I’ve made it no secret that the film I was anticipating most this year was Black Panther. I’ve been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since it started and, after the introduction of the character in Captain America: Civil War, I was eagerly anticipating seeing Black Panther and his world in more detail. What made it even more exciting was the announcement that Ryan Coogler had been hired to direct the film as Coogler’s previous two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, were both excellent films that I rated as my favourite films of the years they were released. When the trailers came out, my anticipation grew, but I also saw the impact the film was having with black audiences, giving them an experience that I will never have, seeing themselves represented to a degree that hasn’t been seen in superhero films since the MCU started. More than anything, that power alone would have made Black Panther a strong cultural moment, the fact that it may be the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is icing on the cake.
The film picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War with T’Challa being crowned king of the African nation of Wakanda following the death of his father T’Chaka at the hands of Zemo in Civil War. With being crowned king, T’Challa has new responsibilities to ensure the security of Wakanda and to preserve the technological advances of the country made possible by Wakanda forming around a mountain of Vibranium. This is challenged through the reappearance of Ulysses Klaue, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron, working alongside Erik Stevens, also known as Killmonger, who has desires on the throne of Wakanda to use the Wakandan technology to improve the lives of black people across the world. Now what makes Black Panther work better than almost all the other MCU films is the thematic depth to the film. Now there has been some strong thematic subtext to the other Marvel films, but here all the thematic weight is brought front and centre. Firstly this comes through with the debate between isolationism and globalisation that is present throughout the film. As mentioned, the main internal conflict with T’Challa is whether or not to reveal the secrets of Wakanda to the world when the country has presented itself as one of the poorest nations on the planet for generations, with this also bringing in conflict for T’Challa regarding tradition and the level to which he should be guided by the traditions of Wakanda compared to forging his own path as King. I won’t go much more into detail so I don’t spoil the film but these are fascinating elements that were great to see in a superhero film. Speaking of which, this ties into what makes Killmonger probably the best villain in the MCU: he’s right. From the start of the film we see how Wakandan technology could be used to improve the lives of black people all over the world but Wakanda does not provide help for fear of causing chaos in the country and, especially as we see how Killmonger lived prior to the events of the film, whilst the methods he uses are extreme, the ultimate goal of improving the lives of black people all over the world is a noble one, an idea that is shared by some of the other supporting characters in the film, mainly Wakandan spy Nakia and head of the Wakanadan army W’Kabi, with the differing methods they offer for Wakanda to be open to the world creating further thematic weight to the film.
What really makes the film work though is the depiction of Wakanda itself. From the first frame of the film we are thrust into the world of Wakanda, with some of the best world building in any superhero film. Due to the history of Wakanda being that it was the only African nation to never fall victim to Colonialism, we see an environment where African culture was allowed to thrive naturally, with the vibranium helping to facilitate the development of Wakanda. Through the production design of Hannah Beachler and the costume design of Ruth E Carter, we see the most high profile example I can think of off the Afrofuturist aesthetic being seen on the big screen. The production design of Wakanda being more advanced versions of traditional African architecture, combining these elements with incredibly advanced technology and a beautiful environment to create one of the most unique worlds I’ve seen in a film. The costume design meanwhile is absolutely gorgeous, combining traditional elements of African clothing, including the fabrics used and elements like lip plates, to create a powerful, regal look for the governing powers of Wakanda, along with a unique look for the ordinary citizens of the nation. This can also be seen in the armour the characters wear, not just T’Challa’s Black Panther suit, but mainly with the armour of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all female Secret Service, the full design of the armour being reminiscent of traditional Maasai wear. Every single frame that we see of Wakanda is filled with different elements of African culture and it’s just beautiful to behold.
The performances too make the film one of the strongest films in the MCU. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as T’Challa. There’s a regal, stoic nature to his performance throughout the film that makes his stature as King feel believable, along with vulnerabilities and doubt that make him a compelling character. Michael B Jordan as Killmonger meanwhile elevates the script to further give the character weight. There’s a righteous fury in his performance, along with a threatening air and, again, a sense of vulnerability that makes the character both sympathetic and intimidating and Jordan pulls off this balancing act perfectly. Lupita N’yongo as Nakia meanwhile has a powerful, calming nature to her performance, showing her effectiveness under pressure that makes her such a good spy, and is a solid moral voice throughout the film, showing why she is such a valued adviser to T’Challa. Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, has a great physicality to her performance, showing her effectiveness as a warrior, along with a sense of loyalty to Wakanda throughout the film, which raises some interesting moral conundrums for her character in the second half of the film. Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, pretty much steals the film whenever she’s on screen. There’s a sense of wild creativity and enthusiasm for her work, essentially being the Wakandan version of Q, that feels really inspiring, whilst the chemistry she has with Boseman sells the sibling relationship, and provides some great comic moments throughout the film. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi meanwhile brings a really nuanced, damaged quality to the character, particularly through his relationship with Klaue and Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe in Wakanda, has a great physicality and great comic timing for his character, along with a sense of pathos for his role in Wakanda, and there’s a powerful performance from Sterling K Brown in a small role, but to say more about their performances would spoil the film. Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the King Mother, again has a strong regal quality to her performance, whilst Forest Whitaker as Zuri, a spiritual elder of Wakanda, has a strong comforting presence that shows why he’s so trusted by T’Challa. As for the Tolkien white guys in the film, Martin Freeman is solid as Everett Ross, showing his fascination with Wakanda and growing trust of T’Challa believably, even if his American accent is a bit distracting, whilst Andy Serkis hams it up and is a blast to watch in his scenes as Klaue.
On the technical side, I’ve already mentioned the production design and costume design, but praise also has to go to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography and Ryan Coogler’s direction for making all of these elements work on screen together, working together to create some absolutely gorgeous moments in the film, special praise going to T’Challa’s coronation as King and the scenes in the ancestral plane, which take place when T’Challa consumes a heart shaped herb that gives him the powers of the Black Panther. The action scenes meanwhile are excellent, making great use of the Wakandan technology, environment and even animals to create some really unique set-pieces, whilst Coogler and Morrison once again use one-take movements in a key scene to give a solid kinetic feel to the film. The music by Ludwig Goransson, along with songs by Kendrick Lamar, add to the overall feel of Wakanda, with Goransson making use of South African musicians to give a feel to the music unique to any other score the MCU.
Overall, even with my high levels of anticipation I didn’t think Black Panther would work this well with such a strong thematic depth. Just making a Black Panther film alone was a strong cultural moment but what Ryan Coogler has done is made a film that, in every single frame, is 100% black, completely respectful of all the different aspects of black culture and a powerful moment for black people. As a white man my reaction will be different to that of black people, but from what I’ve seen on social media, this is more than just a film for black people, this is a cultural movement and one that was way overdue.
My Rating: 5/5