Marvel’s latest (if it is even the latest, I struggle to keep up with the sheer volume of movies they produce) has been smashing box office records since its release, and while Marvel movies are generally something I tend to avoid, with all the fuss I just had to investigate. Black Panther follows T’Challa, who is the newly crowned king of the isolated, technologically advanced African nation Wakanda following his father’s death. However, his newfound reign is challenged when a vengeful outsider arrives claiming ownership of the throne, and brings with him troubling information about T’Challa’s father’s past mistakes.
The reason I tend to avoid Marvel movies generally is due to the focus on scale, spectacle and displaying how much money and famous people they can pump into a film, over actual content and story, and while this is not always a bad thing, with as many movies as they have, it becomes much of the same, over and over. For the first hour of Black Panther, I was pleasantly surprised. The story was rich in character, incredibly interesting, and it delves into a colourful, enticing and intriguing version of African tribal culture. It managed to keep the scale and visual power of a huge budget movie while maintaining an endearing tale of an African nation that decided to hide its wealth from the world. The different tribes and the vibrancy of their styling and costume design made for a visual treat, while the numerous nods to the culture gave the movie an authentic (if not exaggerated) feel.
However, the second half of the film fell into the usual trap of ‘superhero spectacle’ by shifting the focus to visual effects, huge battles and making the film as visually chaotic as it possibly could. This resulted in my surprise at the beginning being somewhat dampened, as Marvel cannot avoid their CGI spectacles for long. The story also attempted that thing that films do, where the ‘villain’s’ wishes are not as inherently evil as the villain appears to be. While this can be extremely effective in giving the bad guys bouts of humanity rather than just making them boringly evil, in this case it seemed a bit lost in relation to the story. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but the film challenged real life issues in a rather unexpected way, and for me it took away from the story rather than empowered it.
What I will say, is that the cast made a gallant effort to bring authenticity to the film. Chadwick Boseman made a likeable and powerful male lead, but the women in this film are the true stars. Lupita Nyong’o is fierce as Nakia, the princess who needs no man by her side, and alongside Danai Gurira as Okoye, strong gals of colour are getting the representation that they truly deserve. Letitia Wright is also wonderful as Shuri, the technological genius behind so many of Wakanda’s most impressive gadgets. Wright gives Shuri a loveable charm but she is not afraid to clapback, giving the film a much needed comedic edge. Michael B. Jordan made a frightening villain, if we could call him that, but his arrival into the film coincides with what I feel was its downfall. The film becomes less authentic and more stereotypically Marvel (*ahem* American) when his character ‘gets his moment’, so to speak, which negates the wonderful setup of the first half. But nonetheless, that correlation is not his fault, and his performance as Erik Killmonger is appropriately frightening. Also, an honourable mention to Martin Freeman’s American accent, the biggest shock in the whole film.
Overall Black Panther is… grand. It’s an enjoyable spectacle of visual effects, futuristic design and it pushes the boundaries with its representation African tribalism in the earlier parts of the film but ultimately it fell down a Marvel hole and just ended up being more about getting as much action on the screen as possible, than what was actually happening amongst it. I am admittedly predisposed to disliking these films and while I was pleasantly surprised by this one, it unfortunately was not enough to sell the franchise to me. A brief deviation from the norm of ‘superhero’ movies but ultimately it is, unfortunately, more of the same.
Dir: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya and Letitia Wright
Runtime: 134 minutes
Ciara Dillon – Film Editor