Just as DC’s Wonder Woman gave women a belated sense of the empowerment that comes from watching a relatable superbeing smash things on the big screen, so Marvel’s Black Panther hopes to finally do the same for black audiences.
Helping chip away at the notion of superhero movies as white male terrain is acclaimed writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), while the film boasts such an array of exciting acting talent it was evidently a struggle to get them all on the poster.
Set one week after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe operates almost entirely as a standalone feature; it’s the first solo outing for the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who debuted in comic-book form in 1966.
Taking place in the fictional land of Wakanda, a secretive African nation hiding its power from the outside world, Black Panther provides a rare mainstream platform for Afrofuturist themes, turning our idea of a Third World country on its head. Wakanda is a force to be feared and envied rather than a nation brought low by colonisation, combining the vivacious aesthetic of tribal customs and costumes with the silver sheen of its world-beating technology (a blend beautifully realised by Hannah Beachler’s extraordinary production design).
It sees Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa return home after the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), to be crowned his successor and achieve the full potency of his alter ego Black Panther. Noble of character, even of temperament and with eyes that glisten with integrity, T’Challa nevertheless suffers crises of conscience and challenges to his leadership. In his struggles, he is flanked by his tech-wizard sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), right-hand warrior woman Okoye (Danai Gurira), proud mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and supportive ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
T’Challa’s chief adversary is Erik Stevens, known as Killmonger (an electrifying Michael B Jordan). Incensed at the injustices suffered by his people and spoiling for a fight, Killmonger could be the Malcolm X to T’Challa’s Martin Luther King. But Killmonger’s grievance is primarily personal rather than principled. His is not the kind of mindlessly destructive villainy Marvel so often peddles, rather this is a portrait of an angry, fatherless man, embodied with punky swagger and visible self-loathing by Jordan.
Boseman makes a singularly majestic hero and there’s fine work elsewhere in the cast: Nyong’o’s wilfulness and Wright’s youthful mischief are welcome notes, while Andy Serkis attacks the role of maniacal brute Ulysses Klaue with lip-smacking aplomb. Yet it’s The Walking Dead’s Gurira who steals the show as the ferocious Okoye, gloriously swinging her spear in a billowing red gown. On the other hand, Martin Freeman’s returning CIA operative feels like a stock fish-out-of-water character, and Daniel Kaluuya may be riding high after Get Out but he’s a little underused here.
The question of whether this isolationist nation should prioritise protecting its people above all else, or reach out to those less fortunate, is dealt with thoughtfully by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, who position the conundrums within the context of real history. And while talk of borders and what to do with refugees will resonate the world over, this is undoubtedly commentary on current US policy.
By the time the armoured rhinos are unleashed in the climactic battle, things have descended into overstuffed spectacle, yet Black Panther mostly delivers on the action front, routinely placing its female characters on the front line.
Passionately performed and lavish in its love for African culture, Black Panther is a franchise film with a distinct individual identity, and one that wants to mean something to those who watch it. When a group of black kids gaze up at the alien-like Wakandan aircraft shimmering in the sky above their California home, their eyes fill with wonder. In moments like these, we’re reminded just why representation matters.
Black Panther is released in cinemas on Tuesday 13 February