This latest addition to the Marvel pantheon is as good as anything the studio has produced, delivering the requisite technical wizardry with a story that is highly relevant at a time when the American president has declared that white supremacists can be good people and when African-Americans and other non-white ethnicities continue to be subjected to disproportionate levels of injustice, discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of police and other agencies. Directed and co-written (with Joe Cole) by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), Black Panther is a superhero movie that actually has something to say, and it does so without veering too far from the superhero dynamics that make the larger franchise work.
The titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also happens to be T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, whose ascension to the throne to replace his father (who was killed in Captain America: Civil War) is only confirmed with victory against anybody who wishes to challenge him in a fight, the staging of which is, of course, at the top of a waterfall, presumably to bring added tension via the possibility that either fighter could plummet to their death. It doesn’t and they don’t, however it seems as good a way as any to determine who rules and perhaps when Queen Lizzie expires, we could have Harry and William duke it out for the throne. Even though he has, apparently, won the right to be king fair and square, there is always somebody who is unhappy and in this instance it is the appropriately named Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a vengeful outsider who, believing he is the rightful King, makes a bid for the throne.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the film is the way in which the anti-immigration, anti-trade political framework of Wakanda is more akin to the likes of Cuba or North Korea than it is to any free-thinking western democracy. Wakanda thrives thanks to its near-infinite supply of vibranium, a substance that is seemingly miraculous in myriad ways, none of which the movie really bothers to explain. In order to keep all its resources for itself, Wakanda uses its advanced technologies to disguise itself as a poor third-world African nation and its isolationist policies protect it from colonisation. Killmonger wants to take control of Wakanda so that he can utilise these technologies to arm an African revolution around the world, an action that will reveal all of the secrets that Wakanda has tried so hard to protect, whereas T’Challa is quite content to maintain the approach that has kept Wakanda safe. Well, at least it seems that way until a post-credits sequence suggests otherwise.
In stark contrast to the cocky swagger of Iron Man’s Tony Stark or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star Lord, Boseman plays T’Challa as quiet and thoughtful. Featuring an almost entirely African-American cast, the majority of whom are female warriors charged with protecting the king and played by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright, this is a film that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Forest Whittaker and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) also feature, while the only white characters are Martin Freeman as FBI agent Everett Ross and Andy Serkis as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. The film doesn’t shy away from current issues surrounding racial disparities, but there is no attempt from the filmmakers to suggest that there are easy answers. The production and costume design are both top-notch and Coogler has demonstrated a deft hand at balancing substance with spectacle. As a result, Black Panther is gripping, funny and thought-provoking, yet full of action; a turning point perhaps where the studio has finally recognised that its movies can, and should, be about something more.