Black Panther gives the eponymous hero a whole epic to himself and the complicated story of his long-hidden homeland with some pseudo-Shakespearean power struggles.
A character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 (they regretted his name after the later rise of the Black Panther Party), this stands just about alone from all the other Marvel movies, and due to the fact that most of the cast aren’t white and there’s much biting humour about colonisation and racism, it has tended to be slightly overrated. After all, in the end it is a superhero movie, and it’s not going to change the world.
As co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (quite a change from his Fruitvale Station and Creed), this opens with an important flashback to 1992 and then jumps forward to T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to Wakanda after the events of Civil War and ready to be crowned King. Wakanda is supposedly one of the poorest nations in the world today, but in fact T’Challa gets around in an Earthbound spaceship and flies through a forcefield into an Asgard-like home done up with lots of gaudy colours.
This is all to do with the very rare and powerful element vibranium, which hides Wakanda from the world, supplies its fabulous powers and gives Black Panther his somewhat suspiciously Iron-Man-like abilities. We’re then introduced to the complex ways in which Wakanda operates, with advanced technology combined with tribal laws and wars, as T’Challa is forced to fight for the throne in a sequence that allows pro-overactor Forest Whitaker to ham it up as eye-rolling elder statesman Zuri.
There’s also a terrorist threat to all of this in the form of Ulysses Klaue, a black-marketeering bastard who wants to get his greasy mitts on the vibranium and is essayed with feverish intensity by a crew-cutted, tattooed and leering Andy Serkis, who relishes the chance to be actually seen onscreen for a change and offers some wild mugging of his own. He’s pretty over-the-top but nutty fun anyway, as he rushes around sneering with a Jo’burg accent, unintentionally gets CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) involved in the greater plot, and unexpectedly sings Haddaway’s What Is Love?.
A slightly lop-sided storyline, however, ensures that Serkis isn’t in the film enough and that Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is also a crucial figure here, and he’s portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in his third outing for director Coogler. This further attempts (rather heavy-handedly) to politicise the narrative, which almost works, but there are plenty of cool players to distract you from these script concerns, including: Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s ex Nakia; Angela Bassett as his mother Ramonda; Leticia Wright as his funny boffin sister Shuri; Daniel Kaluuya (from Get Out) as his bestie W’Kabi; and the American-accented Freeman who, despite being a good guy, is at one point scornfully called ‘Coloniser’.
Boseman is also strong, and yet somehow Black Panther doesn’t quite have a distinctive personality of his own, even at the end of this moderately mighty saga. It’s also something of a problem that he’s made so noble and is permitted nary a single gag (unlike the supporting cast or the rest of the famously idiosyncratic Avengers). Nevertheless, he’s going to be one of the dozens (and dozens) of Marvel sorts soon to be seen saving the world — or at least trying to — in Avengers: Infinity War.
Rated M. Black Panther is in cinemas now.