Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther has since grown into one of the greatest - if not the greatest - heroes of African descent in the history of major comic book publishing. The Black Panther’s appearances in Jungle Action, initially written by veteran writer Don McGregor, were ahead of its time in more ways than one. Black Panther was the first black comic book character to have a title of which he was the primary protagonist, outdating the Falcon and Luke Cage of Marvel and Black Lightning of DC Comics by years.
Though he was only a fictional character, the Black Panther was important for a multitude of reasons. First off, he was crucial to young, university-age black comic book readers because he represented a strong, intelligent and infinitely resourceful character that was the equal of such wildly popular characters as Captain America, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. This was telling for a multitude of reasons, one of them being that it counteracted the mainstream, conservative notion that people of African descent were in need of white guidance at every turn and were incapable of the complex nuances often associated with other superheroes.
Fast forward to 2018 and ‘Black Panther’ has arrived along with a great weight of expectations, shepherded by director Ryan Coogler (‘Fruitvale Station’, ‘Creed’). Following the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War’, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, ‘Gods of Egypt’) has returned home as king of Wakanda, a purely African nation without a legacy of European influence, where African fashion, architecture, spirituality, and politics have evolved without interference. Due to its intentional isolationism and supply of the rare and valuable resource called Vibranium, Wakanda is secretly the world's most technologically advanced country.
T’Challa quickly finds his sovereignty challenged by a rival tribal leader, M'Baku (Winston Duke), before getting pulled into a plan to capture the arms-dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes'), and coming into conflict with a formidable adversary with ties to Wakanda’s past, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan, ‘Creed’). T’Challa must team-up with his genius sister, Suri (Letitia Wright, ‘The Commuter’), his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o, ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’), his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira, TV’s ‘The Walking Dead’) and an American government agent, Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy), to avert global catastrophe.
The film immediately lets us know we are entering formulaic superhero origin movie territory with an animated sequence and exposition-laden voiceover tracing the history of Wakanda, from the impact of a huge meteorite of alien ore through to the country’s advancement over generations into a society mixing African traditions with high technology. This is followed by a flashback to early-1990s Oakland, California. Exposition and flashbacks... this is some pretty ho-hum stuff.
Things improve when the screenplay for ‘Black Panther’, written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, touches on colonialism, the current immigration crisis, and the struggle of African Americans in the United States. T’Challa’s father and predecessor in the Black Panther role, T'Chaka, clashes with his own brother over whether to help African Americans achieve equal rights by force. T’Challa’s head of security, W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, ‘Get Out’), wants Wakanda to use its advanced weaponry to take a more prominent stance alongside the world powers, while T’Challa would prefer that his country continue to flourish under the camouflage of a harmless developing nation. Primitive leader of the Gorilla Tribe, M'Baku, comes into conflict with T’Challa as he sees Wakanda lose sight of its traditions in lieu of technological advancement. U.S. government spook Everett K. Ross is dismissively referred to as both “coloniser” and “the American”.
Unfortunately, despite skimming over these interesting themes, the driving storyline is yet another "sins of the father" tale from Marvel, something we’ve already seen with Tony and Howard Stark (‘Iron Man 2’), Ultron and Tony (‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’), Thor and Odin (most recently in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’), Scott Lang and Hank Pym (‘Ant-Man’), Stephen Strange and The Ancient One (‘Doctor Strange’), and Peter Quill and Ego (‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’). In this case, T’Challa must reconcile himself to the fact that his father’s dedication to keeping Wakanda’s secrets from the outside world led him to make the kind of tough decisions that created a monster in Killmonger.
While Coogler’s ‘Black Panther’ has a lot to say, the script has plenty of clunky moments: lifelong friends have sudden changes of loyalties, a key character falls off a cliff only to reappear miles away on a mountain top, and a scientist unveils Black Panther’s new noise-cancelling shoes, jokes “I call them ‘sneakers’!” and then... we never see the shoes again (by total coincidence, Marvel has teamed up with Clarks Originals for a special edition Trigenic Evo 'Black Panther' sneaker).
Performances vary. The script doesn't give Andy Serkis much to chew on as South African cyborg Ulysses Klaue, so he starts biting chunks out of the scenery instead. Martin Freeman plays his usual nebbish white guy. Winston Duke is an unexpected highlight as the brutish but amusing M'Baku, potentially the most problematic character from the comic (he is not referred to in the film by his comic's alter ego, Man-Ape, since Marvel felt there were “a lot of racial implications that don’t sit well” in having a black character dress up as an ape).
Women are represented strongly through the performances of Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira, who play members of the Black Panther's bodyguard, the Dora Milaje - an elite, all-female fighting force. Letitia Wright (whose character, Suri, eventually becomes Black Panther in the comics) is also likeable as a young technological genius, whose role is similar to James Bond's Q.
The screenplay for ‘Black Panther’, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, touches on colonialism, the current immigration crisis, and the struggle of African Americans in the United States.
Unfortunately, Chadwick Boseman is terminally dull as T’Challa. He’s never less than noble as the superheroic Black Panther, whose biggest flaw is to “freeze” (show mercy), and he fails to smoulder, whether it be in battle or flirting with his ex. You end up feeling sorry for all these fierce women having to follow such a moist towelette of a leader.
Arguably the chief criticism of Marvel Studios and its cinematic universe is the lack of memorable villains. Outside of Loki and perhaps a few others (Ego, Zemo, and Vulture are decent), the MCU has no great baddies. There are a few reasons for this, such as a lack of screen time in comparison to the hero, but one factor that certainly doesn't help is that these villains can essentially be boiled down to them being more boring versions of the hero. Iron Monger is just a bigger Iron Man. Yellow Jacket is just a yellow Ant-Man.
Luckily, Michael B. Jordan has style and charisma to spare as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, an American black-ops soldier with dreadlocks, bumpy, ritualistic tribal markings on his torso and gold caps on his canines, who seeks to overthrow T'Challa. Due to Coogler giving Jordan the juicer pages of the script and Jordan’s own imposing physicality, Killmonger is a crackling live wire opposite T’Challa’s somnambulistic presence. He represents the ultimate perversion of Wakandan values, while highlighting the hypocrisies and selfishness of the country’s supposedly utopian society. Fair warning: he does eventually don a Black Panther nano-suit for the standard face-punching climactic duel - yes, it all degenerates into the hero slugging it out with his dark opposite number in a battle of brawn. Again.
On that topic, it’s a shame that the fight scenes are so lacking compared to T’Challa’s first appearance in ‘Captain American: Civil War’. Danai Gurira as the spear-wielding Okoye gets the best ones, but the Black Panther’s scenes range from murky (a nighttime attack on a convoy) to that weightless, rubbery-body CGI-style that Cate Blanchett was rocking in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. Black Panther's costume explodes with “kinetic energy” now, not unlike Doomsday in ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’. It made me long for the days when wire-fu and computer graphics were used as tools to augment fight sequences rather than to create them. Even Boseman’s two non-CGI-assisted duels, free of his superhero costume, are rendered in confusing quick cuts and close-ups.
The bold Afrofuturist look of Wakanda’s people, cities and vehicles, via cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler and designer Ruth E. Carter, ranks alongside ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in terms of richness and colour (a deliberate effort by Coogler to combat criticism of Marvel films all looking the same and being “shot, composed, and edited by the same in-house people”). Wakanda feels like a country rather than just one city by featuring multiple, distinct tribes each with their own cultures.
As chieftain, the Panther is entitled to eat a special Heart-Shaped Herb which grants him superhumanly acute senses, enhanced strength, speed, agility, stamina, durability, healing, and reflexes. The scenes where T’Challa ingests the herb and is ceremonially buried under red earth, his spirit visiting a trippy garden of ancestral memory to commune with previous Panthers, are some of the most visually arresting in the film.
Coogler has been quoted as saying that his movie was influenced by “the films of the '70s” such as the works of Francis Ford Coppola, and that he also watched the film ‘A Prophet’ for inspiration. I’d like to imagine that Coogler’s film, with its flashbacks to the Oakland housing projects and gold-chain wearing gangbangers of the early-90s, was tipping its hat to the firebrand directors of that era (Mario Van Peebles, John Singelton) who were once the front-runners to helm a ‘Black Panther’ film (see: ‘On the trail of the Panther’). I’d also like to think the garden of ancestral memory sequences, with panthers lazing in the branches of trees and purple skies, were riffing on the opening of Paul Schrader’s 1982 erotic panther thriller ‘Cat People’. Sure, I may be giving Ryan Coogler too much credit... those bottom-lip hieroglyphic tattoos worn by the citizens of Wakanda are definitely a nod to Stephen Norrington’s ‘Blade’, though.
For many, ‘Black Panther’ is more than just another blockbuster; it is a cultural moment. Wakanda could be a visualisation of that black utopia pan-Africanists have dreamed of. For others, this is a much smaller step in the right direction. While ‘Black Panther’ is yet another formulaic Marvel origin story, with a script that occasionally stumbles, a dull hero and a few forgettable action scenes, the film’s Afrofuturist visual design, dynamic female support characters and charismatic villain are fresh and something to relish.