17 movies in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I find myself in a position when I’ll still happily go and see every one of their movies opening weekend, but at the same time I struggle to get especially excited about them at all. They’re like the cinematic equivalent of eating a snickers bar or something. It was delicious the first time you tried one as a kid, and now you’ll enjoy one, but you’ll know exactly what it will be, and will likely have forgotten about it a few months later. Let’s be honest here, these movies are all really quite similar, and now what I’m mainly asking for when I see a new one is ‘what will this one do differently?’ It that respect, Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th and latest, has a good deal going for it.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the character onscreen of course, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) making a notable appearance in 2016’s Civil War, however while that film went in assuming all viewers had a strong grasp of who and where everyone in the MCU was at that point, Black Panther more or less stands alone, with little connecting it to the series’ other films. The death of T’Challa’s father, King T’Chanka is shown again to remind anyone who didn’t catch/forgot about Civil War, and Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, and Andy Serkis’s villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (who briefly showed up in a shoehorned cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron) play significant parts, but prior knowledge of either is totally unnecessary. All in all it’s a smart move, having another Avenger randomly show up can be fun if handled well (Thor: Ragnarok) but can also just come across as gratuitous (Ant-Man). Plus it helps in making what’s admittedly a landmark movie for Black cinema more immediately accessible to audiences who might not have been interested in the MCU’s entire output thus far.
This approach does also put Black Panther in a bit of an odd place, it presents itself more-or-less as an origin story for T’Challa taking up the mantel of the Black Panther, and yet we’ve already seen him in action as that. Was he already acting as such before becoming King? If that’s made clear in the film I must have missed it, but it’s not of great importance.
Anyhow, to my original point, what really helps to give Black Panther its own identity is its primary setting – the fictional African country of Wakanda, the history of which is introduced in a spectacular animated opening montage. It’s a technologically advanced nation, thanks to the presence of a substance called vibranium (a word which gets said a few too many times), but has remained isolated from the rest of the world by posing as a poor, farming country to keep its resources and people safe from potential colonisers. The visual realisation of Wakanda is really impressive, from the tribal costuming to the technology, which often appears based on powder-like formations. Similarly, it manages to not have the place look entirely CGI created (some aerial footage was actually filmed in African locations), with the Wakandan cityscapes complementing the African backdrops. All in all it adds up to a futuristic vision that’s unlike anything really seen in a blockbuster movie before.
Our first big sequence in Wakanda occurs during T’Challa’s ritualistic coronation ceremony, where he must face off a challenger (Winston Duke) in a surprisingly violent combat sequence, which again seems to emphasise that this is a far cry from your typical superhero origin story. One minor gripe I have to point out though, is it’s not entirely clear just exactly what the powers of the Black Panther are (they are administered and removed via ingestion of a herb). Are they just generic strength/speed etc, and how much is the suit? Again it’s not overly important but Civil War failed to communicate this as well.
Director Ryan Coogler was one of Marvel’s more interesting hires when announced, going from eye-catching indie drama Fruitvale Station to outstanding Rocky sequel Creed, to this in just a few short years. The earlier parts of the film (particularly a cold-open set in his native Oakland) suggest that he hasn’t has his voice diluted by the Marvel machine too much, but in a later central sequence he reveals a surprisingly different influence – James Bond. The film’s McGuffin is a stolen Wakandan artefact that Klaue intends to sell in Busan, South Korea. This leads to a scene of T’Challa and his accomplices infiltrating the sale which takes place in a large, underground casino, the setting of which, along with the subsequent fight scene and car chase has an obvious Bond inspiration. Coogler utilises an ambitious false single take for the impressive multi-storey fight scene which he just about pulls off, but the car chase, despite clearly being shot on location, is hampered by an over-reliance on clunky CGI.
The other blatant Bond-esque sequence occurs back in Wakanda where T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) runs a tech lab developing various applications for vibranium, including the Black Panther suit itself. She is basically playing Q to his Bond. The dynamic between the two siblings is comes across as quite genuine and Wright delives a delightfully enthusiastic performance injecting some much-needed lightness into what is otherwise Marvel’s most humourless film.
Despite this, T’Challa himself is not especially portrayed as a Bond-type character. Boseman’s stoic performance reflects his character’s primary concerns in the first half over how best to rule Wakanda for the benefit of his people, and on top of this, in his most Bond-like sequences he always has two trusted female accomplices, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Both are fantastic in their roles and portrayed as more than capable of holding their own, indeed Nyong’o is introduced recuing a group of girls from being trafficked (that could be its own movie right there). They’re both pleasingly given significant amounts of screen time too, keeping everything going when T’Challa disappears from the film for a large section in its latter half (a potential misstep that thankfully isn’t). They do both have half-baked romantic interests (Okoye with T’Challa’s best friend, and Nakia being his Ex) but it’s not much of an issue.
As good as these multiple kickass female heroes are however, none of them are the film’s standout character, and other huge difference from the standard Marvel template. That would be Coogler’s regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan as the film’s primary antagonist. Loki aside, rubbish and forgettable villains have long been a problem for the MCU. They’ve made some mild improvements but here they might have reached Batman level – having a villain more interesting than your hero. Though he’s introduced in a rather heavy-handed manner, Jordan soon reveals far more intriguing depths to his character’s background and motivations that really make both you, and the surrounding characters contemplate whether he might actually be right. It’s difficult to discuss exactly without going into spoilers – and there are already many thinkpieces out there that explore him better than I could, but I will say that he’s not trying to just take over the world or anything. Jordan really cements his status as one of our most promising young actors here as well (not to mention getting some redemption after the disastrous Fant4stic), he’s so good that he’s not especially compromised even when he’s referred by the unfortunate moniker ‘Killmonger’. His ideas are also of vital importance to T’Challa’s overall arc too, which has much greater weight than simply defeating the bad guy.
Unfortunately though, all this intrigue ultimately leads to a sadly underwhelming third act for the movie. We’re given an unremarkable big outdoor battle sequence that appears to take place mainly due to studio demands. It’s the result of a decision on the part of T’Challa’s former friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya), which doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense in the moment, and left me feeling like there might have been a deleted scene that expanded on this. It goes further downhill for the big final battle, which is in principle something we’ve seen in multiple Marvel origin movies before, and in practice a lifeless CGI slugfest with never feels like there are actual characters or tangible objects involved. Considering the energy Coogler bought to Creed’s fight scenes it’s doubly disappointing how little he achieves here, in some ways this is the polar opposite of what he did in Creed. You can’t help thinking that maybe this would be better if it weren’t required to have action scenes and it could be changed up for a more dialogue based exchange.
Overall though, Black Panther is a film mostly worthy of it’s landmark status (and sure to be gigantic box office success). It boasts a US-set wraparound structure that ends it on a satisfactory note after the lesser third act, even if one if the post-credits scenes is fairly vital to the main storyline rather than being a teaser. I’m kind of tired of always ending up thinking about how this would place in a Marvel movie ranking but inevitably find myself doing so, so probably the mid-lower half of the top ten after one viewing. It does though, bode somewhat well for the future of the MCU – diversity, exploring different locations, more mainly standalone stories, better supporting characters and more directorial vision. More like this please, I say knowing Infinity War comes out in 3 months.