Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Runtime: 134 Minutes
The monumental expectation being placed on the shoulders of Marvel Studios latest feature feels more significant than any of their previous efforts. Not only the first feature in the MCU’s canon to feature a black protagonist front and centre, but an adaptation of one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s more revered and influential creations finally making it to the screen with a budget and scope undreamed of when the prospects of the film were brought forward decades ago.
But it’s more than just that to many people. Making it an elevating presence in a sea of blockbuster genre features and a landmark moment for black cinema and voices to thrive in an environment with a canvas as large as this is more than enough reason to celebrate its mere existence – but the fact is that not only is Black Panther a fantastic piece of work (their best since Civil War) it’s one of the most distinct, beautiful, intelligently drawn and layered films to ever enter the genre.
For the benefit of the film's narrative, much of T'Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) origin story was comfortably served in the background of Civil War, and so the traditional rhythms of the origin story don’t need to be retreaded. We already understand the basics of who our hero is on a character level, and so – following immediately from the aftermath of his last appearance – this feature can naturally flourish in its exploration of new circumstances and challenges for T'Challa as he takes up his rightful mantle as the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
Of all the worlds and marvels that (well) Marvel has delivered to our screens over the years, Wakanda is one of their most breathtakingly detailed and realised worlds. A hyper-advanced technological society rooted in of African history and tribal community. More than just visual markers on a futuristic cityscape, this world lives and breaths Africa through its traditions and practices as much as its fantastically costumed figures and environments. Trials of combat and spirituality are a part of their lives and it's never coy with its influences, proudly wearing its colours and national identity without irony.
Encouragingly, the film spends much of its time in Wakanda, and what’s more of a joy is the characters who populate it. Alongside Boseman in the returning role, who is a charismatic and leading presence with real emotional weight, Martin Freeman is decent in a mostly reactionary role, and Andy Serkis seems to be having a whale of a time as Ulysses Klaue.
Surrounding them is an encouragingly divergent cast of performers. Danai Gurira is phenomenal as Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje and Wakanda’s greatest warrior. Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett are all reliably dedicated. Lupita Nyong'o's secret operative Nakia is more interesting than just a love interest, while Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T'Challa’s younger sister and a genius technician, is a riot of investment of delight as both a sibling and a Q-type creating and enhancing his tech.
That comparison isn’t to be taken lightly. The film’s ambitions surpass its genre as a superhero action film, venturing into science-fiction, fantasy and even spy movies in its most thrilling moments as it embarrasses its Afrofuturist inspirations to an awe-inspiring degree.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler has already proven himself a prominent voice when handling material focusing on black characters and worldviews, and here with a near limitless toyshop at his disposal he expands and extrapolates his capacity through electrifying spectacle. His use of long takes during action scenes are spectacular, as is the immersive quality of staging and editing, even making sequences as common as a car chase exciting through visual coherency - much of which is thanks to Rachel Morrison's incredible cinematography and Ludwig Göransson's collaborative score.
But character comes first, and T'Challa’s personal journey is always at the forefront. So by the time the explosive digital climax comes around there’s enough emotion behind it to keep it genuinely engaging. If there's any weakness then it's maybe that it feels like it's missing a beat before the third act as it kind of arrives quicker than expected.
If there’s one way this could have failed, then it’s down to the villain, which has sadly been one of the MCU’s continuous fumbling points with uninteresting or indistinct antagonists in their features. But the villain they have chosen here in the form of Michael B. Jordan as Erik "Killmonger" Stevens is one of the film’s most ingenious strokes.
Killmonger is easily one of the strongest supervillains the MCU canon has ever produced; a threatening, ruthless but ultimately sympathetic character. His own personal grievances and outsider perspective of the utopia of Wakanda has left him a jaded and dangerous individual on a mission of retribution, holding himself as a figure of the oppressed and looking to usurp T'Challa from his throne, and Jordan is a powerful screen presence with a twisted charm and ferociousness to his delivery.
For something this populist and massive a release, it's handling of race is unflinching in a way that doesn’t brutalise or speak down. Instead, it presents the very real standpoints of privilege and oppression from alternate perspectives. Killmonger is the perfect foil to T'Challa, a modern urban black man with all the rage and fury within him to burn the world around him, and their manner of address and way of speaking couldn’t be more different a contrast to their perspectives.
For the superhero genre, for Hollywood filmmaking, and for the future of blockbuster storytelling, Black Panther is a status shattering masterwork; enormously enjoyable as a bright and effective popcorn blockbuster, and a glimpse into the future of what mass entertainment will look and feel like in the 21st century.