitaker to a name a few award winners, and the likes of Michael B. Johnson, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis and Daniel Kalyuuya along as well. And Ryan Coogler, he of Creed and Fruitvale Station. Just as with Wonder Woman, it appears to be the right people in front of and behind the camera, and there’s no doubt that Black Panther is a rip-roaring financial success. But was it actually any good?
T’Challa (Boseman) inherits the crowd of Wakanda, a seemingly backward African nation secretly hiding an extraordinarily wealth in vibranium, an element whose fantastical properties allows Wakanda incredible advancements in science and technology. Rule brings its problems:ghaving to choose between Wakanda’s conservative past, pressed by Zuri (Whitaker) or taking a bigger part in world affairs, as pressed by W’Kabi (Kaluuya); re-igniting a relationship with war dog Nakia (Nyong’o) and tracking down a rogue arms dealer (Serkis) out to steal as much vibranium as he can. And worst of all is Erik Killmonger (Johnson), a black-ops veteran whose play for power in Wakanda brings to the fore some dark family secrets.
I think, in a weird way, I am more interested in the kind of things that Black Panther is trying to say as a film, and how it says them, than about the tentpoles of the films production. So, I will be brief on some specific things. The general narrative follows the MCU boilerplate for the origin: the hero rises, falls and rises again, there is a bad guy who is essentially an opposite of the hero (right down to the costume when it comes to it), a love interest (without it dominating proceedings), a chase, an exciting culmination at the conclusion and a stinger for things to come. It isn’t bad and, as I will outline, the quality of the other elements – cast, script, visuals – lifts it all up. But we have seen this story before, and not all that long ago: as others have pointed out, you can swap out characters, plot elements and incidents between Black Panther and Ragnarok easily enough. Black Panther is more concerned with the aesthetic changes than structural ones. Because this is a film that is all about the culture, influences, music and lives of black Africans and black Americans.
And it is that right from the off, in a remarkably low-key opening that is more in line with the reserved prologue of Spider-Man: Homecoming than anything else. As King T’Chaka admonishes his brother, incognito among Los Angeles’ poor African-American communities, Black Panther outlines what it will be all about: what appears to be the stereotypical “angry black youth”, and how they will be making a play for they, and their race, to rise above the shackles they have been weighed down with.
From there we are off to Wakanda, the secret African nation that is hit the goldmine – or rather the vibraniummine – and has been able to become, secretly, the most advanced nation on the planet. Hovertrains, spears that can destroy tanks, nanotechnology suits that enhance strength and agility, forcefields, miracle healthcare, there really isn’t anything vibranium can’t do (a flaw in the story, with the barely explained element essentially capable of doing anything the writers want it to). And more than its technology, Wakanda appears to be a paradise: a peaceful union of four African tribes (spending a surprising amount of time on its political side), enlightened in regards women’s rights yet respectful of tradition, and all ruled by a beloved and benevolent monarchy. Sure, any new King might have to have a potential fight to the death from the Jabari (Wakanda’s “fifth tribe”, with Marvel Studios erasing the comic name for their leader: the “White Ape”), but Wakanda is generally as close to a utopia as you’ll see in the MCU.
But it’s an isolationist utopia, one that hides from the rest of the continent, and the rest of the world. The UN thinks Wakanda is a barely noticeable “nation of farmers”. And therein lies the central crux of the plot. The reason for Wakanda’s isolation are obvious in the context of colonisation and a first world coveting of vital resources. But then there is the rest of Africa, with its oppression, child soldiers and second class women. But then there is America and it’s blatantly racist society. And then there is the whole planet, where people from Africa don’t get as fair a shot at life as many others. Does Wakanda have a moral obligation to not be this hideaway nation? Should it reveal itself as a force for good in the world, intervening to help fellow members of the black race? And if it does, how far should they take this intervention? Tradition and modernity, all clashing.
Black Panther starts off illustrating this viewpoint through Nyong’o’s Nakia, a secret Wakandan operative keeping an eye on things outside the homeland and sometimes going beyond the line of duty, and Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, a leader of one of Wakanda’s tribes who wants revenge against the outsider who murdered his family and is willing to go that bit farther. But then enter Erik Killmonger, excellently played by the ever excellent Michael B. Jordan, hooking up with Coogler again after the brilliant Creed. The angry black man has every reason to be angry: losing his parents, fighting wars for a government that has little regard for him or his race, and in a position to change everything.
Killmonger is one of the best villains the MCU has ever come up with, because, in many ways, he isn’t a villain at all. His motivation is to end the oppression of the black race wherever it exists, using the means that are available. The central thesis is unobjectionable, it’s just the likely violent method that is the issue. And throughout the second half of Black Panther, Coogler plays with the audience a little bit, by making Killmonger the sort of guy that, if you don’t want to see him succeed, you don’t really want to see him defeated either. His intrusion on the Wakandan utopia is destabilising to the extreme, as the united paradise suddenly falls into civil strife, like so many so many other African countries in real life, perhaps exposing the lie at the heart of Wakanda’s glorious façade.
There’s controversy aplenty to see here, and I’m sure some will object o the straight monochrome difference between “black people taking over the world via war” and “enlightened African civilisation peacefully intervenes through culture, economics and charity”. The films approach to racial conflict is somewhat restrained: the two white characters are Andy Serkis’ Afrikanner arms dealer who is just sort of insane and Martin Freeman’s US civil servant ally, and the term “white” is only used in its racial context once, in a comedic moment. But when Killmonger talks about the ones who oppress “us”, you can’t really mistake who he’s talking about. But Black Panther should be praised for presenting some awkward questions to the audience, without being patronising, deflective or deceptive in its motivations, and that’s a marked contrast to the rest of the MCU, which has side-stepped the issue constantly. Remember The First Avenger, when an Asian soldier in the Howling Commandos was questioned, but a black guy was something nobody had the slightest problem with? The non-commenting on it then almost seemed ideal (we’re all in it against the Nazis!), but today I can’t help but think it’s a cop-out, like the MCU is in a different universe where racism wasn’t a thing, until Black Panther came along.
Killmonger dominates the scenes he is in, but I don’t want sell Boseman short. Benefitting from his introduction in Civil War, Black Panther gives him the chance to breathe a bit, and thanks to the fine script from Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, we get a fairly well-rounded character, albeit one that maybe doesn’t hold your fascination as much as Killmonger does. We get to see T’Challa the King, stepping into the shoes of his father tentative and fearful of the kind of leader he is going to be; we get to see T’Challa the lover, pursuing a relationship with Nakia amid all of the drama, in nice cutaways that enhance the story rather than detract; and we see T’Challa the superhero, the action-orientated African avenger, who is trying to be the legendary figure his country and people need.
He’s supported by a fine cast, most notably Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. Whitaker and Basset are adding some need gravitas, Serkis has a ball as Klawe and even Freeman, his Everett Ross so out of place in the surroundings, makes a better go of it here than he did in Civil War, while Daniel Kaluuya, in such different surrounds to Get Out, shows that he can more than horror movies.
Visually, Black Panther is on the same level as most MCU productions. The city in Wakanda looks stunning, with its mixture of alien technology and African architecture, though we don’t really get to spend all that much time there. Elsewhere, there are a few inspired sequences: T’Challa’s trips to the land of his ancestors (though Killmonger’s was more affecting really); a few ritual combats in the midst of a pounding waterfall; and a jaunt to the frozen land of the Jabari.
But there are some deficiencies too, especially in the action sequences, which are rapidly becoming the MCU’s biggest problems, through sheer attrition. Black Panther engages in a car chase – seen it. Ritual combat – seen it. A mass brawl between competing factions – seen it (though the rhinos were a nice touch). Chasing some ships down before they can do a load of damage elsewhere – seen it. A heist of a museum – seen it. Seen it, seen it, seen it. The MCU can change the surrounds and the players, but the choreography, the structure and the outcomes of their fight sequences are all looking very samey. The aesthetic changes work better in the films soundtrack (the score being the usual), it being a fun ride through African instruments and modern electronic interjections.
Black Panther I liked, a lot more than I liked Ragnarok, around the same level that I liked Homecoming. Much of it is the same old thing we’ve gotten used to being served, in terms of structure and narrative, but it is in the details – the African characters, setting, music, themes – that it excels. It is a good movie, it could just do with being a bit more adventurous with its base details and a bit more inventive when it comes to its actions.
But more than anything else, it’s a film, a comic book film even, with a minority cast, that is both good from a critical perspective, and has done incredibly in the commercial stakes. And that is a welcome thing. I’ll watch a second Black Panther, gladly, not just because I want to support a film like this, but it helps. I wouldn’t say I’m all that up for the mash-up mess that Infinity War looks like, but if the MCU keeps pumping out stuff like Black Panther, like Ant-Man, like Spider-Man, then they’ll still have me as a customer. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).