Dir Ryan Coogler, 135 mins, starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurria, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Black Panther is not only one of the most entertaining recent superhero films but has an intelligence and a political dimension that such inchoate offerings as Suicide Squad and Justice League completely lacked. It is an action movie which touches on Pan-Africanism and which owes as much to Malcolm X as it does to Batman or Captain America.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station was a low-budget drama based on the true story of the shooting of a young African-American man at a railway station in Oakland, California, on New Year’s Day 2009. It starred Michael B Jordan, who reappears here as the anti-hero Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, espousing a vengeful and violent form of black power.
Amid the special effects and general hokum of its storyline, Black Panther retains its edge. The prelude, which sets up the plot, unfolds in Oakland in 1992. This has been called the bloodiest year in Oakland’s history. It was also the period of the Los Angeles riots.
These events aren’t referred to directly but impoverished, inner-city Oakland provides a very stark contrast to the beauty of the mythical African nation of Wakanda, where most of the action takes place.
Wakanda keeps apart from the rest of the world. It doesn’t engage in international trade or accept aid. Its citizens are wealthy and secure thanks to the country’s vast reserves of the precious metal, vibranium, which has magical, radioactive power.
Although the country is technologically advanced, ancient tribal rituals are still strictly observed. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is due to become king following the violent death of his father (which was shown in an explosive scene in Captain America: Civil War). First, though, he must prove his warrior credentials. This involves him taking on any legitimate challenger in hand-to-hand combat having drunk a potion which strips him of his superhuman strength as the Black Panther.
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While T’Challa is preparing to rule, Stevens is plotting to usurp him and to take revenge against the Wakandans for what they did to his father. He plans to steal the vibranium in order to use it to foment unrest everywhere. “When black people started revolutions, they never had the power or the weapons,” he points out. That, though, is now set to change. We know he is ruthless because of the elaborate markings on his body, each dot signifying a “kill.”
Black Panther has a sprawling, generation-spanning storyline and a big cast but it still seems more coherent than all those portmanteau movies in which different superheroes come together. Andy Serkis is in rambunctious form as the grinning secondary villain, the arms dealer and mercenary, Ulysses Klaue, who cackles like a hyena at the depths of his own cruelty and depravity.
Coogler blends tongue-in-cheek humour with solemn, dreamlike sequences. One moment, there will be jokes about close-cropped female Wakandan warriors looking like Grace Jones and the next, T’Challa or Erik Stevens will be communing earnestly with their ancestors in the afterlife.
The Wakandan ruler may be a man but the society is dominated by women. Angela Bassett is suitably haughty as the Queen, in front of whom even the strongest warriors seem to quake. Lupita Nyong’o co-stars as T’Challa’s former lover and bodyguard, Nakia, who is every bit as ferocious as he is in the battle scenes. Young British actress Letitia Wright brings a playful, quicksilver quality to her role as T’Challa’s teenage sister, who goads and teases him relentlessly. She is Wakanda’s techno-wizard, operating and overseeing all the VR planes and cars in which missions are undertaken.
Apart from Klaue, the only other prominent white character is veteran CIA secret agent Everett K Ross, played in typically engaging and bumbling fashion by Martin Freeman.
Not everything in Black Panther is original. Some of the action set-pieces are very routine indeed. The theft of an ancient Wakandan weapon from the “Museum of Great Britain” in London is the type of scene which could be dropped wholesale into any other Marvel adventure. It is never fully explained, either, why all the main protagonists suddenly shoot off to South Korea for a rendezvous in a casino.
The fights above giant waterfalls have an air of familiarity and so do the chases, whether through crowded streets or caves. Coogler tackles his material with such energy that these sequences don’t simply seem like rehashes from older action movies. He also makes ingenious use of vibranium-clad rhinoceroses in a final battle sequence.
Alongside the high jinks and moments of playful kitsch, the film includes explicit references to slavery and the legacy of white colonialism in Africa. Jordan’s Erik Stevens is a far more complex villain than is generally found in the Marvel universe. He is as much in pursuit of black emancipation as he is of world domination and has plenty of justification for his grievances.
Coogler touches on deeper subjects regarding race and oppression while still realising that the main purpose of a Marvel movie is to entertain a mass audience. The result is a film that works just fine as an old-fashioned ripping yarn without ever forgetting its social conscience.
Black Panther hits UK cinemas 12 February.
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