Few Marvel movies have been as highly anticipated as Black Panther, with the likes of The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War causing fan frenzy for months and even years before release. Films fuelled by hype can often fall flat and disappoint, but I can confidently say that Black Panther‘s hype is well earned.
It’s been almost three weeks since it hit the silver screen and people are still talking about Wakanda. And how could they not be, really? At the box office, the film surpassed expectations, bringing in $241.96 million in North America over its four day opening weekend. This places it squarely behind The Force Awakens, which opened with a massive $288 million. Seeing as the number one slot is taken by a movie from the world’s most successful franchise, it is an incredible accomplishment for Black Panther.
But this isn’t just an achievement for a Marvel superhero movie, it’s an achievement for black creators everywhere. Not only was the film directed by a black director (Ryan Coogler) and helmed by black writers, producers, set and costume designers, it also had a predominantly black cast where the characters weren’t plagued by negative stereotypes. How many films featuring a majority black cast are not about drugs, guns or slavery? How many times have we seen black actors play maids, criminals and prisoners? How many times have we seen something different? For me, seeing the incredible range of black characters in Black Panther – from the genius Princess Shuri to tortured Killmonger – was very refreshing, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a person of colour to see such positive representation on-screen.
One of the best things about the film – and there are many great things – is its characters.
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa has a different presence from the main characters in Marvel Studios’ other films. He is calm and quiet, always thinking carefully before speaking, which is a nice change from the typical wise-cracker trope á la Iron Man and Star Lord. He certainly plays the part of king well as there is just something so kingly about him, and not just because we’re told he’s the king. You can feel it in the way that he speaks and how he carries himself, particularly in the pleasant regality of his accent.
T’Challa develops a lot throughout the film as he comes to terms with the rift between his father’s beliefs and his actions. And although I think Boseman did a great job in the role (I can’t really see anyone else playing T’Challa as well as he did), he wasn’t the star of the show. Leticia Wright’s Shuri takes that crown.
Shuri is – to put it simply – an absolute delight. She’s a girl genius responsible for the innovation and implementation of Wakanda’s technology, but that’s not all she is; she’s also a fighter who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, and she’s a cheeky, fashion-forward younger sister. Any girl walking into the cinema to watch her on screen will see something to aspire to. Shuri often lightens tense moments with a funny one-liner or a clever insight, and I particularly enjoyed her exchanges with T’Challa in the lab. Wright and Boseman have a lot of on-screen chemistry and their sibling bond is charming.
This film has a lot to say and it runs parallel to a lot of discussions we’re having in today’s political climate, namely issues surrounding borders and the identity of the African diaspora. The film’s main villain, Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), was great because of all the shades of grey woven into his character. He had a traumatic beginning with the loss of his father, who told him all of these magical tales about the land of Wakanda, about a home that he comes to realise would not welcome him.
Although Killmonger’s actions were wrong, you can understand why he is so full of rage. He sees Wakanda as this beacon of technology and economy that shuts itself off from the rest of the world, unwilling to help fellow Africans at home or abroad. It’s Wakandans for Wakandans until he comes to shake things up. Some might say he was a necessary evil, and it does bode the question: If he had never clawed his way back to Wakanda, would T’Challa have ever shared Wakanda’s secret with the world?
The film shows the range of his character so well, from the ruthless to the angry to the vulnerable, and despite his numerous crimes, it is easy to empathise with him at times. Villains are so often one dimensional and their evil doings are explained away with the lazy idea that they’re just evil and that’s that. There’s no beginning, middle and end to their characters; all we get is the end. A villain you can both hate and empathise with is a good villain in my book.
Andy Serkis’ Klaue and Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross were good characters and the actors did a great job, particularly Serkis as the cackling South African, but they paled in comparison to the rest of the cast. To be fair, it’s very difficult to shine when you’re on the same screen as Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, who played General Okonye and Nakia respectively.
Wakanda itself is a fantastic iteration, and its mix of both new and old is what makes it so visually beautiful. It is a wonderful example of an afro-futuristic nation, from its colourful streets and buildings to its sprawling fields outside urban areas. Obviously a huge amount of work and an artfully curated mix of cultures was included to create its skyline, and I for one can’t wait to see more.
Black Panther is very much character-driven, but the plot doesn’t take a back seat. There are some truly stellar action scenes and the film is always kept moving, aided to no small degree by the fantastic soundtrack. The car chase in Korea was one of the high points of the film and probably one of my favourite action scenes in any Marvel movie. Plus, seeing Okonye kicking all kinds of ass in a fabulous red ball gown was not only riveting but also a reminder that you can be a tough-as-nails warrior and feminine at the same time.
Nakia, too, is a great character who isn’t just pigeon-holed as the T’Challa’s love interest; she has dreams and goals of her own. She is very interesting as she shares similar views to Killmonger about sharing Wakanda’s resources to help people. Seeing her reproach for his methods was a good reminder that good intentions don’t make a cause just.
M’Baku (Winston Duke), too, was a great character that I hope to see more of. I feel there is a wealth of material to explore there, so I hope his character crops up again. He’s also a surprisingly good source of comic relief at times. That vegetarian line killed me!
Although I loved the majority of the film, there are a few things that I had an issue with. There were some moments that were meant to be serious but that felt a little comical at times. For instance, when M’Baku and the Jabari tribe barked in order to intimidate people (though online sources say this was an “ape grunt” rather than a bark). I’m sure this kind of approach would be scary in person, but it didn’t work for me on screen.
Another problem I had was with Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi. The actor did a great job, but I didn’t like how W’Kabi’s loyalty changed constantly to fit the plot, as it made for an inconsistent character. When we first meet him, he is T’Challa’s good friend and confidante, but after the mission to recover Klaue fails, he turns on his friend completely. I know the guy killed W’Kabi’s parents, but T’Chaka attempted to find and capture Klaue for years and W’Kabi didn’t betray him. T’Challa disappoints him once and he turns on him? I don’t buy it. It would’ve made more sense if W’Kabi was a frustrated council member rather than his friend, as his flexible loyalty would’ve made more sense.
Black Panther felt different from other MCU movies, both in terms of setting and characters, and it was fascinating to see so many African cultures accurately represented on-screen, from lip plates to Killmonger’s scarification to the traditional hairstyles of the Himba people. I loved the emphasis on tradition and the importance of respecting one’s ancestors, as it’s not something that’s often seen in a superhero movie. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of the culture and beliefs of alien and god-like societies, but human history and tradition often takes a back seat in favour of fictional worlds.
I don’t believe in the concept of a “perfect” film. Even films that are excellent across the board have their faults, however small, and Black Panther is no exception. It is not perfect, but it IS excellent across the board.
If you haven’t yet seen Black Panther, we strongly recommend that you do. It may just be the best superhero movie yet.