Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is one of the movies I’m really excited to see this year. I have been avoiding reviews and spoilers recently, but the cast is more than enough to recommend this film.

So…In Captain America Civil War, King T’Chaka of Wakanda, played by John Kani, was killed. His son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) donned the Black Panther suit to hunt down his father’s killer. In Black Panther, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to assume his father’s throne. His right to the throne is challenged, first by the head of one of Wakanda’s give tribes and later by an outsider who wants to use Wakanda’s wealth and advanced technology to lead a black revolution worldwide.

I need to digress for a moment here. John Kani is a well known actor, but I first encountered him when he played Othello in Johannesburg. This was during the apartheid era, when casting a black actor as Othello was a huge deal. He isn’t a native speaker of English and that brought something special to the Shakespearean text. I mention this because I know that, in creating a language and accent for Wakanda, director Ryan Coogler built it around John Kani’s native tongue and the way he speaks in English. It’s more than accent, it’s a rhythm of speech, a way of emphasising particular beats that to me, partly because of that Othello performance, comes across as Shakespearean in the very best way.

For me, this meant that right from the opening scenes, I was completely enthralled by this film. Marvel always does excellent world building but Wakanda is such a different, vibrant world. There are elements which are familiar from the real world. I admit, I don’t know as much as I should about African culture, but from what I do know it’s respectful and authentic. The isolationist and hidden country has its own way of doing things, but real world politics enters the story in the form of Killmonger: a Wakandan orphan raised in America and trained by special forces there.

Through him, the film has some interesting things to say about race in America. Given that “Black Panther” has a double meaning in that context the political message doesn’t need to be in-your-face. It’s just there, part of the texture of the thing, although Killmonger has a line in the final act which is a more overt f-you aimed at the racists who will probably never see it.

Marvel movies struggle to portray compelling villains (Loki being the notable exception). Not here. Killmoger is that rare thing: a truly villainous villain who is nonetheless sympathetic. And whose cause many people watching this film will share. Early on he is presented as a run-of-the-mill antagonist, but as we come to know him we understand. We get it.

And that runs through all the characters. Everyone is well written, everyone has their moment, has agency and their own fully realised motivation. No one is there just to prop up the hero or provide eye-candy (although the film is eye-candy all the way). Even the dead have their moment.

The cast, as I said above, is pretty awesome. There is so much talent here I don’t even know where to start. Chadwick Boseman has great presence and charisma and he plays beautifully opposite Michael B Jordan who is equally compelling, if rougher-edged, on screen. The women are secondary but very much NOT background. It’s wonderful to see Lupita Nyong’o in a role worthy of her talent, and Leticia Wright as Shuri has so much energy…I’m running out of words.

It’s not perfect. Though it largely avoids the superhero-trap of having too much kapow-blam-smash at the end (yes, there is a battle but it’s remarkably character-focussed), I did find myself wondering if they’d slipped in a reel of Lord of the Rings at one point, and there were a few other moments that didn’t quite work for me. But overall, it’s a triumph and certainly among Marvel’s best.

I was prepared to dislike the music, and I should qualify that by saying that music in general isn’t my thing. I don’t know hip-hop from hopscotch. But I grew up in the 80’s with a certain style of music which I associated with black artists – and I really disliked it. But even the music in this film won me over.

Oh, and make sure you stay right to the end of the credits. It’s worth it.

For comparison:

Black Panther rotten tomatoes
Rating on 14 February 2018