Black Panther proves it’s the top cat of superhero movies

With Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a welcome break from the Avengers mega-story, in the process edging the franchise into unexplored territory. Comic book films led by people of colour can be counted on the fingers of, well, two fingers.

Black Panther (AKA T’Challa) made a bit part debut in the most recent Captain America movie, but this headline performance rightly puts that aside for a proper introduction.

And there’s certainly a lot to introduce. A bedtime story hurtles us through the mythology of fictional African nation Wakanda – a nation that is basically a superhero itself, given secret powers and technology by an ancient meteorite, it pretends to be a desperately poor province but is actually a supremely wealthy and improbably advanced utopia complete with space ships and mammoth underground lairs.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is king of Wakanda, having been thrust onto the throne following the murder of his father (the previous Black Panther) by deliciously vile mercenary Ulysseses Klaue (Andy Serkis). He’s still coming to terms with his new rights and responsibilities and barely keeping control of his nation’s warring tribes – some of whom think Wakanda should be using its wealth and technology to help their oppressed neighbours.

With a bit of help from his tech geek sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, the secret star of this film), he sets off on a revenge mission to capture Klaue. Obviously, this doesn’t go to plan, and in the process he uncovers a threat to his rule, his kingdom and the world at large.Without spoiling anything, Klaue isn’t the big bad here. That role falls to “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), whose charisma comes dangerously close to eclipsing our more sensible, decent hero.

Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is that it refuses to paint Killmonger as a straight-out villain. His motivations are, on some levels, totally understandable, even if their execution is unforgivable. And he’s allowed to espouse politics and views that will likely resound with much of the audience. Nobody else, for example, is ready to point out the dodgy ethics around the world’s richest nation hiding itself away in the heart of some of the world’s poorest.

T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Matt Kennedy. ©Marvel Studios 2018

This kind of complexity characterises director Ryan Coogler’s approach to the material. He understands that populist entertainment doesn’t have to be dumb to be fun and that bold spectacle needn’t avoid bold statements. His Wakanda is the most vividly realised comic book world to date, with a history, society and politics as engaging and nuanced as anything Game of Thrones has to offer.

It hardly needs to be said that the film benefits from its focus on the sorts of faces and places Hollywood usually keeps to the side of frame. Even in the fictional world of Wakanda, the characters seem aware how much this representation matters. The good news is that, like Wonder Woman before it, this shift in focus revitalises a genre on the edge of exhaustion, opening up much-needed scope for new kinds of stories and new brands of heroes.

Black Panther seizes these new opportunities with both paws, no more so in its female cast, who casually bust through ever lingering stereotype about women in superhero flicks. Outside the world of comic book films, putting Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o onscreen together would (rightly) stand you in good odds for an Oscar nomination.

Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). Photo: Matt Kennedy. ©Marvel Studios 2018

But, let’s face it, worthiness and political hygiene are two things that nobody outside your Twitter feed really looks for in a comic book blockbuster. You don’t have to be woke to enjoy a film that moves this fast with this much fun. The action sequences are inventive, breathless and frenetic but never incoherent, with clear stakes that actually matter. A climactic all-out brawl between tribes, space-ships and cyborg rhinos manages to skirt around whimsy, while a car chase through South Korea is the most memorable such chase since The Bourne Identity.

There’s no doubt that, like Ant-Man before it, the film benefits from being largely separate from the ongoing arc. Certainly, the obligatory post-credits scene returning us to that world feels like less like titillation and more like a cold shower. Never mind that. With thrills, heart and an extra serve of smarts (not to mention new songs from Kendrick Lamar), Black Panther might just be the strongest Marvel movie yet.

Black Panther

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