Film Review: Black Panther (USA, 2018) roars into the MCU with an ambitious story

When Black Panther was announced the film was automatically destined to bear the hopes and aspirations of many. There was whispers of it finally bringing some long needed diversity to both the MCU and the film landscape. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler would need to bring his A-game and with this film he’s successful in doing so, delivering a stellar cast, an ambitious story, stunning visuals and a thumping soundtrack.

We were first introduced to Prince T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America Civil War, he is the heir to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. When his father King T’Chaka (John Kani) is killed he must take on the mantle of both king and the Black Panther. In Coogler’s film we pick up shortly after Civil War as T’Challa must take his place on the throne. Here we get to see a country of prosperity where their mined miraculous metal Vibranium has made them one of the most technologically advanced nations, but they remain hidden away from the world. This is a place where metropolitan style skyscrapers seem to cohabit with shanty-like marketplaces. It might seem like T’Challa has it all in this secluded wonderland, but he is unsettled by the need to govern his country and follow in his father’s footsteps, with his first order of kingly business having to track down Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) for stealing some of the country’s Vibranium. But it’s the arrival of Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) that will test T’Challa and pose a threat to both Wakanda and the rest of the world.

Interestingly Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script has our titular hero battling not only physical threats in Klaue and Killmonger, but also in psychological ones. Trying to determine whether he is a worthy heir, trying to lead his people, trying to enact justice; all of these pose their own challenges to our newly minted King. We see a country that has its own various tribes and cultures that is struggling to come to terms with revealing and sharing their wealth or remaining secretive and not getting involved in the troubles of the wider world. Thematically it leans heavily into the “with great power, comes great responsibility”, and probably does a better job of it than Spidey does, not to mention issues of racism and oppression. There’s a complex and purposeful story at work here that goes far deeper than comic book superheroes and mystical fantasy lands.

Boseman plays the softly spoken, quietly humble and solid as a rock T’Challa, he conveys more with a steely gaze than he does with his words, and it seems like not much can shake him until he comes up against Killmonger. Jordan’s adversary is the perfect ying to Boseman’s yang, a fiery ball of rage, determined to get what is owed to him. Once we understand his motivations and backstory, it’s clear that we’re finally seeing a villain with pathos. It’s refreshing for the MCU to finally have another villain that we can feel for. So it’s no surprise that when these two face off there’s an intriguing symmetry at play.

It’s the women of the film that get to shine brightest though, Danai Gurira is utterly ferocious as General Okoye and leader of the Dora Milaje an elite group of women warriors whose loyalty is to the throne and the king. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia the moral and logical compass for T’Challa, intent on progressing Wakanda and using their knowledge and wealth for all. Letitia Wright is the breakout star in this cast, playing Shuri a pint sized Q to her brother’s James Bond, equipping him with all the cool gadgets but also unafraid to call him out on his questionable fashion choices. Her genius outshines her brother and she can and hopefully will give Tony Stark a run for his money. Even some of the supporting cast get decent turns, with Serkis hamming it up extra big as Klaue and Martin Freeman reprising his role as CIA Agent Everett K Ross getting an unexpected redemptive arc.

It’s been said ad nauseum but bears repeating, representation matters and diversity on screen matters. Australian audiences may not resonate with the characters or actors as much as Americans, but it’s still important to have it shown on screen. And where Black Panther stands out is that every single cast member here gives it their all and it shows. Their performances range from understated to over the top but all at the right moments in the script. Then of course there’s the cinematography by Rachel Morrison and the visual effects of bringing the dizzying Wakanda fantasia to life. The car chase sequence in South Korea is stunning, and when T’Challa visits the Astral Plane it evokes some The Lion King vibes, but it’s when they go back to basics having ceremonial trial-by-combat dance-like fights atop a waterfall sans panther suits that it’s breathtaking. All of this is accompanied by a thunderous soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar that is also peppered throughout with African tribal drumming lead orchestras.

Black Panther combines a geopolitical thriller with Afrofuturism and a family drama, all of which is a step away from the MCU’s more recent big beat-em-up blockbusters. Scattering moments of comedy in amongst its more serious theatrics helps to keep it balanced. The performances are all pitch perfect and in a world that looks beautiful and is a metaphor for potential. Wakanda Forever indeed.

Running Time: 134 minutes

Black Panther will screen in Australian cinemas from 15 February 2018 through Marvel Studios and Disney Pictures Australia