Early 2018 has seen the release of the next in a string of big budget Marvel comics inspired films, all building up to the release of Infinity Wars Part 1 this spring, which sees the Avengers unite with Spiderman, The Guardians of the Galaxy and other heroes against a major, cosmic threat. One of the new allies they team up is Black Panther, one of the first, prominent black superheroes, introduced back in 1966, raised as the wealthy prince T’Challa of the fictional African utopia known as Wakanda. The film has already become the seventh highest grossing American film of all time, and the highest for a debuting director – in this case Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the story.
Played by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa and his black suited alter-ego were introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the 2016 release Captain America: Civil War, where he got dragged into a feud between members of the Avengers superteam, centred around Bucky Barnes, the man accused of killing T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (a stately-sounding John Kani). In his solo follow up, Boseman gets to inherit the role of King of Wakanda from his departed father, provided he can pass the physical and spiritual trials required. The movie opens with a parent recounting the history of the mysterious land of Wakanda, a small African nation hit by a meteorite thousands of years ago. The meteorite contained the supermetal, Vibranium, which was able to absorb and redirect nearly every kind of vibrational energy, making it probably the most valuable substance on the planet. This enabled the people of Wakanda to slowly develop an advanced society in secret and seclusion, developing technology a good century ahead of the modern super powers. A potent part of the Black Panther mythology, Wakanda represents an Africa that might have been – a technological paradise and a natural oasis co-existing, that also houses preserved tribal heritages and traditions united peacefully. It serves as a powerful cultural fantasy image, particularly in a post colonial age. But all may not that well within this other Eden…
Twenty six years earlier, we encounter the young King T’Chaka, played by John Kani’s own son, Atandwa Kani, who has a notable resemblance to him. T’Chaka has come to visit his own brother N’Jobu, who has been acting as a Wakandan spy in America, in the slums of Oakland, California. T’Chaka reveals evidence of his brother colluding with a notorious arms smuggler named Ulysses Klaue, which leads to a tense, and violent, standoff. Years later, T’Chaka’s son is readying himself to take the throne after his father’s abrupt assassination – as collateral damage in a plot to destroy the Avengers team, back in the movie Civil War. After coming to the aid of his ex girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who has been undercover within a human trafficking group – who has been doing fine on her own, and somewhat resents being invited to the coronation. A feisty and independent woman, Nakia has strong ideas about the future role of Wakanda, which she feels is too isolationist and withdrawn from the outside world. We get an idea why that might feel attractive as we fly with the characters, in an advanced, often invisible aircraft made of Vibranium, into a holographic camouflage field concealing the eponymous nation itself. Rift valleys and wild animal herds give way to a gleaming city-scape organised along what has been termed ‘Afro-futurism’ architecture. Cylindrical and conical towers rise, adorned with subtle tribal artwork etchings and coloration, whilst large stepped edifices laden with balconies look out over bustling open market places and suspended, advanced monorail train lines.
T’Challa greets his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his precocious and loquacious sister, Shuri, who is an intelligent and accomplished adolescent, but who can’t resist teasing her brother, both about his impending ascension, swapping banter with Nakia. The various tribes of Wakanda – who each have different African styles of dress and adornment, ranging from facial beads to colourful Ethiopian style lip plates – begin to gather for the investment and challenge ceremony. But trouble is unfolding elsewhere in London, as a museum visitor, played by Michael B. Jordan, examines some preserved tribal relics, before abruptly absconding with one – an old piece of disguised Vibranium metal. He is aided in his endeavour by Ulysses Klaue – played with gleeful relish by Andy Serkis, who gets to ham it up, but still shoots a security guard cold blooded. Atop a majestic plateau with thundering waterfalls, in a natural arena, T’Challa accepts the support of the tribes, only to be challenged by M’Baku – the intimidating leader of the recusant Jabari tribe. A tense duel erupts with spears and shield, before M’Baku (played by a often deadpan Winston Duke) reluctantly yields.
T’Challa gets to receive the benefits of the potion made from the ‘heart-shaped herb’, which grants the power of the fabled Black Panther figure, but also grants vision into a spirit world, where T’Challa greets his father, dwelling among other ancestral figures. T’Chaka gives advice about how being King doesn’t always mean doing the popular thing, and that he will also have to decide what kind of king he is going to be. Upon awakening, T’Challa answers the request of the tribal leaders to track down the notorious Klaue and bring him to justice for his thefts and arms trading. This mission takes the viewer and the characters to South Korea for a visually impressive string of set pieces, beginning in a casino, well lit and with the film’s soundtrack providing some background ambience. As a matter of fact, South Korea is well known for having very generous tax incentives for film crews to shoot location footage there.
The Black Panther is aided in duties by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the captain of the Wakanda Royal Guard. Gurira cuts a very imposing figure in red, leathery tribal-inspired armour, with spear, and a distinctive bald head – although she dons a more decorous disguise for her entry into the casino. Nakia is also along, and together they meet up with a CIA agent, Everett Ross, played by popular comedic UK talent, Martin Freeman – who employs his best fake American accent. Freeman had previously been established in the film Civil War, where he first ran into the Black Panther in costume. Both are there to catch Klaue, and both end up treading on each other’s toes, until a fight with Klaue’s bodyguards ensues. The soundtrack jacks into overdrive with a tribal drum effect as Okoye goes into battle, and Serkis hams it up again during his showy escape. The film follows by launching into it’s first major action set-piece in a car chase through the city streets of Busan, using a specially equipped, Vibranium armoured car, that can be remotely driven by Shuri. The Black Panther dons his improved suit for the battle, which looks good in most shots, though may appear a little too computer-generated in panning shots up close.
Klaue’s capture leads into the film’s second act, as Martin Freeman’s character begins to cotton onto the mysteries behind Wakanda, and even ends up being taken there after being wounded, awakening into a high tech medical environment, where he is clued in by a gleeful Shuri, on some of the local advances. Whilst this is unfolding, the true menace of the story is revealed, as Michael B. Jordan re-enters the plot, playing the eponymous Erik ‘Killmonger’, a former American Special Forces soldier with strong ties to Wakanda and to T’Challa, who has recovered Klaue for the next part of his scheme…
To say more would probably give away a little too much of the plot and action to come, but Killmonger will soon be going straight up against Black Panther in a battle for the soul of Wakanda, as issues regarding immigration, national identity and racial obligations enter into the story. Will Wakanda choose to get involved with the rest of the world, and do so aggressively or benignly? As a symbol of an Africa the world has never known, will it stand to unite various black people and those of African descent from around the world? Or will it just become a pawn in Killmonger’s bitter quest for what he defines as justice? The movie poses many of these questions, and whilst it cannot explore all of them in major depth, does make them an engaging backdrop to the character conflicts that follow. Forest Whittaker also brings his acting chops in the role of Zuri, an old friend of T’Challa’s father, who knows the shameful past of Killmonger and his connection to the family. Whittaker isn’t in the film for long, but makes the most of his brief scenes. And Winston Duke returns in the final act as M’Baku, delivering both humour and a little tension as a reluctant ally of the Panther and his resurgent pack.
Martin Freeman plays a role established in the original comics as more of a comic relief and audience commentary upon the culture he is being introduced to. Freeman plays him a little straighter in the movie, as someone relatively capable but struggling to catch up to new circumstances and events. He does have a fairly satisfying mini arc leading through the finale though. Chadwick Boseman is charismatic throughout, including when faces down his ancestors again later to say that the old ways cannot always continue to work, and that his people must take responsibility for their place in the world again. That seems an important message for all superpowers these days, however divided politics has become. America itself is going through a period of upheaval, after repeated military conflicts and financial upsets – ones prone to cause increased withdrawal from the wider world. And the concept of globalisation has become seen as an ever more two-edged sword, changing and interjecting into established cultures in a number of abrupt and unpredictable ways. But the film makes a good argument for the possibility of new connections and valuable relationships to emerge. The finale allows the Wakandans to begin smoothing out a new path for themselves, that will see them make what is sure to be a memorable impact in future Marvel cinematic outings to come – including next month’s Infinity Wars, as the trailers have revealed.
Despite the very real phenomena of franchise fatigue, those who still enjoy superhero movies, or just decent Hollywood action, will find much to enjoy, but with the main draw being the well-realised characters and the strikingly realised visual world they are placed in. And Michael B. Jordan manages to establish himself with a role as one of the best realised antagonists yet in the crop of Marvel Comic movies, with relatable, and believable motivations for his ruthless plans. He isn’t as arch and darkly comic as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, or as intimidating as Michael Keaton’s recent turn as the Vulture (in last year’s Spiderman: Homecoming) but he holds up well against the likes of David Spader’s Ultron, or Mads Mikkelson’s Caecilius (in Doctor Strange, 2016). And he certainly fairs much better than Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy) or Christopher Eccleston as the dour Dark Elf, Malekith. Jordan’s final scenes ensure a memorable departure for the character, and then the film ends on a crowd pleasing high (stick around for the mid-credits sequence at the United Nations, in particular).
Next to DC Comics’ recent movie outings, Marvel continues to go from strength to strength, and next month’s Infinity Wars (part 1) will mark the culmination of a long planned storyline all the films have been subtly building toward for ten years, seeing hosts of well known characters banded together to confront a menacing new, and potentially game-changing threat for the franchise. Worries that the films and new characters would start to seem stale and repetitive have for the most part been averted, leaving only concerns about how the screen time will be shared equitably and profitably. But audience appeal has been wisely built up over the last twenty-one films, and even the neophytes seem guaranteed a pretty entertaining time, by the generally sharp mix of drama and comedic writing established so far. Black audiences I also feel will be well chuffed by the newest addition to the hero’s stable, as the Black Panther comes thundering out of the gate on all cylinders. I will be sure to let you know how I find the next instalment – and his appearance in it.