Super Saturday Review: Black Panther

Black Panther (2018)
Dir: Ryan Coogler

Bringing a different flavor to the MCU and building on the solid foundations laid for the character in ‘Civil War’ this has become the most successful solo debut superhero film ever and for good reason.

Ascending to the throne after his father’s death, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must handle the dual responsibilities of being the king of the underestimated African country of Wakanda, while also serving as it’s protector ‘Black Panther’, facing off against enemies to both.

Director Ryan Coogler is having a nicely varied career, seemingly able to turn his hand to directing anything. His last film ‘Creed’ was by far the strongest ‘Rocky’ film in decades and showed he could add something to a well-loved franchise, though that time he was reviving one that was in trouble and not joining the most successful film universe ever. Here he proves his versatility with this superhero film that draws on science fiction and African influences, skipping over the origins that were already half-covered with ‘Civil War’, getting straight into weightier matters. Not having to take much time over the death of his father allows the film to immerse us in the Wakandan culture surrounding T’Challa’s ascension, bringing in local issues with a backbone of tribal conflict and Wakanda’s place and role in Africa.

Throughout there’s a unique merging of futuristic sci-fi with traditional African dress and convincing Wakandan culture, even to the point that Wakandan characters speak their own language a lot which is then subtitled. It’s this aesthetic that had me excited from the trailers, it’s a visually arresting mix that defines this film as different. While ‘Civil War’ hopped from country to country with narrative threads that involved all the Avengers, for the most part this hardly goes international and when it does it’s for the sake of central Wakandan concerns, each brief international scene is integral to the themes and plot of the film. Interestingly it helps the film to stand alone as Black Panther’s story and doesn’t attempt to draw it into the concerns of the Avengers too closely, though the character of Everett Ross makes an appearance and gets himself caught up in the Wakandans handling things, even then it doesn’t follow his lead but drags him along in their matters.

At the end of the pre-titles opening scene in which we see John Kani reprise the role of a younger T’Chaka, confronting a character played by the brilliant Sterling K. Brown (‘American Crime Story’ and ‘This Is Us’), my friend leaned over and said it was the worst opening of a Marvel film. He’s a teenager who thinks he’s always right but is often wrong, in hushed tones I told him so and pointed out that we had yet to see how this opening ties into the story. I was proven right, it’s key to the themes and events, a brilliant set up that introduces us to much more than we can realize until later.

I loved Chadwick Boseman in ‘Civil War’ and was convinced by his take on the character immediately. In this full central performance he’s brilliant, with touches of warmth and vulnerability behind his strength, skills and regal deportment. We also get the other half of his origin story, not introducing us to T’Challa as a character because that was already done nicely, but explaining enough about how he gets his powers and the national significance of his dual role of king and protector.

T’Challa is often helped and saved by strong, intelligent and independent female characters, rarely is he saving them, even when he thinks he is. Strong women abound in this film in a way that is surprising when the titular character is male. The Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje, are all incredibly skilled women lead by Danai Gurira’s Okoye.  Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as Nakia, she’s a spy and skilled fighter, completely self-reliant and in no need of rescue. The standout is Letitia Wright as Shuri, by the end I was convinced her character will get lots of use in the MCU as someone likely to crossover.

Michael B. Jordan has worked with the director a few times and it’s no surprise he would cast him in this, though I wouldn’t have initially thought of casting him as the antagonist. It’s a great piece of casting though, he’s excellent. His character Erik Killmonger has big ideas, twisted reasoning and a personal motive, all of which make him formidable and fascinating. There’s also an undeniable connection between his political views and those of the Black Panther Party, the use of Oakland makes that abundantly clear to those who know of that piece of American history.

There are a couple of returning characters from ‘Avengers’ films, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who became known on set as the ‘Tolkien white guys’ which has to be one of the most genius things I’ve ever heard. They are great. The character of Ulysses Klaue is also African as he’s from South Africa which is worth keeping in mind as it shows how much the film keeps its focus on African concerns. Ross is obviously American (though played by a British actor) and some have accused the writers of making him a ‘white savior figure’ which I must say is absolute rubbish. Not wanting to spoil the film, when he does get involved in the action it’s at the request of the Wakandan characters and he proves himself helpful due to his military training and piloting skills that are of particular use as needed.

Music stands out in this film more than most MCU movies, incorporating a lot of African influences into the score. For the first time in a Marvel film, there’s also a curated soundtrack of original songs. Apparently, Kendrick Lamar was approached to write one song, then he got so into it that he wanted to do a whole album. It’s a different direction for Marvel, something that’s become quite commonplace in recent years, but never from this studio. I don’t necessarily think it’ll become their new practice for every film but it works in this case.

The box office run has been outstanding breaking record after record. I think it could keep going in cinemas for a while longer if it wasn’t for the fact that it leads into ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ which is released this week and will push it out of cinemas almost completely, there’s little need for cinemas to be screening two MCU movies at the same time though this is still in the top 10 in the U.K and U.S, as well as the only film showing in Saudi Arabian cinemas for decades! I do think it may have the impact and be memorable enough to just about stay in contention for the Oscars early next year, though I don’t think there’s any particular category where it stands out or would lead the pack, the best chance is probably ‘Original Song’ while I’d like to see it appear in the nominations for ‘Production Design’.

I’ve only had the chance to see the film once and it was at the end of a long day, so I’m eager to take another look and see how it fares on later viewings. Sadly I won’t get another chance now until it’s released on blu-ray (already got the steelbook pre-ordered) and interestingly it will then be seen in the light of ‘Infinity War’ which I’m seeing at a midnight screening tonight, so that review should be coming soon! Without doubt ‘Black Panther’ is a film that I am sure I’ll find more and more to appreciate when I re-watch it and beyond Wakanda’s considerable part in ‘Infinity War’ there’s little doubt there will be a ‘Black Panther’ sequel set for Marvel’s fourth phase so I look forward to seeing where they take these characters and how their influence spreads through the rest of the MCU.

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