By Jack Dignan
Black Panther is going to rock your world. It’s the simple fact of the matter. Director Ryan Coogler has been on my radar ever since his 2013 directorial debut Fruitvale Station, a film so exceptional in its raw humanity that it gave me the upmost confidence for anything Coogler was to follow that up with. And what did he do next? Creed, the best Rocky movie maybe ever (don’t quote me on that one). Now, Coogler having officially made a name for himself, he steps into one of the most beloved cinematic franchises around, Marvel, taking on, at long last, the character of Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa made his big screen debut in Captain America: Civil War, stealing the show and instantaneously getting the character on people’s radars. Black Panther picks up immediately after the events of that film, with T’Challa returning home to his kingdom of Wakanda, the secretive, technologically advanced civilization built entirely from the same material used to create Captain America’s shield. T’Challa, after the death of his father in Civil War, is to be pronounced king, but not everyone’s entirely happy with his sudden rise to power. And so enters our villains, Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).
Klaue is a known antagonist to the kingdom of Wakanda, on the run after successfully stealing a small chunk of vibranium, and that’s where he stumbles upon Killmonger, who, thanks to reasons of his own, sees himself as holding a right to the throne. T’Challa must use the mantle of the Black Panther to the best of his ability to protect his kingdom from defeat and exposure, while also attempting to uncover what exactly makes a good king. It’s a Marvel movie grounded in reality, delving into more socially relevant themes than in previous, more explosive entries in the franchise.
There’s real-world politics at play here, dealing with the topic of colonialism and the marginalization of certain members of society. Co-writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole bring firm ideas into the mix, making Black Panther bigger and bolder than just an exploration of a cool new civilization. The story is structured more like a James Bond movie than your typical Marvel film, with T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) serving as the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. It’s a cross-country thriller strong in characterization and world building.
Wakanda is a civilization you’re not going to want to leave. Coogler and Cole take all the best elements of the comics and bring them gloriously to life, crafting a universe that feels authentic and lived in. The mythology is rich and sophisticated, with a large chunk of time dedicated to setting everything up. Yes, it’s fantastic, but unfortunately there is a little too much time spent exploring what this world and these people have to offer. The pacing for the first half of the movie is waaaaaay off. It’s unevenly balanced, delving more into the locations than the actual story, which really only becomes strong in the second half.
Even the first few scenes, all of which are necessary to the plot in the long run, feel a little tedious. They don’t grip you in the same way that, say, the opening sequences of Civil War or even more recently Thor: Ragnarok do. An early nighttime action sequence starts strong, but soon weakens, however action isn’t necessarily this film’s strongest element. There’s a brilliant third act ballet of violence, as well as a thrilling car chase set on the streets of China, but the rest of it falls short in comparison, even with an exceptional set of powers brought to life through the Black Panther suit.
Still, what this film does best is work on character, and you’ll understand and sympathise with everybody involved in this movie. T’Challa continues to prove himself a fascinating hero, working in collaboration with a fierce group of women, including the aforementioned Shuri, but also potential love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and his royal protector Okoye (Danai Gurira). They’re all fantastic, but the real standout character here is Killmonger. His motives are clear and precise, and you sympathise with the circumstances of his upbringing. Serkis is great fun as Klaue, but it’s Killmonger who’s the film’s worthy antagonist, and Jordon absolutely kills it.
The power play between Killmonger and T’Challa is fascinating, to say the least. The two don’t share an awful lot of scenes until the second half gets going, but whenever they’re on screen together, it’s like dynamite. They’re electric. Killmonger takes more of a backseat to Klaue during the first half, and it’s this first half that really needs tightening. The sequences are stretched out and somewhat repetitive, but once Killmonger makes a certain spoiler-filled power move, the rest of the film is a train that just won’t stop, but damn, I certainly didn’t want it to. It became the Black Panther movie that the world deserves.
Audiences everywhere are going to love Black Panther. It’s a brilliant work of comic book cinema that’ll have fans of the franchise frothing with excitement (and also cringing at some of the out of place humour in the first act), but at the same time, it’s obscure enough and different to work as a solo film with no prior connections to any movie that came before it. Black Panther, in a similar sense to Guardians of the Galaxy, works as its own thing, and fans are going to go nuts over it. More Wakanda in Marvel movies, please. Wakanda forever!
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