Black Panther Review: Marvel Stays Woke
Black Panther represents a couple of firsts. For one, it’s the first of three (!) Marvel Studios movies set to be released in 2018. But more than that, it’s the first superhero of any sort to boast an almost exclusively black cast, tell a story set predominantly in Africa, and tackle colonialism, slavery, and systematic racism along the way.
Here’s what we thought. Minor spoilers for Black Panther (and other Marvel movies) to follow.
Release date and tickets
Black Panther is out now in both the UK and US – though the UK has had it a little longer, having released here from 13 February 2018, a few days ahead of the 16 February US release date.
If you’re in the US, the best bet for tickets is probably just to head to Fandango to find show times. UK readers, can find tickets from all the big cinema chains: Cineworld, Odeon, and Vue.
Black Panther review
After an explosive introduction two years ago in Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman is back as T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. Following his father’s death in that earlier film, he’s now the ruler of Wakanda, a fictional central African nation rich in vibranium, the metal that also makes Captain America’s shield so fancy and bouncy.
Wakanda has kept its wealth and technology secret, presenting itself elsewhere as a third-world nation, stricken by poverty, while secretly it boasts tech to put even Iron Man to shame. That secrecy drives the crux of the movie: should Wakanda hoard its wealth for its own sake, or share its progress with the rest of Africa and the world? It’s essential the classic ‘secret identity’ quandary on a national scale.
Naturally, the various characters’ answers to that question hint at issues around colonialism that the film is refreshingly comfortable tackling head-on. Martin Freeman’s CIA agent is (only half-jokingly) branded a ‘coloniser’, while the suggestion that Wakanda should militarily intervene abroad is met with exactly the uncomfortable silence it deserves.
This question is also what drives the film’s plot, with villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) taking the sort of strong line you might expect from someone who calls themself ‘Killmonger’, which leads him to attempt to claim the Wakandan throne from T’Challa.
Wakanda itself is presented as a brilliant, dazzling afrofuturist utopia, thanks in large part to vibranium, which is twisted by the script to serve just about every technological purpose you can imagine.
Still, it’s worth it for this utterly unique vision of a technical future, one which does its best to ignore decades of western sci-fi design and instead build a new version of the future from the ground up, from bead-based communicators to ships that are piloted from a meditative crossed-leg pose.
The same is true of the costume design, undoubtedly Marvel’s best ever. T’Challa’s sleek black costume gets some high tech purple highlights, but everyone around him gets to wear an array of outfits that fuse tribal aesthetics with futuristic fabrics in a dazzling array of colours. Every time director Ryan Coogler lets the camera linger over a crowd is a visual treat of colour and texture unlike anything ever put on screen before.
It helps that underneath those outfits you’ll find a phenomenal cast. Beyond Boseman and Jordan, the main cast is rounded out by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker, while Freeman and Andy Serkis make appearances as the token white guys.
The MVP is Wright, as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. She’s the infectiously excited Q to his Bond, designing his upgraded vibranium-infused suit and a remote control car that provides the film’s best action sequence, a thrilling chase through the streets of Busan, South Korea. Special mention also to her costuming, which manages to stand out in a crowd of stand-outs thanks to an explicitly urban influence.
She’s one of the many women that dominate the film, another refreshing (and long overdue) first for Marvel. Sure, the big fight might be between two burly men, but it’s Gurira’s General Okoye who’s declared to be Wakanda’s best fighter, and her, Wright, and Nyong’o who pull off the film’s biggest stunts and move the plot forwards, all the while avoiding overt sexualisation.
The soundtrack’s another winner. Ludwig Göransson’s score blends seamlessly with a soundtrack assembled by Kendrick Lamar, orchestral melodies giving way to thudding beats – even Psy (of Gangnam Style fame) gets a brief bit of airplay during the Busan-set scenes.
If it sounds like I’m gushing with praise for the film, then, well, it’s because I am. It really is phenomenal, and coming off the back of the outlandish Thor: Ragnarok it’s a reminder of how exciting and fresh Marvel movies can feel when they’re not afraid to break away from the formula.
Sure, Black Panther isn’t perfect. Outside of the second act car chase few of the action beats will stick in the mind for long, and the final fight essentially pits Black Panther against Evil Black Panther, a reminder of the dark old days of superhero cinema.
But these are minor flaws in a film that otherwise feels vital, necessary, and a huge step forward for superheroes. Go see it, and then begin counting down the days until Black Panther return’s in Avengers: Infinity War.
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