Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
I’ve long been an admirer of Ryan Coogler. The man is a supremely talented writer, director and his collaborative efforts with Michael B Jordan usually come with a guarantee of brilliance. Mix this with my love of all things MCU related and you should have a match made in heaven.
Black Panther has been lavished with praise from all quarters and is tearing it up at the box office just about everywhere. What did I make of it the film though? I’ve seen it twice now and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a hugely enjoyable watch. I still don’t think it’s a flawless piece of cinema mind. It has a few little, niggling issues which I’ll get into in due course.
It’s set almost immediately after the events of the magnificent Captain America: Civil War in which, of course, the former king of Wakanda, T’Chaka is killed. This leaves T’Challa bestowed with the power of the Black Panther and he must return to his home immediately to be ushered in as the new king. And that’s precisely what happens, but not before a very cool opening, animated scene outlaying the history of the country, the different tribes within it and so on. This scene, incidently, is narrated in the style of a bed prime story by N’Jobu, the brother of T’Chaka and is interconnected to the villain of the film later on in a way that I thought was very intelligent.
You see there’s a flashback to 1992 in Oakland after this, where the previously mentioned N’Jobu (stationed there as a spy) is outed for conspiring with Ulysses Klaue to arm black communities outside Wakanda with Vibranium. He’s then killed by his own brother, leaving his young son orphaned in a strange land. The true importance of this killing and abandonment on the story and it’s characters isn’t felt until 20 odd years later and around the mid way point of the film, but suffice to say it’s a hugely significant moment.
Back to the present day and like I mentioned, T’Challa heads back to his homeland for the hastily arranged coronation ceremony. Accompanied by the trusted badass Okore (Danai Gurira), he performs a quickfire extraction operation in Nigeria on the way, to bring his ex-lover and spy, Nakia (Lupita Nyongo’o) home for his big day. Now, I have to say that it’s such a cool moment when the ship finally bursts through the holographic barrier giving us the first sight of the frankly incredible Wakanda. The city with its gleaming, high rise buildings, winding monorail and an amazing juxtaposition of the old and new is a real treat for the eyes as most things are in this film.
We meet two main figures upon their arrival, those being, Zuri (Forest Whittaker), a spiritual adviser to the king (who just so happens to be hiding a major secret) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s younger sister, who is insanely intelligent and the provider of much of the cool gadgets and technology Black Panther uses. Both of these characters have their own significantly large roles to play as the plot progresses.
But I digress, the ceremony gets underway, in the most stunning of settings and T’Challa is challenged by M’Baku of the mountain tribes. The fight is fairly fierce, quick fire but our man prevails, successfully getting him to yield in the process and so he’s declared king of Wakanda. Well, for now at least anyway. He then sets his sights on capturing and ending the travails of the permanent thorn in the side that is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). He does this via a short hop to Korea. We see Klaue in a short little heist scene beforehand incidentally, alongside the, at this point, unnamed Michael B Jordan character.
Klaue is apprehended temporarily before the shit hits the fan in an escape spearheaded by Erik. During this Martin Freeman’s Everett K Ross character, a CIA agent takes a bullet in the mayhem of Klaue’s escape. Now, until this point, probably around a third of the way in, Klaue was clearly the antagonist of the film. But shortly after his breakout he’s unceremoniously discarded by the now revealed true villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and things really pick up pace wise after this. Not that the film was slow beforehand because it wasn’t but there was just something lacking.
Erik makes his way to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa. A brutal battle then plays out and the king is rather easily seen off. This scene honestly reminded me of the way Bane broke Batman in the Dark Knight Rises. It was painful just watching it. Killmonger takes to the throne and desires to utilise Wakanda’s immeasurable technological power to help disenfranchised black communities worldwide. This is the raison D’etre of the character and one of the main themes explored by the film in general. Wakanda until that point had chosen to remain secretive, keeping its wealth and power to itself whilst many struggled against oppression.
Now, I’m not sure if Coogler meant for the disappearance and implied death of T’Challa to be more impactful than it was but it mirrored the arc that Caesar had in Dawn of the Planet of Apes and that film handled it so much better for me. Never at any point did I ever doubt he would live and return. It did allow the film to travel to M’Baku’s ethereal throne room setting though so I wasn’t THAT bothered by it.
Of course, T’Challa does indeed return to the fray, setting up one final battle, in true Marvel style. I enjoyed this action packed finale. It featured multi-perspectives, Everett had a part of play, as did Shuri, Okore and Black Panther himself. The death of Killmonger was incredibly poignant with his line about N’Jobu telling him stories about Wakanda as a boy marrying in perfectly with that little opener.
He was very much in the vain of a Roy Batty villain and he’s arguably the most complicated and best villain we’ve seen to date in a Marvel film. Much of that’s down to Michael B Jordan who I can’t praise enough. I think the guy is just oozing with talent that shines through in every film he’s a part of. A sizeable part of it is also down to the journey he had and how relatable the character was too. His ethos and desire to help liberate the oppressed minority isn’t a very villainous cause. Perfectly summed up by his line “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” “Where was Wakanda?” His story was a tragedy.
Indeed he manages to change Black Panthers mind on Wakanda’s continuing secrecy, as that potentially monumental post credits scene proves.
In terms of other noteworthy performances. I could probably spend a good 10 minutes talking about them alone. Chadwick Boseman was outstanding as T’Challa. He imbued the character with raw power, athleticism and real emotion. His accent is so good it would fool me into believeing he was actually from the African continent. Speaking of accents, hats off to Andy Serkis. I love this man as an actor and I was delighted to see him in a non-mo cap role. He looked cool, had a convincing South African accent and I was bitterly disappointed he was killed off.
Lupita Nyongo’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Forest Whitaker were all absolutely superb too. Lupita speaks for herself. Gurira was a incredible in some of the action sequences. Gliding about the screen delivering beatings. Anybody that’s watched the Walking Dead will know what she’s capable of. Shuri had such an upbeat, cheeky and infectious personality that lit up every scene she was in. That’s all down to Wright. Zuri was kind of a tragic character too. He had to live with the death of his friend and his role in it for 20 odd years and it was a great performance from Whitaker who disappointed in Rogue One.
The overwhelmingly majority of this film I did love. The visuals were stunning, every element of them too. The CGI was masterful, none more so in the films two trips to the ancestral realm. The bluish to deep violet tones of the ethereal sky left me stunned by their beauty and added so much to the power and feeling of those scenes which were up there with some of the best in the film.
The costume designs and the attention detail in general was great too.
The score was very cool too. Ludwig Göransson did an outstanding job capturing an authentic African feel throughout. He immersed himself in the continent collaborating with artists and you can tell. It had a great blend of contemporary and classic stuff going on. Killmonger on the soundtrack probably perfectly typifies that. Ancestral Plane is probably my favourite through and Wakanda was up there too.
Now for my biggest gripe or gripes because there’s two in there. The story to me felt a little average. I couldn’t put my finger on why at first but then it dawned on me and it’s the handling of the villains. The first hour of the film doesn’t really have one. Klaue was portrayed as one, but he didn’t ever feel like a serious threat to our heroes. Sure he was involved in that great chase scene in Korea but that was it really. Then he was killed out of the blue. Why? I don’t know.
Killmonger absolutely should’ve been more prominent from the beginning, why he didn’t step forward until half way through the film is beyond me. Things improved dramatically when he did. Even then though, it really didn’t feel like T’Challa would be in any danger. The final battle was enjoyable enough but lacked the urgency I’ve grown accustomed to. This film was deliberately set on a smaller, more personal scale admittedly and it semi-worked when Black Panther was at odds with his fathers legacy, betrayal and his inner conflict. But not so much when it came to a big, bombastic battle.
In the end, I did enjoy Black Panther and that’s down to the unique setting, the much superior second half of the film and the excellent performances in the main. For a film of this stand.