Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 13th February 2018
MCU Phase: Three
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett
May contain spoilers.
We are steadily getting towards the business end of My Marvel Diary now, with Infinity War, the first half of the MCU’s box-office obliterator, now just one film away. Today’s entry takes on a significance of its own, of course. For my entire life, I have had many privileges, one of them being that I have always seen myself represented on the mainstream cinema screen. I cannot imagine what Black Panther would have meant to some people of colour when it came out. It made a vast amount of money and became one of the first huge blockbuster hits to feature a person of colour in the lead role. It may have taken far too long, but it is a film I am glad came along eventually.
Compared to this film’s historical significance and the inspiration it has provided to many, my personal impressions of it are pretty unimportant. Having said that, I am pleased to say how impressed I was by Ryan Coogler’s film. I have mentioned before my appreciation of MCU films which use their superhero guise to tell a story in a different genre. The Winter Soldier did it with the spy thriller, Ant-Man with the heist film, and Spider-Man: Homecoming with the high school movie. Black Panther might be the first one to take that approach and extend it to serious drama. It is lighter on action than almost all previous MCU entries, and much more solemn in its tone.
It is a change of pace which, having just watched Thor: Ragnarok, the E-number addled child of the MCU, did take some getting used to. It took longer for me to settle into the story than usual, with a lot of new characters and a completely different setting. Once you’ve adjusted, however, this is a compelling film. It perhaps takes longer to register the new characters because they are proper, fully-formed people with a whole host of acting talent on display.
Once Black Panther gets its claws into you, it sinks them in deeper than most other MCU films, achieving its intensity through a thematically rich story and genuine moral conundrums. Everywhere you look there is an interesting, engaging character with a fresh perspective on the story. There’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who continually pushes T’Challa to utilise Wakanda’s wealth in order to help those in need elsewhere. This, however, would threaten the secrecy Wakanda have built around their wealth through fear of colonisation and war. Okoye (Danai Gurira) resents Nakia’s approach somewhat, instead maintaining a steadfast loyalty to her country and to tradition. A formidable warrior, she at first serves Killmonger even though she dislikes him because it is her job.
Then you have N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who had a similar line of argument to Nakia years earlier but applied it specifically to help fight the persecution of black people elsewhere in the world. Seeing that king T’Chaka would not help African-Americans he betrayed his country with the similarly Wakanda-critical but more self-interested Ulysses Klaue (a marvellously entertaining Andy Serkis). This led to N’Jobu’s killing after he fired a gun at Zuri (Forest Whitaker/Denzel Whitaker), which of course caused serious guilt issues in the older Zuri. N’Jobu’s son was abandoned father-less in America by T’Chaka, creating ‘a monster of our own making’ for Wakanda in Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). One of the more complex and captivating MCU villains, Killmonger is a firebrand revolutionary with a serious personal grievance propelling everything. He, like Nakia and his father, thinks Wakanda should use its resources to help others, but that said help should be rather violent. I was a big fan of Jordan in this year’s Just Mercy and he gives another excellent, totally different performance here. Whenever he is on screen, the film has that bit more fire to it.
On top of that there’s an outsider’s view in the form of CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and an appearance from Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, who is swayed by Killmonger’s rhetoric but has is own personal motivations too. Within Wakanda there is another force at play with the Jabari tribe, headed up by M’Baku (Winston Duke). There’s some fascinating stuff to explore with this self-exiled group that the film does not make much time for, which is a shame. Finally there’s my personal favourite Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister. Portrayed with charismatic zeal by Letitia Wright, she is hugely intelligent and behind many of Wakanda’s gadgets. Her youth makes her one step removed from politics and violence, governed instead by love and familial loyalty. This, again, offers a different perspective on everything going on in this film.
It all adds up to a rich tapestry, full of vitality from strong performances, and a palpable sense of a community, made up of distinct individuals who must work together. To take on so many new characters in 2 hours and make them all well-drawn and compelling is a great achievement. It also represents something distinctly different from the MCU, aiming for heftier drama than before. I will be interested to see how this approach is blended with some very different styles in Infinity War.
T’Challa himself I have heard some people say is actually the least interesting person in his own film. I get this to an extent, especially given Chadwick Boseman’s, I believe intentionally, understated performance. However, I think the simple, noble, and seemingly less complex role of our hero is deliberate here. As king, T’Challa feels he must assume this position of more reserved strength in order to be a great leader. In fact, as the film goes on, we see him allow more emotion into his life and it is this that fires him to become a great ruler come the end. He may not be the most eye-catching presence in his own film, but Black Panther isn’t dull.
The film isn’t dull either, despite being a heavier movie than those around it. I talk a lot about the importance of fun in the MCU. Black Panther does not have that levity to it, but it feels entirely appropriate. The slower, more considered filmmaking is that of a weightier, more important film. This fits the film’s hero, who is a king first and foremost. It’s a relatively grounded story, with no outer-space shenanigans or cosmic weaponry. Its main concerns are human, social, and political ones, so a heavier tone feels like a good fit.
That’s not to say there isn’t pure entertainment to be had when watching Black Panther. It is still a blockbuster after all. It aims to be less funny than most of the MCU, but there’s some sharp, witty dialogue in here all the same. The action is solid, with some good hand-to-hand battle scenes and a brilliant car chase that is the film’s high point for classic popcorn cinema. The sight of T’Challa leaping from car to car, or Okoye catching her spear mid-air is tremendous, full of gravitas and classic thrills. On a side note, that splitty-arm thing Klaue has freaked me out and I’m quite glad he’s dead so I don’t have to see it again.
Then come the final battle, we have something much more war-like. That the film takes its time and isn’t afraid to have long scenes of dialogue means that when the action does come it means a lot more. We care about many of the characters involved, not just the hero, and there is really something at stake. Having multiple characters we care about means we feels that someone could actually die, even if the lead is always safe. There is something ideological and emotional at stake too, with former friends fighting each other over their way of life. It is a testament to how well-designed and portrayed Wakanda has been throughout the film that it pains us to see the civil war that has broken out.
The first sting is not really a sting at all, more a continuation of the main story. T’Challa addresses the United Nations to announce that Wakanda is opening itself up to working with others. When a French representative asks ‘what a nation of farmers can offer’ it causes a wry smile for Ross, T’Challa and the audience. It’s a good note to end on, even if it does seem a little odd as a sting. The second one stays closely linked to this story too, as Bucky emerges, apparently now unfrozen, in Wakanda. Looks like he’s back in time for the big one.
Where it Ranks
This is one of the best films that the MCU has produced. It doesn’t quite break the top level for me as it did take a while to get going and I think could have had more pace and fun at times. That said, it is a denser, richer film than most others and the various story strands are marshalled superbly by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (the man behind the excellent People vs. OJ Simpson TV series). For supporting characters, this is right up near the top, so much so its own hero sometimes looks overshadowed. If they keep such a high calibre of filmmakers and acting talent on board, there could be some great stuff to see from Wakanda in the future.
- Captain America: Civil War
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Black Panther
- Iron Man 3
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man
- Doctor Strange
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk