The king is dead, long live the king. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda, is dead and his son T’Challa, having already donned the costume of the of the Black Panther, must return to be crowned King, but there are others who seek a new path for Wakanda, one that would change its isolationist stance and instead have it as a force to shake the world.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appearing in Fantastic Four issue 52 in 1966, Black Panther was a much-anticipated addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Chadwick Boseman gave a fine performance in Civil War, but all audiences have seen to date of his homeland is a brief glimpse in a post-credit sequence, giving director Ryan Coogler the chance to really show audiences something new, and he does not disappoint.
An African nation whose hidden wealth comes from vibranium, the rare mineral which gives Captain America’s shield its strength, long ago the five tribes of the land fought for supremacy until one warrior united them after ingesting a “heart-shaped herb” that had been affected by the vibranium from an ancient meteor strike, he gained superhuman strength and became the first Black Panther, forming the nation of Wakanda and becoming its king.
Knowing other nations would want its precious resources, Wakanda hid its wealth and power, the Black Panther serving as king and protector with the title passed to each generation. To the outside world it presents itself as a developing agricultural nation, yet through the use of the vibranium it harbours scientific and technological wonders far beyond the rest of the world, a woken dream of Afrofuturism which others would exploit if they knew it existed
Beautifully presented, each of the tribes of Wakanda have their own unique style with elements drawn from different African cultures, the blending of technology and traditional designs of the capital a refreshing new look for Marvel. Having shown different advanced civilisations and technologies across many worlds in seventeen previous films, they have still managed to present a culture of a kind not seen before.
Similarly, the movie mixes different styles masterfully, showing tribal rituals in one scene then moving seamlessly to a lab manufacturing gadgets for the next Black Panther mission where the part of Q is taken by T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Humans‘ Letitia Wright). Bringing a lightness to the role without being comic relief, Wright’s smooth enthusiasm for technology is wonderful to watch, that Bond style undercover casino assignment leads to a car chase both fast and furious before venturing back to the African plains, the film barely touching American soil beyond the opening prelude and its echoes into the present.
Where Doctor Strange felt much like a standard origin movie going through the required steps, Black Panther has the advantage of having been introduced in Civil War and Coogler has managed to create a movie that just feels fresh while still hitting familiar points in the hero’s journey. Similar to Spiderman: Homecoming, Black Panther does not focus on the origin story but instead tells a good story about that character and those around him.
By T’Challa’s side is Nakia (The Last Jedi’s Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan operative who is also his former lover while at his back is General Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), leader of the of the Dora Milaje, the Royal Guard and warriors of Wakanda. First seen embedded with human cargo, battling people trafficking, as well as being a good introduction to Nakia it establishes that the ostensibly isolationist Wakanda does have operatives active in the world, while Okoye is magnificent throughout from her fight scenes and wonderfully dry humour to the scenes showing the strength of her character’s loyalty to the nation as it is challenged.
Standing against them is Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkis reprising the weapons dealer introduced in Age Of Ultron, one of his rare occasions appearing without motion capture as a larger-than-life character who, despite being a shown as a murderer without conscience, is so entertaining he cannot help but fill the screen. Wanted by the Wakandans for murdering their people while seizing a shipment of vibranium twenty-five years earlier, his long evasion of justice a great failure of the late T’Chaka which T’Challa now inherits.
Waiting in the wings to take advantage of the situation is Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, Fantastic Four’s Michael B Jordan, reunited with director Coogler with whom he worked on Creed and Fruitville Station and who clearly wanted him for this role. In every scene, Jordan projects a restless energy and a confidence that he can take down everyone around him; even when squaring up against Boseman’s Black Panther, Jordan is the more physically intimidating.
While the character does not need the backstory provided by Everett K Ross (Ghost Stories‘ Martin Freeman) in order to be effective, the film shows how the actions that were done to Stevens as a child started him down the path that led him to become a CIA asset who has made assassination and taking down governments his profession, showing him in a very different light from his rightly proud Wakandan cousins.
In the same way that The Winter Soldier considered the covert military agenda operating within the American intelligence community and Iron Man and Age of Ultron addressed arms dealing, so Black Panther uses Killmonger to examine and criticise the long-established US foreign policy of interference on foreign soil to suit domestic policy, and compared to the forgettable Steppenwolf of Justice League, Marvel still seems leaps ahead of their main competitor in every way.
The first Marvel film deeply embedded in family, both good and bad, Black Panther has an elegant and refreshing style befitting its name and carries a call for change which has arrived at just the right moment. Boseman gives a fine performance but it is the characters around him that really shine, an ensemble rather than a single hero movie and thereby so much more entertaining and richer in substance.
With themes of family, duty and our role in the world Black Panther and its closing message is a movie the world very much needs right now: “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”
Black Panther is currently on general release and also screening in 3D and IMAX