There’s little doubt about it, 2018 is a busy time to be a geek. The dust has barely settled on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and while Lucasfilm begins (finally) to ramp up publicity for May’s Solo outing, their Disney stablemates Marvel Studios are ready to strike with the first prong of the year’s theatrical trident. Yes, February sees the hotly-anticipated debut feature of Black Panther.
Based on the 1966 comic hero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character made his first Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. As the prince of the technologically advanced but isolationist African nation Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) saw his father murdered in a terrorist attack masterminded by Hydra during the Sokovia Accords conference in Vienna. Already routinely donning the anonymous Black Panther outfit to protect the interests of his people both home and abroad, T’Challa was suddenly handed the responsibility of being their public-facing king, too.
With the aid of a prelude scene taking place in Oakland, California in 1992 (before returning to the ‘present day’ setting), this is where co-writer Joe Robert Cole and writer/director Ryan Coogler pick up the thread. Recurring Marvel antagonist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has hatched a plot with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) to take control of Wakanda and exploit its vibranium resources. T’Challa, barely ready to lead his people let alone defend them from a threat this egregious, will have his work cut out. Perhaps luckily then, our hero has help from his tech-guru sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), leader of the clan’s army, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and warrior and old flame, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
Now, it’s probably not unfair to say that throughout the movies of the MCU, the standalone, ‘in-between’ chapters are more interesting than the climactic Avengers ensembles. But even in a great year like 2017, two of Marvel’s entries to the canon were sequels and the third was an in-universe reboot. The general critical consensus came to be that a little variety wouldn’t be a bad thing.
From a sociopolitical standpoint, a headlining hero like T’Challa is long overdue, of course. But there’s still the feeling that this particular film about a character largely unknown to ‘civilian’ audiences wouldn’t have been made at all were it not for the confidence imbued in Marvel Studios from the success of Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, two other ‘fringe’ characters made palatable by strong casting and snappy dialogue. Although even with these earlier stories, the structure itself was more than a little familiar (Doctor Strange is basically a retooled Iron Man, while the same goes for Ant-Man and Captain America: The First Avenger).
So what’s needed to push the franchise forward is a tale of relatable characters with realistic concerns, in a setting familiar enough to feel natural, but unusual enough to allow for the more fantastical elements of the story. And in this regard, Ryan Coogler delivers masterfully. Black Panther is an intelligent movie which doesn’t sport a superiority complex, it’s intense without morosity, it’s fun without feeling silly. Outstanding work.
T’Challa’s character is mentally sharp, but with neither the genius nor arrogance of Tony Stark or Steven Strange. And while he has faith in his physical abilities, this never spills over into the outright brashness of Captain America, Thor or Hulk. Black Panther is merely a costume, a mantle; T’Challa is the focus, and he succeeds because of those who stand by his side. While the movie may bear the Black Panther’s name, all heroes are equal here.
Chadwick Boseman gives a fantastic, thoughtful performance centre-stage, but it’s the ladies who really steal the show, for two reasons. Firstly, T’Challa’s nature is largely stoical, with hints of reticence when it comes to making the big decisions placed at his feet. Shuri, Okoye and Nakia however, are far more gregarious and focused when it comes to combat. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Black Panther wears a mask/helmet to fight; the ladies don’t. As a result, Wright, Gurira and Nyong’o can be far more expressive throughout, leading a fantastic cast including spirited performances from Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Daniel Kaluuya. Martin Freeman is also in the film.
The neatest part of course, is that Black Panther instantly feels like it’s a part of the larger Marvel universe, and not just by means of the returning characters and plot-references. The production-team have the tonal quality of the MCU honed completely by this point so we’d expect little else, but throughout the 134 minutes, there’s the feeling that these characters belong firmly in the timeline and we’re just surprised we haven’t met them before now. The knowledge that some of them will be returning in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War is welcome, indeed.
Black Panther is Marvel Studios playing another strong hand. The film doesn’t necessarily leave the viewer with the same hyperactive buzz as Thor: Ragnarok or Spider-Man: Homecoming, but then it has far more thematic plates to spin. And as usual for this sort of thing, there’s far more for the MCU-fan to take in than can be gleaned from the first sitting. Not that you’ll need a reason to watch this more than once…
Marvel’s Black Panther is at cinemas everywhere, now. Once you’ve seen it, come back and let us know what you think!