Despite some issues with pacing and script, Black Panther is by far Marvel's most badass outing to date, and easily ranks as one of their best.
Since 2008’s Iron Man, we have seen superhero film after superhero film released by Marvel Studios, at an ever-increasing rate. While some may decry the saturation of blockbusters with superhero flicks, I’d argue that Marvel have managed to stay relevant and interesting despite releasing two or three movies per year by keeping each entry in the always-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe as varied as the last. So it is with Black Panther, by far the most awesome film to hit the MCU to date.
Taking place after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we are given a more thorough introduction to King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the technologically advanced but recluse African nation of Wakanda that he rules, and the heroic mantle of Black Panther he must take up. There are plenty of easter eggs for the eagle-eyed Marvel fan to pick out, but by-and-large the plot and characters are self-contained. Ascending to the throne following his father’s death in Civil War, T’Challa must defend his country (and the world) from the disparate threats posed by Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. In the process, T’Challa must decide which direction to take his country in, and how best to rise to embody the Black Panther – the superpowered protector of Wakanda, and a role that every King of the secluded nation must embrace.
So let’s just get this off my chest to begin with: Black Panther is absolutely, jaw-droppingly bad ass. Marvel’s latest film is by far it’s coolest – action sequences are tight, the soundtrack is incredible (more on that later), shots are beautiful throughout, costume and set design are effortlessly impressive, and performances across the board are top-notch. While certain entries in the MCU have gone down the cheesier, campier or more lighthearted route – which can work when done well (just watch Homecoming or Ragnarok) – Black Panther has doubled-down on the kind of aesthetic that hosts the world’s best house parties every night and chills by a beachfront promenade every day. Maybe I’m not the coolest person to be able to describe just how cool Black Panther is, but just expect to be constantly wowed by everything in this movie, from the direction to the story, and even down to the sound design.
But the coolest thing about Black Panther is the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman. When we last saw him in Civil War, T’Challa was a one-man revenge quest, seemingly only drafted into the action purely to promote this film. But two years on, and Boseman has refined the character, truly making him his own. He expertly conveys the two sides of the Wakandan king: when in his vibranium suit, Boseman as the Black Panther is unrelenting, awe-inspiring and utterly badass. But when making political decisions affecting the fate of his country – and the world – as King T’Challa, you can sense the conflict in Boseman’s performance. T’Challa is a good man – but as his late father says to him in a sublimely psychedelic dream sequence, good men rarely make good kings. T’Challa truly struggles to make the right decision at times, and it’s fascinating to watch.
The rest of the cast are just as superb. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifically compelling as W’Kabi, giving his character’s motivations and actions perfect weight throughout the film. Letitia Wright has her comic timing and enthusiasm turned up to 11 as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. It’s hard to pick the greater BAMF out of Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okoye. I could go on. But the real standouts – in a rarity for a Marvel film – are the villains.
It seems that Marvel’s execs were so impressed with the efforts that Andy Serkis and Michael B. Jordan put into their roles that they split the film in two. Ulysses Klaue and Erik Killmonger are two of the most interesting and entertaining villains that the studio have thrown at us since 2014’s Winter Soldier. Serkis is terrifying as the deranged Klaue, climaxing in an incredible car chase through the streets of Korea (perfectly soundtracked to Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok’s ‘Opps’). Jordan is something altogether more horrifying as Wakandan usurper Killmonger – in part due to his far more understandable motivations. If anyone was to match Boseman for badassery, it’s Jordan. The only complaint is that, aside from a brief scene near the film’s opening, the two rarely work together, producing a film of two halves: one of Black Panther v. Klaue, and another of Black Panther v. Killmonger. But don’t let that take anything away from Serkis or Jordan’s performances. We may get a weird mishmash of two films in one, but both of those films are developed to the highest quality.
Of course, this is a Marvel film, and that means you’ll be faced with comedy. A concern going into Black Panther was that the laughs would contrast with the tone of the film, detracting from the overall enjoyment. Fortunately, Coogler is a director at the peak of his craft, and he knows when to use jokes, and when not to. Black Panther isn’t as funny as Guardians, Homecoming or Ragnarok, but nor does it need to be. When the gags do come, they come to relieve tension and keep the plot ticking, and it works. Many gags are laugh out loud, and at no point do they feel out of place or poorly timed.
Finally, the soundtrack. Although not every track from Kendrick Lamar’s terrific (if obviously promotional) Black Panther: The Soundtrack makes the cut, those that are used are used well to further convey the film’s aesthetic as generally just cooler than you. Lamar and The Weeknd’s intense ‘Pray For Me’ makes the perfect backdrop to a slick scene in a casino; ‘Bloody Waters’ gives Wakanda a sound as well as an image; the aforementioned ‘Opps’ makes for top-notch car chase music. Cinema is an audio as well as a visual experience, and the sound design, sound editing and soundtrack to Black Panther show that Coogler (and Lamar) haven’t forgotten that.
Much has been made of the fact that Black Panther is the first major superhero movie with a black lead and mostly-black cast. The story, and especially the motivations of T’Challa and Killmonger, pay respect to that, and the film should absolutely be commended for breaking down the barriers that previously prevented a film like this being made. But beyond that, Black Panther is a bloody exciting film, with the coolest lead in the MCU, as well as its best cinematography and soundtrack. It’s not perfect – the way Coogler uses Klaue and Killmonger essentially splits the film in two, whilst elements of the script leave much to be desired and it rarely feels like the world is in danger – but it’s still a damn good film and one that any action film fan would be remiss to not go and see.
Black Panther (2018), directed by Ryan Coogler is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Certificate 12A.