Three months in and I’ve finally seen something released in 2018! A superb ensemble cast marshalled by black director Ryan Coogler (Creed) delivers a fresh take on a Marvel superhero movie – well, we’ve not seen armoured rhinoceros’ before.
After an impactful debut in CA – Civil War, Chadwick Boseman gets his own show as T-Challa, the titular Black Panther – or as I see him, Africa’s Iron Man – and, for all his shining everyman integrity, is nearly sidelined by the talent around him.
Atandwa Kani and John Kani have great presence as his younger and older father, Winston Duke is a powerful rival chief, and a slightly bemused Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is T’Challa’s best bud.
The token white blokes provide able support: Andy Serkiss (Last Jedi) is having a ball as South African arms dealer Klaw, with, ironically, only one arm – but you should see his prosthetic cannon. Martin Freeman (Hobbit) reprises CIA agent Ross and is largely there for comic relief (hot-shot US pilot? I ask you…).
However, it’s the notably gender-balanced cast that marks another super-hero watershed. An age-defying Angela Bassett is suitably regal as T-Challa’s mother, but it’s the trio of younger black actresses who almost steal the show; Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars) is T’Challa’s capable spy-mistress, Danai Girira is an imposing Praetorian General, while Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri positively lights up the screen every scene she’s in.
And if Boseman doesn’t have enough competition, Michael B. Jordan seethes with rage and resentment like a nuclear meltdown from start to finish as the most empathetic and utterly irredeemable villain since super-hero movies began. DC, please take note.
The plot may be a collection of familiar tropes from Shakespearean and Greek tragedy, but hey, it’s a good pedigree, even if you can time the plot turns and focus points on a stop-watch according to the well-worn formula. What makes this Marvel Game of (Wakanda’s) Throne is the magical, mystical and ludicrously hi-tech setting of the hidden El Dorado of Wakanda.
Immaculately realised in a combination of Dan Dare, Valerian’s City’, Rivendell and high African art, there’s a neat mash-up of Afri-art, hip-hop and Thor triple-plus: mag-lev trains, glass skyscrapers, hover-jets, nano-tech battle armour, force shields and, ahem, armoured rhinos, compete for space with wide African landscapes.
The great high-tech McGuffin of the movie, the multi-purpose super-element Vibranium is both enabler and ‘oh, please’ deal-breaker. If you can swallow the huge chunk of stretch-it-til-it-breaks sci-fi hokum, there’s an even bigger chunk of sociological hokum on the side…
Question: could the utopia of Wakanda exist had a meteor-load of vibranium not dropped out of the sky? Of course not. And if it’s so great, surely the previous kings would have created an empire and chucked the Western powers out of Africa in the sixteenth century?
Wakanda is an African dreamland just as Narnia is in the West. All the more remarkable that Black Panther was written by the white guys at Marvel, as a slightly bad taste, second-string, supporting strip in 1966, when Malcolm X and the Black Power movement were at the height of their controversy.
So the idea of T’Challa as an ‘acceptable’ black hero, a flavour of the Western idea of a ‘noble savage’ (Longfellow, Defoe, et al.), still sits somewhat uncomfortably with me. Am I just a hand-wringing Western middle-class liberal?
So a more relevant question is: does director Ryan Coogler’s thorough makeover of the Wakandan paradigm make this a valid ‘black’ super-hero movie, in the way African-Americans have reclaimed the N-word?
Box office receipts would seem to say yes, so am I questioning too deeply the political significance of a Hollywood pop-corn block-buster juggernaut? Maybe.
Final question, then, does Black Panther work as a Hollywood pop-corn block-buster juggernaut?
Mostly. There’s swathes of paint-by-numbers Hollywood pop-corn block-buster scripting going on; e.g. focal-point two, death of mentor (a welcome Forest Whittaker) at 90 minutes…
There’s also pages of Basil Exposition linking a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo, flash-back, spirit-world filler, spreading out the big action set-pieces.
There are some interesting fight scenes with unusual weapons which, for once, don’t look like the customary Hollywood Wu-Shu-Re-branded.
Unfortunately, this being a comic-book adaptation, we have to have a huge smash-bash-and-crash, all-action finale; the unfortunate element being the final punch-up between Boseman and Jordan – or should I say their CGI replacements – which shows up some flashy but unconvincing CGI. All that effort; the toys are all perfect but the CGI people look like 2002’s Blade II (remember Blade, the first black superhero?).
All in all, I’ll take Black Panther in favour of Justice League, Suicide Squad, Ultron, or Ragnarok. It is hugely entertaining, and timely given the political temperature in the US; but it’s not the great social movie-making revolution. Check your brain at the door. RC
Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Joe Robert Cole, Ryan Coogler
Genre: Sci-fi, Fanstasy, Comic-book, Adaptation, Action, Adventure
Running time: 135 minutes
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Florence Kasumba, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani, Atandwa Kani