“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
Not content with being the best thing about Civil War, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther now stars in what is arguably the strongest MCU film to date – even the sometimes hard to please critics are raving about it. Just take a look at the tremendous Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores making it the best-reviewed superhero movie ever, besting even Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded (but overrated) The Dark Knight. I mean, it’s good – but with Marvel films that’s become the very least we can expect, but is it that good?
The film starts with a gorgeously rendered history lesson about the country of Wakanda and how it came to be the homeland of everything Vibranium. Not that the wider world would know much about this – Wakanda literally projects a fake front of poverty and isolationism. But underneath this facade is a wonderfully realised technological haven. Its afro-futurist style is completely unique and is the first thing that stands Black Panther apart from the rest of the current superhero crop. Whether Wakanda should be doing this, rather than sharing their advanced technological knowledge with the rest of the world, is the crux of the film. Chadwick Boseman’s current King of Wakanda (and the ongoing Black Panther) T’Challa, at first favours the more traditionalist route offered by his father. Keep Wakanda a secret and offer no foreign aid. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger however, is much the opposite. Having spent his life in the US, Killmonger plans to overthrow King T’Challa and use the might of the Wakandan Vibranium to arm the oppressed black communities around the globe, creating a Wakandan empire. Heavy shit, especially from Marvel.
It’s these competing ideologies that fuel the film, making Black Panther probably the most relevant entry into the MCU since at least The Winter Soldier. And the brilliant thing about it is that you don’t instantly side with T’Challa; in a lot of ways Killmonger has a point and you completely get why he is vehemently against T’Challa (I won’t spoil it here but it certainly makes John Kani’s King T’Chaka seem a lot less noble). The best villains are the ones that could have been heroes and that’s true of Killmonger. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic in the role, his subtle performance as the damaged kid hiding behind the badass soldier exterior is one of the MCU’s best all-time performances. Along with Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo, Michael Keaton’s Vulture, and Kurt Russell’s Ego, Killmonger hopefully signifies Marvel’s fixing of their so-called ‘villain problem’.
Despite how fantastic Jordan is, the film well and truly belongs to Chadwick Boseman. T’Challa avenged his Father with the capture of Zemo at the end of Civil War, now he’s got to actually take his place and run the country. Boseman’s nuanced performance as the struggling king is brilliant and confident in a similar way to Chris Evans as Captain America. Neither is the MCU’s showiest performances but both are surely real portrayals of two admittedly far-out characters. The supporting cast is as fantastic as you’d expect from a cast including the likes of Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, and Danai Gurira. But the film’s standout performer is relative newcomer Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister and Black Panther’s equivalent to James Bond’s Q; vibranium expert Shuri. Wright provides most of the film’s laughs and her relationship with her brother is one of the most real portrayals of siblings I’ve seen in a while. Here’s hoping Marvel will find more reasons for her to appear in the MCU again without it feeling forced.
Director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison create some stunning scenes in the film, plenty of ‘that’d make a great wallpaper’ moments. From the purple vista’s of T’Challa’s dream world to the vibrant graffiti-marked walls of downtown Wakanda, Black Panther might be the most gorgeous film in the MCU (after Thor: Ragnorok that is). The action is awesome too, the standout scene being the Korean set-piece, which starts with an expertly directed fight in a Skyfall-homaging casino and ends with a chase through the neon streets of Busan. The climactic fight between Killmonger and T’Challa on the tracks of the vibranium railroad is a little anti-climatic but that’s to be expected after the previous waterfall-topped showdown between the two of them. Coogler puts all of his Creed expertise into the waterfall setpieces, making some of the MCU’s very best scraps.
Despite the right-wing media‘s hilarious fear of a black superhero movie (until it’s a certified hit that is, then it becomes incredulously and incorrectly ‘Pro-Trump), Black Panther refreshingly wears its politics on its sleeve – and there’s no clear-cut right answer. All of the MCU movies are about something political, hell most movies are. But Black Panther is the first MCU movie since The Winter Soldier’s overwhelming distrust of real-world privacy invasion where the politics are in the foreground. And while numerous essays could be written on the film and it’s identity politics or how it deconstructs the western perception of Africa, one thing remains even more important. There are going to be kids out there who see Black Panther and for the very first time see a superhero who looks like them. A superhero they can pretend to be in the playground. And that, I think, is the film’s greatest success.