If you think that the last couple of MCU offerings like Thor: Ragnarok (see our review) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (see our review) were lots of fun, but weren’t as grounded because they dealt with invading aliens, then Black Panther might be the palate cleanser you’ve been looking for.
Taking place a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War (see our review), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the fictional African country of Wakanda, where he is poised to ascend to the throne after the death of his father, T’Chaka.
T’Challa is crowned king after a ritualistic battle, but just as he starts to settle into his role, he is alerted to the re-emergence of one Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black-market arms dealer who stole vibranium from the Wakandans years ago. Now back for more vibranium, Klaue teams up with Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a man with a mysterious past who challenges T’Challa for the Wakandan throne.
In summary: Black Panther was good. SO VERY GOOD. It was everything I wanted out of a comic book movie and so much more. There have been other black superheroes before like Blade and that (horrific) reboot of Catwoman, but Black Panther is the first one I can think of where his roots, his very identity as an African, is the crux of his character.
The MCU version of Wakanda has its own mythology, culture and people, and emerges fully formed as a country with formidably advanced technology. It’s a potent mix of magic, vibranium and tech. But most importantly, Wakanda is a vision of an Africa untouched by colonialism or imperialism, of what it could’ve been like if white men had never reached its shores.
For obvious reasons, I’m not presumptuous enough to wax lyrical about how much it matters that people of African descent have this sort of representation in cinema, but it IS important. It gives them the freedom to imagine what it would’ve been like if slavery hadn’t sunk its hands into their collective histories, of what might have been possible if they had been given the same choices and opportunities that their oppressors had.
And nowhere is this made clearer than in the character of Killmonger. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but his character and troubled past are key to this story, and sets up some incredibly complex and nuanced parallels. Where T’Challa wants to protect his people by hiding Wakanda’s wealth and power away from the world, Killmonger wants to arm all of their brethren around the world so that they can rise up against their oppressors and claim what’s rightfully theirs.
Jordan redeems himself fully from the garbled trash fire that was Fantastic Four (see our review), and rises like a phoenix from the ashes to play Killmonger with incandescent rage and fury. Killmonger is easily the best MCU villain since Loki, and that’s because Coogler and scriptwriter Joe Robert Cole have taken great pains to craft a convincing backstory for him that makes the viewer question whose side they’d take in this battle of ideologies.
Boseman is suitably regal as T’Challa, but as king he is also prone to vulnerability and short-sightedness in his private moments. Luckily, he is helped along the way by a bevy of fantastic characters. That they all happen to be female is secondary, because they were collectively so awesome in so many different ways, and given a breadth and depth of characterisation that is hard to find in other media.
Wakandan spy Nakia is played with aplomb by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, who utters some of the movie’s best lines as she reiterates her loyalty to her country, while The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira shines in her role as Okoye, head of the king’s Dora Milaje. There is a moment where Nakia and Okoye are forced to take stock of their commitment to their country, and thanks to the two actresses the resulting scene and interaction is breathtaking in its emotional conflict.
But the standout of the movie is T’Challa’s sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. Shuri is the brains behind Wakanda’s tech wizardry and head of their research arm, and some of the movie’s best scenes see her scurrying about her wonder of a lab excitedly showing off her latest gadget. I desperately want to see a spin-off where she is introduced to Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker before proving that she can run circles around all of them without batting an eye.
This is a movie I would gladly watch over and over again. The world building here rivals that of any Star Wars movie, with towering skyscrapers and bustling markets next to each other in the middle of the African plains. Special kudos has to go to the Oscar-nominated Ruth E Carter (Selma) for her vibrant, effusive costumes that were just amazing onscreen.
Oh yeah, and Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman were alright as Ulyssess Klaue and Everett Ross, I guess. As the Tolkien White Guys of the movie, they were not the focus of Black Panther, and rightfully so.
But most of all, Black Panther is the sort of movie that would not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago. As turbulent as global politics are right now, that backdrop made it possible for this movie to be made, and as a result the themes of the movie stay with you long after you exit the cinema, and forces you to re-evaluate your personal value system. I only wish more comic book movies were this good.
Black Panther is playing in Singapore theatres now.