Under the eye of Creed’s Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is like no Marvel film ever made. You’re going to hear a lot of that.
It is not, however, true to say that the film is like no blockbuster ever made; indeed, Black Panther resembles many and pinches hues from decades of popcorn cinema. Echoing through Hollywood’s first black superhero since 2004’s Blade Trinity are the beats of Bond, Star Wars and, occasionally, The Lion King. Such is chutzpah of Marvel, this game-changer sees Coogler tap into this wealth of genres and nail each and every one of them. For all its callbacks, Black Panther is a gem of a film which remains a thrill-ride of fresh, high octane and wholly human action.
After a prologue in 1992, the film cuts to the present day, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his home in Wakanda, an African nation hiding a futurist expanse behind the veil of farming rurality. Black Panther follows the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which the King of Wakanda – T’Challa’s father and the preceding ‘Black Panther’ – met his death, leaving T’Challa heir presumptive; the Wakandan tribes largely support his cause and the routine of succession seems to be a matter of procedure. Except, there is a challenger: a young pretender named N’Jadaka (Michael B. Johnson), whose connection to the throne is tied to a dark secret.
Rather splendidly designed, and resembling Maz’s Star Wars castle on Takodana, Wakanda is a nation built on prestige, honour, tradition and a whopping great mine of vibranium: the alien super metal that has rocketed the country through technological advancement, bestowing super powers upon their leader. For centuries, Wakanda has shielded its wealth from the world and hidden from external conflicts but when arms-dealer Ulysses Klaue (a gleeful Andy Serkis) manages to get his hands on some precious vibranium, life as the Wakandans know it is threatened and T’Challa must track down and retrieve it, all the while facing a future in which he may not sit on the throne.
Black Panther’s trump card is the strength of its characters, each of whom are deftly written and brought to life via wonderfully winning performances. None let the side down in an ensemble that are genuinely worth root for, come the action heavy final third. Much has been said about Black Panther boasting an almost entirely non-white cast – and hoorah to that – but equally pleasing here is that the film represents a rare example of genuine gender parity. It is hard to think of a similar production, on this scale and budget, that present such a strong array independent female characters; women who, for once, are not defined by their appearance nor stand out simply by being the non-male individual. As Nakia and Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are integral to both the beating heart of the film and its morality without ever being reduced to the sidelines; their being fearsome warriors is not harked as abnormal because in Wakanda it is women who make up much of the national defence through the Dora Milaje special forces unit.
The star of the show, however, is Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s sixteen-year-old, whizz kid-sister and creator of gadgets that would put Q to shame. Gifted a quick witted role, rising star Wright dazzles throughout, running circles around her brother and taking no prisoners in her will to have fun. In one deliberate uproot of convention, both contextually and cinematically, Shuri raises her hand when it is asked who will challenge for the throne, only to say: ‘This corset is really uncomfortable so please can we all just wrap it up and go home?’ Oh yes, let’s not forget that Black Panther is brilliantly funny.
Bookended with shots of young black children, the ‘next generation’, Black Panther is a triumph of a film and should prove as empowering as will enduring.