If there ever was an indicator of just how racial inequality has continued to persist within the realm of cinema, it’s this: the movies Independence Day and Blade are now over 20 years old. Both couldn’t be more different from the other in most aspects - one hinges upon an epic battle between humanity against an alien invasion, the other on gritty 90s vampire hunting. But with Will Smith fronting the former and Wesley Snipes heading the latter, the two movies gave black actors headline billing in major Hollywood franchises. Even back then, you’d think that such an event would stand as a genuine sign of progress: a step towards acting talent of African-American descent finally getting equal footing alongside their white peers in Hollywood. That such an issue is still present here in 2018 is a damning indictment of how Western society has failed to move forward. In fact, when you also consider the highly-charged whirlwind of political nonsense that our main platform of discourse - social media - has become, you might even say it’s regressed.
No wonder then, that the release of Black Panther - a Marvel movie focused on a black superhero with an almost entirely black cast - would be heralded as a massive step back in the right direction. It’s also yet another Marvel production that, frankly, excels. The fact that it does so by utilizing a virtue present in a number of its characters - an unyielding sense of identity and purpose - only makes its victory all the sweeter. Even under its heavy burden as a political statement (be that by self-intention, or not), it knows it’s a Marvel movie above all else, and delivers itself as such. Any movie fan willing to accuse it of contrivance, therefore, will be left grasping at straws.
Black Panther’s plot takes two classic plot styles - the hero’s redemption, and some good old-fashioned familial strife - and weaves them into a whole that packs plenty of action to go with the social commentary. It kicks off almost immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War: events that led to the death of Wakanda’s king, T’Chaka (John Kani). T’Chaka’s demise has now created a space upon the nation’s throne to fill, and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the country to assume his role as the new king - as well as face the numerous challenges that go with ruling such a nation. After all, Wakanda isn’t just any country. It’s an African super-utopia that owes its prosperity and technological advancements to its status as a mine for vibranium - a rare metal whose use for both energy and the gaining of mystical powers makes it an incredibly lucrative material. Unfortunately, Wakanda’s insistence on complete isolation has meant that it’s grown rich at the expense of the African continent - a failure of duty which has not gone unnoticed within the international community, or at home.
There are trials of a less diplomatic nature for T’Challa to overcome, too. Of the five major tribes that make up Wakandian society, one has refused to recognize his succession. The mountain-dwelling Jabari tribe, headed by its leader M’Baku (Winston Duke), insist that their leader challenge him for the throne in combat. But aside from fending off challenges from dissident tribal leaders, the resurfacing of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer responsible for the theft of Wakandian vibranium, is a more troubling development. What T’Challa doesn’t yet realize is that Klaue now employs himself as the right-hand man of an individual whose own claim for the Wakandian throne is just as legitimate as his own.
As suggested by his ruthless attack on the ‘Museum of Great Britain’ to steal a vibranium artefact (a scene that includes a more than subtle dig at the reputation of the British Museum), former U.S black ops soldier Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) has a keen interest in all things Wakandian. There’s good reason, too - he’s the son of N’Jobu, the brother of T’Chaka who, upon going undercover within the projects of Oakland, California and seeing the oppression and suffering of black people first-hand, turned his back on Wakanda and its isolationist ways. N’Jobu was eventually killed by T’Chaka after it emerged that he assisted Klaue in pulling off his vibranium robbery, leaving Erik behind. And while his cousin T’Challa grew up within Wakandian nobility, Erik grew up alone and angry - but not without the certainty of his status of royal blood.
Determined to claim his right to the Wakandian throne, Erik - better known by his black ops alias as ‘Killmonger’ - is on a one-way mission to ensure his destiny is fulfilled, as well as force the nation to offer its weapons to the world so black populaces can spark a violent uprising. With T’Challa following Klaue’s trail, backed by his trustworthy allies Okoye (head of his personal guard, played by Danai Gurira) and Nakia (fellow special forces operative and his ex-lover, played by Lupita Nyong’o), the pair are set upon an inevitable collision course - one that not only has repercussions for the Black Panther’s own rulership over Wakanda, but also for the balance of the entire world.
In the usual Marvel origin story tradition, Black Panther is a movie that starts rather loose and slow. It’s got a lot of strong characters to build out, and a number of its early distractions, particularly a chapter in Busan, Korea, offer far less to the overall story than their running time indicate. This lack of initial pace is all for a very good cause, though. As a reclusive technotopia, Wakanda is undoubtedly one of Marvel’s miniverses whose depth goes strikingly deeper than most of its kin. To deliver such a world properly, you need time to get all the details down - and the time given here is very well spent indeed. From the opening scene detailing Wakanda’s birth as a nation, and all through the lengths it goes to reveal things about its culture and traditions (edge-of-seat trials by combat being just one thing), every tidbit offered makes Black Panther’s setting a fascinating and engrossing addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, it’s the first time a Marvel movie has probably even had the opportunity to pull off such a thing since Thor gave us Asgard. Neither the strong script, nor the film’s frequently impeccable visual design squander one ounce of the chance that they get to prove to the viewer that Wakanda is a worthy addition to this ever-expanding universe. It’s pleasing from a multicultural viewpoint - but more succinctly, it just looks and feels plain awesome too.
As for its focal characters, they certainly don’t disappoint either. As Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman’s cameo in Civil War was probably the most impressive of the bunch. He returns here only to deliver on such initial promise with interest, giving us a superhero who not only represents a culture barely touched upon in the realm of superhero fiction, but who also carries a nobility not seen among his crime-fighting peers - Avenger or otherwise. More muted here is Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out fame - here as W’Kabi, a close friend of T’Challa who, thanks to losing his own parents during Klaue’s vibranium robbery, soon becomes disillusioned with T’Challa’s inaction. But in a film interested in diversity, it’s the women who deserve just as much kudos for making this movie great. Danai Gurira in particular - as warrioress Okoye, both her poise and ferocity (the latter very evident during the action sequences) make for one support character they simply needed to keep in future Black Panther-related efforts. Same too, goes for Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and scientific genius, whose knack for gadgetry and one-liners make Q of James Bond fame seem like a hobbyist tinkerer in comparison. Such are the strengths of these two that you almost forget that even Martin Freeman is back in the Marvel mix, returning as U.S agent Everett K. Ross in another decent if overshadowed outing. But although Serkis is memorable as the irrepressible Klaue, there’s only one villain who deserves their place as the best character the entire movie offers - and that’s the ruthless Killmonger himself.
As Black Panther’s eventual usurper and main enemy, Michael B. Jordan marks the performance of his career so far with a fantastic effort. Thanks to him, Killmonger isn’t just another Marvel villain - he’s a cold-blooded dealer of violence with a genuine grudge, mixed with the calm sense of knowing that bearing this grudge will get him the destiny he’s assured of. He’s a thoroughly charismatic tyrant among the swathe of Marvel’s usual cookie-cutter bad guys, and he achieves it with an almost likeable swagger. Obviously, the Oakland-cut bravado of his character was designed in part to clash with the graciousness of Boseman’s T’Challa. But even for a standard conflict of ‘light versus dark’ (and on the movie’s close, even that’s ambiguous), their on-screen chemistry together is tremendous - creating a climax that is both utterly gripping, and surprisingly emotional too. Ultimately, it’s this tale of two cousins that becomes the jewel in Black Panther’s crown. Without it, it would be regular superhero fare. With it, it’s a thoroughly engaging flick with a strong conflict at its core, and unquestionably a cut above other Marvel origin stories.
As for the action sequences? Yep, there’s plenty. It’s safe to say that these are the things that are almost not worth mentioning in reviews of Marvel movies, simply because they do them so well. There’s a fantastic car chase scene in the otherwise peripheral Korea arc. The final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger - which enjoys showing off all of Wakanda’s wondrous tech - is a great watch too. But it is the character-driven conflicts that truly make this film a genuine treat. The hype surrounding Black Panther means that it was always going to resonate for its statement for diversity in film, and society. But thanks to the strength of its excellent cast, it also resonates as another damn fine superhero movie in the usual Marvel tradition.