Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Run Time: 134 mins
Black Panther is the first feature film based on the Wakandan King superhero introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War. Like Wonder Woman last year, Black Panther is an important event in the superhero genre’s history, as it is the first one to feature predominantly black characters. Furthermore, within its own canon, Black Panther is also important as it is the final film before Avengers: Infinity War arrives at the end of April which all of the MCU films have been building up to. After impressing with Fruitvale Station and Creed, Ryan Coogler is on director duties and based on the strength of those two films, he is definitely a good choice.
The film picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War where the recently crowned King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) heads back to his home country of Wakanda. Wakanda is a technologically advanced nation and hidden to the rest of the world, famous for its fictional vibranium, a wonder metal that is exceptionally strong, is lightweight and vibration-absorbent. They have made the difficult decision not to share this with the rest of the world and instead, convincingly pose as a Third World country. In the film, T’Challa finds his kingship challenged and is plummeted into a conflict with potential global consequences.
Although Black Panther definitely has some great moments, it is unfortunately very inconsistent, awkwardly paced and overly familiar. It’s not quite the fresh, subversive experience that was promised. The biggest problem is the narrative, which is all over the place and Coogler seems to grapple with how best to pace the film. It’s a film that consistently seems to chop and change in its tone, from moments of wonder in the Afrofuturistic Wakanda to scenes of poverty and hardship in deprived areas. Coogler’s juxtaposition of the two extremes is obvious in the film’s narrative but it just doesn’t gel together and then when a third act storyline kicks in of feudal relations, it’s too little too late. Coogler has clearly been influenced from films such as The Lion King and the James Bond series of which there are odes to in the film, but Black Panther feels like its treading water between them.
Within this narrative, Coogler also frustratingly fails to develop what are some really interesting ideas, such as themes of Afrofuturism, world aid and family. This is particularly true of Michael B. Jordan’s villain, whom many have taken to, considering him to be a multi-layered villain compared to the vast majority of antagonists in the other films. I found the development of this character in particular, problematic. Whilst he is multi-layered and there is an interesting back story to the character, Coogler’s development is very shallow and I didn’t really care about the character. He doesn’t really show up until the film’s second half with perhaps one scene at the beginning and he is then off-screen for about an hour. I forgot he existed in the film and when his storyline does kick in, he makes a poor decision in my opinion and before Coogler can properly explore his character, the film descends into typical, mind-numbing third act action.
At least Coogler gets most of the characters right. Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero is great and it’s refreshing to see a solemn and sincere superhero for a change rather than one who constantly makes wisecracking jokes. Letitia Wright is perhaps the standout of the film as Black Panther’s sister, a little like James Bond’s Q but with more heart. It’s refreshing to see the female characters in this film take centre stage, with Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o also contributing strong performances, as well as Wright. Of the rest of the cast, Andy Serkis clearly seems to be having fun and it’s good to see Daniel Kaluuya in a small role, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Get Out. The cast generally have great chemistry with each other and despite Coogler’s spotty tendency of lack of character development in this film, I would happily watch another film with these characters in it.
However, as well as Michael B. Jordan’s villain, the treatment of Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett Ross, is problematic. He is a character who Coogler treats with zero dignity and some of the situations and lines he is given border on the embarassing.
Unlike Creed, the action sequences in the film aren’t particularly great and the film’s climactic fight succumbs to all the usual problems that plague many superhero films. There are a few moments which are so obviously green-screened, most notably in a recurring ritual setting where we see an audience of characters watching on. It’s surprising and given the fact that most Marvel films are visually stunning, it’s a little baffling why Black Panther isn’t. A big part of the problem is down to the cinematography. The film is shot by Rachel Morrison, who recently created history by being the first female DP ever to be nominated for an Oscar for her work on Mudbound. There are so many cuts in the action, to the point where it is actually hard to see what is going on and there is no sense of pacing in the choreography. This problem is then magnified in the big, overlong climactic battle at the end which I found boring and frustrating because it was so poorly shot.
That’s not to say the film is bad though, not at all. The first half fares quite well and is at times, gripping, particularly a sequence in a casino. Additionally, Coogler’s world building of Wakanda is good and I liked how it was established and developed as a setting. Most of the characters share good chemistry and Ludwig Göransson’s score is quite interesting, infusing traditional African sounds with more contemporary pieces.
Ultimately, Black Panther is a mixed bag and has some severe structural problems that really hinder the film. Coogler fails to develop, what are some really interesting ideas and the action sequences are surprisingly poor. That said, it is mostly entertaining and on the strength of some of the characters, with a firmer grasp of the material, there is potential for the future. At least Coogler has created a film that is very standalone in the canon. Black Panther isn’t concerned with setting up future sequels or constantly referencing other films, which is a good thing as there have been some installments that have fallen down this rabbit hole. That said, I really don’t understand why this film is being heralded as one of the best superhero films of all time. Far from it, in fact and even within its own cinematic universe, it ranks towards the lower end of the scale.