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Black Panther - Review

Black Panther

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

MARVEL continue to demonstrate their willingness to take risks and challenge audiences with Black Panther, a superhero movie with plenty of differences.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame), the film is notable for being the first black superhero movie – and one that isn’t afraid to be so. Yet by doing so, it also becomes an overtly political movie, with plenty to say to boot.

That’s not to say this comes at the expense of Marvel convention. It still does everything you’d expect a superhero movie to do. But the film is at its most interesting when breaking away from convention and doing its own things.

Having been introduced in Captain America: Civil War as a periphery character with bags of potential, Black Panther now takes centre stage so that audiences can really get to know and understand the motivations behind the character as well as, crucially, the flaws and insecurities.

Hence, as the film begins, T’Challa (played once again by Chadwick Boseman), finds himself succeeding to the throne of the fictional African state of Wakanda, a secret city state that is alive with innovative technology and powered by a hidden element known as vibranium, which in itself provides the Black Panther suit with much of its force.

First and foremost, T’Challa aims to be a good king. But he soon comes to realise that the sins of a father he once looked up to (and who perished in Civil War), may well provide him with the sort of ethical and moral dilemmas that compromise his ability to be so.

This conflict is exacerbated by the arrival of Wakandan exile Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a man determined to use Wakanda’s technological superiority to make a stand for racially oppressed African Americans and black people everywhere, as well as gain some form of personal revenge for a wrong he suffered as a child.

Black Panther

And to make matters even more complicated, there are the internal politics of the various African tribes that make up the Wakandan landscape to navigate, a potential love interest in Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the continued presence of a white South African career criminal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is determined to steal more of Wakanda’s vibranium, and CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who has his own reasons for hunting Klaue.

With so many elements to juggle, it’s to Coogler’s credit that Black Panther doesn’t feel overly convoluted or top-heavy in regards to the politics or the action. Yes, it is very vocal in what it has to say but the script – co-written by American Crime Story‘s Joe Robert Cole – manages to balance drama, action and, for the most part, character progression.

Many of the primary players are very well defined, not least the women whose ranks include T’Challa’s tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a fun Q-style figure, and head of the Dora Milaje security force Okoye (Danai Gurira), whose kick-ass presence provides the film with plenty of its more crowd-pleasing moments. Not only is Black Panther proud to be black, it’s unquestionably feminist to boot.

Of the men, Boseman taps into an insecurity and vulnerability that endears, making him a more fallible superhero than, say, Iron Man or Thor, while Jordan exudes passion and rage as well as providing enough to empathise with, thereby ensuring that he’s far from one dimensional.

Indeed, such is the quality of Jordan’s villain, that one of the film’s biggest flaws is its failure to do more with him. Just as he steps into his own, Killmonger’s story arc is curtailed by the third act descent into more conventional superhero dynamics.

And this, in turn, exposes another flaw. The set pieces, while efficient, are sometimes undermined by an over-reliance on CGI, especially in its use of the Black Panther character. A car chase in Korea, for example, is sometimes let down by some obvious use of CGI, while the climactic battle also sometimes underwhelms for the same reasons (as well as by virtue of the fact it’s another smack-down scenario).

Black Panther

But in most other respects, Black Panther deserves praise for the way in which Marvel [and Disney] have allowed Coogler to realise his own vision for the film which, in turn, lends it such a distinct identity. The political agenda is forthright but intelligently debated and even includes a mid-credits speech that feels like a direct riposte to the current state of Trump’s America.

Yet the look and feel of the film draws from Coogler’s own love for cinema, too, with the Black Empowerment of films like Shaft getting as much love as nods to James Bond (particularly in the South Korean segment) and even The Lion King (in terms of its more personal themes). It gives cine-philes plenty to enjoy.

Marvel fans just seeking Marvel-style thrills are also well catered for, with the likes of Serkis (deliciously OTT) and Freeman providing plenty of links to the established MCU. There’s even the odd surprise in terms of who survives and who doesn’t.

If Black Panther ultimately falls short of the game-changing masterpiece status that early Tweets suggested, it nevertheless remains a bold, exciting and fresh piece of work that delivers on several levels. It is a landmark moment in blockbuster cinema that couldn’t be more timely or more confident in its ability to be so.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 15mins
UK Release Date: February 13, 2018