On the eve of the Infinity War, it’s a demonstration of Marvel’s confidence and courage that they’re prepared to step out of their main narrative to bring us this sumptuous, dazzling and vibrant action adventure movie that has a lot to say not just about the world as the MCU shows it but the real world too.
As he prepares to ascend to the throne of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) wrestles with his nation’s history of isolation and what that means in the modern world. But T’Challa’s troubles are compounded by the sins of his father whose actions decades previously have set in motion events which will culminate in a battle for Wakanda’s very soul.
Writer/ Director Ryan Coogler has seized his opportunity to play in the Marvel sandbox and delivered the franchise’s most mythologically rich and thematically complex instalment to date. Although the bonds to the cinematic universe are strong – flashbacks to the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and the presence of Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) are a testament to that – there are no focus-stealing flashy cameos and no need for them. Wakanda is populated by an opulently realised society which honours and celebrates tribal roots in a modern, technologically-advanced setting. Woven into the vibrant fabric of Wakandan society are fascinating and fully rounded characters who stand in their own right rather than as foils or appendages of the hero. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) get so many great moments while Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okoye are every bit the equal of T’Challa when it comes to throwing down against Ulysses Klaue’s hired goons or even weaponized armoured rhinoceri. But its in Michael B Jordan’s Eric Killmonger that the film finds its searing conscience, Marvel’s most fully fleshed out villain to date. There’s a bitter poignancy to his single-minded vision and although his methods may be ruthless and brutal, there’s no denying that from his perspective his cause is just and his quarrel honourable.
At its core, “Black Panther” is a battle of ideas. Both T’Challa and Killmonger are preoccupied with the responsibilities and obligations of those with power. What do they owe to the powerless and how do you wield that power without becoming like the oppressors you seek to defeat? This identity crisis forces the Wakandan tribes to re-evaluate old alliances and enmities as the two would-be Black Panthers fight tooth and claw to realise their vision of a better world.
But “Black Panther” isn’t just stunning vistas and political powerplays; this is one of Marvel’s most action-packed entries to date. As if the beleaguered Bond franchise, struggling more and more to keep up with the “Mission: Impossible” and “Fast & Furious” franchises wasn’t under enough pressure, here comes “Black Panther” planting its paws squarely in the international espionage genre, suave, sexy and super-cool with gadgets and gizmos aplenty as Shuri keeps T’Challa on mission and on point, technologically speaking. Even Tony Stark can’t quite match this level of cool. The film easily out-Bonds Bond before shifting up a gear and adding super-powered acrobatics into the mix, punishing the streets of South Korea once again, no doubt after they’d just finished clearing up from the “Age Of Ultron”.
But Black Panther is at its best when it’s on home turf, the Wakanda setting being used to show the breathtaking diversity of African geography from vast grassy plains through dense tropical jungle to snow-capped mountains. Yes, there are still a few of the usual Marvel movie tropes (the final fight, for example, is capped off by a fight between the hero and his nemesis both equipped with the same type of suit/ powers) but “Black Panther” looks like no other MCU movie before it, sounds like no other MCU movie before it and, eighteen movies in, makes everything feel fresh, vibrant and bursting with something important to say, whether it’s a sustained critique of colonial history or, indeed, a present day warning of the danger of powerful countries turning inwards in protectionist fear rather than outwards in cooperation and friendship, a point underlined by the western hubris tweaking mid-credits scene (one of two, so stay in your seats, as always).
Thoughtful, visually spectacular and packed with action and intrigue, “Black Panther” is an authentically African yet universally accessible triumph of both imagination and execution with nary an infinity stone in sight.