As successful as Marvel’s output has been, even the most loyal fans have been heard whispering about the heroic formula getting old. Amongst all the bombast, sky-piercing climaxes and super-banter, there’s also a latent feeling of familiarity. It’s akin to switching on the TV to find an episode of Friends; you know exactly where you are with it and where the punchlines will be. And while there is a comfort to that, the moments become interchangeable. So, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and Marvel must have felt the pressure to make the studio’s first afro-centric flick succeed on the same merits as it’s canonical brethren, but also bring something new. Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok, injected some much-needed fun and colour to the Thor series, but caught lightning for being too Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, against all the odds, Black Panther strides out fresher than a pair Wakandan Royal Sandals.
To Coogler’s credit there’s a lot of thought gone into Black Panther. The tired device of having a legend’s history told dramatically alongside visual shorthand is breathed a new lease of life. There’s an inventive visual storm that informs us of Wakanda’s history, culture and relationship with vibranium. No sooner are we beguiled by this flourish that we’re whipped back to Oakland, California – birthplace of the real life Black Panther movement. The contrast does make you sit up and pay attention, but by putting the fantastic and familiar side-by-side, it also serves to prepare you for the enchanting sites Wakanda has to offer. It isn’t long after our introduction to the titular hero that we are introduced to Wakanda in all it’s glory. It’s a dubstep Asgard, by way of Dubai and that’s just the sky line. The streets are filled with neo-rickshaws and ships that would bring a tear to Tony Stark’s eye silently tearing through its skies. Not merely content with making a cloaked, futuristic city in the heart of the Africa utterly believable, the dynamic of ritualistic rights of passage and a tribal nation nestled perfectly in the hi-tech wonder is unquestionable.
Not only in introducing this brave new world and its workings, but also to black culture, is Black Panther open in its outlook. The tribal aesthetics are imbued with an afro-tech theme, keeping them in context with the surroundings and the film without basterdising them to the point stereotyping. Similarly, the ideas of displacement and subjugation offer understanding of the black experience. Cleverly, the end result is something not only introductory, but inclusive. Coogler and co take the themes seriously enough to have them transcend and not alienate.
Similarly, the socio-political themes are woven into the story. Even when there’s clear commentary from Michael B Jordan’s Kilmonger, it’s not heavy-handed. It also serves to present the Marvel Cinematic Universe with one of it’s most understandable villains. You may not agree with his segregate and vengeful motivations, but it’s difficult not to sympathise. Jordan deftly imbues trailer baiting bombast of “I’MA BURN IT ALL” and “I want the throne!” with something wounded. Chadwick Boseman is just as successful in showing the audience the conflict in T’Challa. Struggling with the responsibility of his birth rite and knowing it’s necessary to achieve his vision for his people.
With all the efforts put into its ingenuity and translatable themes, Black Panther still manages to have its heart-shaped herb and eat it. There’s still more than enough time to take this refreshing super hero romp for a joy ride. There’s a healthy dose of action, whether it be neon-lit acrobatics or cliff-edged capoeira. Then there’s the car chases, battle rhinos and remote-controlled air ships. If all that wasn’t enough there’s a nourishing nod to some James Bond espionage. What more do you want?
There are a few chinks in Black Panther’s armour. There’s a few moments where the trademarked comedy seems to be presented under duress and stings more than a vibranium claw. There’s also a mad dash to get to the third, climatic act which is assuredly rewarding, but a little convenient. With a sure hand these vulnerabilities don’t overcome Black Panther.
4* – Straight Outta ‘Kanda