Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman; Michael B. Jordan; Letitia Wright; Lupita Nyong’o; Danai Gurira; Daniel Kaluuya; Martin Freeman; Forest Whitaker; Andy Serkis; Angela Bassett
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
2016’s Captain America: Civil War is perhaps the apex (so far) of Marvel’s now decade-old, multi-film shared cinematic universe goliath; a film which really feels like a top-tier Marvel comic book come to life, at once sprawling and tightly focused, with its huge cast of characters woven into the plot neatly and each serving a distinct purpose – a film which not only saw the return of Captain America, Iron Man, The Winter Soldier, et. al, but also found time to casually introduce Tom Holland’s wonderful iteration of Spider-Man, and of course Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.
It’s a miracle that Civil War managed to cram so much in without ever making it feel, well, crammed in, and though Boseman was ultimately not in the film for a particularly long stretch, he served an important purpose and certainly made an impression as Prince T’Challa of the fictional African country of Wakanda.
He actually had a lot to project in that film; a reserved wisdom and cultural pride, and then when his father – King T’Chaka – is murdered by the villainous Helmut Zemo, the resultant emotional turmoil and the regal rigour of sudden impending kingdom (as well as getting some heart-pumping action hero moments, such as nonchalantly facing down the machine gun fire of a helicopter in his vibranium Black Panther suit).
His appearance had a lot of audience members – particularly black audiences – clamouring to see him in his own instalment, and two years later, Marvel have honoured the character with a strong, thoughtful entry unafraid of its socio-political concerns and unapologetically made for those audiences, who really shouldn’t have had to wait this long for such strong, fiercely proud representation.
However, it still remains wide enough in its scope and concerns (co-operation; progression; building bridges to those previously shunned) to appeal to everyone, feeling joyously inclusive and forward-thinking.
We pick up with T’Challa on the eve of his crowning as the Black Panther, king and protector of Wakanda, an afrofuturist paradise of sci-fi technology that would make even a certain Mr Stark blush. Amusingly, Wakanda poses itself as an impoverished Third World country to the rest of the world – who pretty much ignore it as such – in an effort to preserve their technological advancements and rich culture. It comes off as an effective melding of various real world African cultures, turning it into a nicely representative microcosm of the whole continent. T’Challa’s crowning is complicated by the emergence of Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has his own personal history with Wakanda and believes himself worthy of the throne.
We won’t go into Killmonger’s backstory too much as it’s actually quite affecting to watch unfold, but Jordan gives a performance which walks a fine line between sympathetic and hateful; vengeful, wounded, and in the tradition of the best cinematic villains, not without a certain understandable angle. Andy Serkis reprises his Avengers: Age of Ultron role as slimy arms dealer Klaue all too briefly; he almost brings a Marvel version of the Joker with his manic, joyful approach to violence and mayhem. He’s one of the few Marvel cinematic villains who never succumbs to moping – come to think of it, the only one…? – appearing to genuinely love being a total bastard, and it’s a lively, infectious performance.
Black Panther’s women are one of its main strengths. Letitia Wright is a joy as Shuri, T’Challa’s genius sister who designs all of his Black Panther gear, and Danai Gurira as Okoye – leader of the female Wakandan warriors the Dora Milaje – exudes a self-assured toughness as well as delivering some occasional dry humour. Lupita Nyong’o shines as Nakia, a spy and T’Challa’s love interest, although her character does feel more or less there to fulfil a certain role; she is introduced as having her own agency, but quickly settles into a kind of female character all too familiar in superhero movies in particular; as ‘the girl’ to be ‘got’. But she is such a great screen presence that she almost manages to elevate her characterisation beyond this.
Black Panther is the first Marvel film in some time to be more or less completely divorced from its surrounding Avengers-centric movies, which is refreshing (characters are introduced and relevant events from Civil War referenced smoothly enough that you don’t even need to have seen Civil War to ‘catch up’ – Black Panther is its own story and understands the importance of good drama and well-drawn characters over franchise building and nodding to events and characters in other franchises).
In fact, where the film stumbles slightly is its adherence otherwise to the Marvel movies playbook; checking off the slightly shoehorned romance subplot and inevitable CGI punchfest at the end. The ideological disputes between the proud, tradition-based Wakandans and the violent, rage-driven Killmonger are so compelling in their Shakespearean drama that when this latter element in particular pops up it feels like producer-mandated checklist-ticking.
Still, it’s not enough to overpower what is a very solid film, and a culturally important moment in both black cinema and superhero movies. I for one am looking forward to returning to Wakanda for Infinity War… and beyond.