Representation in movies is quite the topic these days and rightly so. Making contemporary movies with settings and story themes that draw heavily from other cultures is a wonderful way to give old genres new vigour and bring us all closer together as we share the experience. It’s a nice thought and a truly important aim but it doesn’t mean a thing if the quality isn’t good.
So, in a 12 months that’s given us Wonder Woman and Coco alone, Marvel Studios unleashes Black Panther on us, and not only is it steeped in a genuine sense of African culture, but it’s pretty fucking good to boot.
Returning to the technologically superior nation of Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa, the current protector of his people as the Black Panther, takes up the mantle of king after the death of his father, only to find numerous forces moving to take the throne. Not least of these is rogue merc Eric “Killmonger” (a wonderfully intense Michael B. Jordan making up for Fantastic 4 in droves) and deranged weapons dealer Ulysess Klaue (Andy Serkis returning from Age Of Ultron and relishing every minute being free of a mo-cap suit), who between them have cooked up a plan to destabilise the notoriously secretive nation for their own ends. However Killmonger has secrets for T’Challa that may tear everything down his beloved father has built.
Ryan Coogler, no stranger to diving into established movie universes having made the second best Rocky movie ever in Creed, flourishes here. A whole supporting cast is all given something worthwhile to play with, all bring something to the plot and all (most importantly) are interesting. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira scores high as Wankandian general Okoye but it’s T’Challa’s sister Shuri who steals all the best shit. Although I personally need more Winston Duke in my life as the thuggish, M’Baku.
The action is crisp and cool with a mid-runtime, James Bondian casino rumble and car chase, but if Black Panther has a flaw, it’s curiously down the fact that Coogler has put in so much detail in the plot, characters and their motivations it often feels that T’Challa is somewhat left out of his own movie, despite Chadwick Boseman continuing his dignified performance. Plus the final show down between the two leads lacks weight as the two actors are reduced to CG stuntmen in similar suits, scrapping on a CG railway line, sometimes a common complaint with the superhero genre.
But these are minor niggles, Coogler has delivered a fun, thoughtful, important instalment to the Marvel Cinematic universe, whose third phase is looking to be their strongest by far.
All hail the king, indeed.