A cynic might view Black Panther as Marvel’s final step towards superhero punch-up extraordinaire Infinity War, not least given there are locations and characters from the film featuring in the latter’s trailer. In practice, this is a lot more than just Marvel film #18.
For the most part, Black Panther is very much a self-contained world away from the rest of the Marvel world. There was a few degrees of set-up in Captain America, which introduced T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and contained the events that lead to him being crowned King of Wakanda, but is mostly content to go where its Afro-futurism leads.
Its certainly proven a successful choice. Ryan Coogler’s film has earned rave reviews, with praise heaped on its characters, visuals, soundtrack, and its cultural significance as Marvel’s first film with a near all-black cast.
This continues the recent Marvel trend for giving its film makers greater control of the characters. Phase Three of the MCU has felt like it has allowed greater leeway for its heroes away from the central plotline, and Black Panther is one that has many benefits from having only a smattering of nods to the universe around it, and instead putting the focus on its own world.
The film begins with backstory establishing the history of Wakanda and how a meteor filled with precious metal Vibranium was exploited to allow for the creation of a futuristic superstate, albeit one that has chosen to hide in plain sight and disguised as a third world nation. The plot also establishes the notion of Wakanda sending spies outside, with the former king’s brother engaged in a spying mission in the USA and the Black Panther political movement in the early 1990’s, before diving into a main plot that directly follows the events of Civil War by taking in the trials of T’Challa’s coronation to the throne.
Shortly after winning the tribal ritual to take coronation, T’Challa is made aware that notorious South African arms dealer and previous Vibranium thief Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) helped to steal a Wakandan artefact from a London museum. With encouragement from his confidants, T’Challa and a team of associates go to South Korea to try and recover it.
The mission sees him bump heads with CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and then leads him into the orbit of long-lost Wakandan N’Jadka (Michael B. Jordan), who is now referred to as Killmonger after a stint in the US Army’s Black Ops division, and is out for revenge after effectively being cut off from his home nation.
The arrival of Killmonger along with some highly desirable collateral in the wake of the South Korean mission soon turns influential tribe leader W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and others against T’Challa, leading to battles for power that initially affect Wakanda, before being a potential threat for the world beyond.
In truth, elements of the plot feel like they can be filed in the seen it all before section, with some elements feeling like they came either out of previous superhero origin stories or from other thematically-linked productions. It also ends with a CGI-heavy battle, which does at least have the spectacle of rhinos fitted with futuristic battle armour, but still feels ripped from the playbook.
But nevertheless, the film has some excellent world building in its favour, which in turn helps to flesh out a cast of highly watchable and likable characters. The world sketched out of Wakanda is one of a truly thriving self-contained eco-system, where each part in the story feels fully realised towards realising the goal.
T’Challa and Killmonger themselves provide a very engaging contrast, almost with Shakespeare-like arcs. While the former serves a good performance as the king struggling to make it in his well-liked father’s foot-steps, while the latter plays a Shakespeare-like tragic role filled with contemporary parallels to life in the USA.
The role of Killmonger is particularly well handled, with the back-story helping to fulfil the tragedy of his story, and providing a fine contrast of villainy between his more measured, focused anger, and the more out-there approach Serkis delivers.
Beyond the leads, there are further fine performances. The pick is Letita Wright as Shuri, who is the film’s smartest character and perhaps its happiest, with the character genuinely excited to be involved as Black Panther’s answer to Q from the Bond movies.
Indeed, the film has a variety of strong female characters alongside the superheroes, with Lupita Nyongo’o and Danai Gurira in fine roles as elite warriors, while Angela Bassett also delivers a good performance as T’Challa’s mother.
The film is also a delight for its production. Aesthetically, the mix of contemporary and historic African culture with futuristic tropes makes the film a sumptuous production to look at, while an excellently layered score filled with pummelling African percussion helps maintain the film’s attention to detail.
It all adds up to a film that makes for a very engaging production, and one that immediately belongs at the top end of the Marvel cannon. It may not be perfect, but between its lavishly realised world, its well realised characters, its effective translating of contemporary experiences into a superhero franchise, and all the rest, it is still a very good watch.