Following the death of his father, King T’Challa returns home to the isolated and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Here he must defend his right to both the throne and the mantle of Black Panther, from foes both at home and abroad, and must make a decision that will define the future not just of Wakanda but of the entire world.
If you are on the fence about going to see Black Panther, let me tell you now that you absolutely should do so. This is obviously a product of great care and passion, with the final film shining as a result.
“The characters drive the narrative”
The story is excellently crafted and perfectly paced – the film never drags, breezing through its 134-minute runtime – and manages to feel both familiar and totally new at the same time. This is an impressive feat given the plethora of superhero origin films we have been given over the last few decades. Director Ryan Coogler accomplishes this by letting the characters drive the narrative and not shoehorning in certain elements just because it is a Marvel movie.
This is best seen through the film’s humour, which overall is used sparingly and effectively to allow Black Panther to avoid the trap that other MCU entries such as Doctor Strange fell into. Black Panther never has a joke that feels out of place and as a result, every single one of them lands (even, impressively, the one based on a two-year-old internet meme). This is because it tailors its humour to its characters – unlike in Doctor Strange (where a character shown as solemn and serious cracks a single joke about wifi then goes back to solemn and serious for the rest of the movie).
Black Panther doesn’t force characters to try and be funny when they shouldn’t be just because Marvel movies are supposed to be witty. Refreshingly, it is an MCU film that is not afraid to be serious; as a result, the humour lands when it is supposed to and never undercuts the emotional weight of the film.
Speaking of emotional weight, this film has it and then some. Black Panther juggles several serious themes, not once coming off as preachy or forced. The film discusses ideas of oppression, racism, death and betrayal with aplomb; it asks the audience what we as humans owe each other.
The fact that this film can convey such an important message in what is ultimately a superhero film, whilst still being one of the more fun and entertaining films in the genre, is arguably its greatest success. There was one occasion during the film’s second act where a revelation didn’t quite hit with the emotional punch that it was meant to (sorry, no spoilers). Overall though this film was very successful in making the audience care; it has been a long time since I was so invested emotionally in the story of a superhero movie.
“There is not a single weak showing across the board”
The story is so compelling because it is character-driven, and the characters themselves are brilliant. On the whole they are very well developed, and even those who suffer from a lack of screentime are well defined and have clear motivations. This allows the audience to understand every decision they make, so that nothing ever really feels jarring or out of character. They are strengthened further by stellar performances from the entire cast – there is not a single weak showing across the board, allowing even the most minor characters to feel like real people.
Chadwick Boseman continues his excellent portrayal of T’Challa from Captain America: Civil War, adding depth and complexity to his character to create one of the most human, likeable and compelling leads in not just the MCU but the wider comic book genre. He brings a subtlety, humour, and strength to the character which allows the audience to truly empathize with him, showing to its fullest the importance and weight of the choice that must be made between tradition and progression.
“Killmonger is exceedingly well developed”
Michael B. Jordan is a revelation as Eric Killmonger, the true antithesis of T’Challa and the main villain, who is likewise up there with the very best of the genre. Killmonger is exceedingly well developed, with motivations and ideology so strong that he even becomes akin to an anti-hero at times. Jordan uses this excellent writing to its fullest potential with a fantastic performance to create a truly menacing villain, that leaves a lasting effect on the hero (as all the best villains do) and indeed the audience.
Among the supporting cast there are several highlights. Letitia Wright is effortlessly hilarious as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and the genius engineer behind much of the Wakandan technology on display; Danai Gurira shows impressive range to demonstrate the sharp wit, strong principles and internal conflict of Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje (the King’s personal bodyguard); and finally Andy Serkis’ return as Ulysses Klaue is somehow both hilarious and terrifying, making a secondary villain without a great deal of screentime truly memorable.
One of Black Panther’s greatest strengths is its incorporation of African culture. Not only does it play a pivotal role in the development of several characters (and therefore in the plot of the film as a whole), but it helps to form some of the most unique cinematography and sound design in cinema.
Wakanda is a wonderful mix of tribal Africa and futuristic technology, and as a setting feels truly vibrant and alive, not to mention visually stunning. This blending of the modern and the traditional is mirrored in the film’s soundtrack – both the orchestral score and the soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar draw cues from tribal African music to create a distinct sound that sets Black Panther apart from other films.
Black Panther is one of the most entertaining and meaningful films in its genre and its message, cast and design combine to make it a true landmark for diversity in film. Ryan Coogler has assembled a masterpiece, near flawlessly crafted and performed, that will appeal to all and stand among the best not only of the MCU but of the genre as a whole. A must see.
Media courtesy of Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures