I am super late to the party on this, but as Black Panther is still dominating the Box Office on both sides of the Atlantic, I figured I would share some quick thoughts here.
Much like my experience with Wonder Woman, I’m not that interested in the wider Marvel universe and I think with the exception of a random 20 or 30 minutes here and there I haven’t seen any of the current run of films (I have watched previous Spider Man incarnations though). However, Black Panther gained my interest because Lupita Nyong’o is one of my favourites, and I’m always keen to prove certain portions of the internet wrong when they claim that no one will watch a minority-dominated film.
If you also had no idea about Black Panther, the general story is as follows. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of Wakanda after the death of his father. To the outside world, Wakanda is believed to be an incredibly deprived sub-Saharan African country. However, in reality, it is an extremely modern high-tech society and T’Challa faces concerns immediately from Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who believes they should do more to help the outside world. This becomes all the more pressing when an outside returns to Wakanda, posing a threat to everything that T’Challa is trying to maintain.
One of the first things to say about the film that it just looks stunning. From the futuristic Wakanda, to the land of the ancestors, the scenery, designed by Jay Hart, is just stunning. This is enhanced by excellent costume design from Ruth Carter, which combine traditional dress with futuristic elements suitable for a film placed in the Marvel universe.
However, obviously what has made Black Panther such a smash is its story. Ryan Coogler is the film’s writer and director, and he has created a story that in some ways stays very true to superhero tropes and in some ways moves far away from this. Coogler directs action sequences that are brilliant; from uncomfortably close contact 1-on-1 fights for the position of King, to a sprawling final battle sequence featuring the varied tribes, you feel incredibly close to the action (my non-action film watching housemate was very shaken by it).
In other ways, though, Coogler really moves away from typical hero films. Women are really placed front and centre in his screenplay. Nakia is T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s also a committed humanitarian. The country’s lead troops are all female, and are led by the brilliant Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is just a bad-ass, and represents the complicated place of the army behind the throne even when the throne no longer represents what you believe in. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s younger sister and also casually the smartest person in the country, whose work is behind the transport systems, healthcare systems, defence systems. It was such a breath of fresh air to see women kicking butt and being smart; especially being women of colour.
Coogler also excellently challenges what a villain is in a superhero film. Usually, villains have had some kind of experience with the protagonist that makes them hate them and therefore all of humanity (e.g. estranged brothers, thwarted lover, overlooked friend). In this case, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) does have an experience as a child which turns him against the ruling family of Wakanda. However, he sees Wakanda’s protectionist, internal focus as letting down black people across the world, and believes that they should play a role in overthrowing oppressors. This complexity of a villain is really interesting, and makes the ending actually pretty sad (I cried).
The interesting script dynamics are really helped by the solid performances from the entire cast. As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman is a really quietly strong presence at the centre of the film. His physical contrast with Jordan really emphasises the difference between T’Challa and Killmonger’s beliefs, and Boseman felt very royal. I also loved Letitia Wright as Shuri, she was funny and smart and just a really warm presence in the film. Other good performances came from Andy Serkis who appeared to be loving chewing the scenery as South African arms-dealer and real bad guy Klaue; and Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a tribe in Wakanda who reject the ruling Wakandans who starts as a bit of a scary presence and turns out to be some great comic relief.
Black Panther is a great, fun watch as well as being a great, different and diverse addition to the superhero film cannon. I’d recommend checking it out if it’s still in the cinema near you.