Hollywood is the most well-oiled of well-oiled machines.
Films come cascading off its production line with often ruthless efficiency, keeping the cinemas of the world stocked with films that are bright, blockbuster-y and made to a finely-honed formula.
The only downside to this approach, and it’s one that Marvel employs with usually successful, thought not always creatively-out-of-the-box, results, is a sameness of product that’s not always alleviated by fine performances or intelligent scripts.
Black Panther, though made securely in the bosom of the Marvel factory is one film, that has smashed its way out of this well-secured production matrix to deliver up what is arguably one of the finest superhero movies to ever grace our screens.
Certainly, the Ryan Coogler-directed (he co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole) film is Marvel’s most diverse entry into its ever-growing pantheon of films, delivering up a story refreshingly dense with substantial key roles for women and people of colour, with white roles kept to a minimum as reflecting a story that takes as it focal point the perspective of the “conquered”, as the villain of the piece refers to his black compatriots around the world, rather than the “conquerors”.
This narrative position informs everything about a film that is heavy on social conscience, making a strong case throughout, and with blessed little in the way of obviously-placed polemic rantings – Black Panther is, if nothing else, a master class in show-don’t-tell – that gross injustice is not remedied with further injustice.
The bad guy in question, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is obviously of the opposite mindset, determined to use the technologically-advanced resources of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, the result of a Vibranium metal-rich meteor striking the country millions of years earlier, to equip the oppressed peoples of the world with the means to right centuries of wrongs committed against them.
You can well understand his ire and manifest desire for vengeance, and the script is careful to allow his perspective to be fully aired in all its anger-fuelled complexity before it consigned wholly to the heap of history by the heroes of the story.
The heroes of the film are legion, and not confined to the titular character, who when he is not avenging wrong in his Black Panther guise, is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly-ascended ruler of Wakanda who has taken the throne in the wake of his father T’Chaka’s (John Kani) death. (Documented with great passion and care in Avengers: Age of Ultron).
He is, of course, the centrepiece of this story which is not so much an origin story, though it does fulfill that role, as a big, expansive filling in of the blanks on a scale that is welcomingly intimate, despite its grand narrative ambitions, confining itself geographically to Wakanda and one scene in Busan, South Korea.
But he is not the full story and it’s this willingness to share the spotlight, to highlight the effective ensemble that holds Wakanda, shielded by a rainforest-generated hologram from the rest of the world who see it through the prism of the poor, farming country its inhabitants project, that gives Black Panther so much of its richness and power.
T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is the woman behind the throne, wise, strong and a support to her son without being manipulative in any way; there is certainly no Machiavellian maneuvering behind the throne at work here.
His sister Shuri (impressive newcomer Letitia Wright) is also crucial to the success of both T’Challa and the kingdom overall, operating as its chief technology officer, the brilliant, eminently capable mind who comes up with a raft of inventions that not only prosper and keep the kingdom safe, but also play a pivotal role in the eventual battle between revenge-hungry Killmonger and T’Challa for control of Wakanda, and its never-used-to-date power to make considerable change in the world.
Family aside, and it’s a joy to watch how effortlessly and well T’Challa relates to his wife and sister, not trace of dysfunction to be seen but not mawkishly overplayed either, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former lover and an operative for the Dora Milaje, the all-female bodyguards force that protects the holder of the throne and thus effectively Wakanda itself, which is headed by a mighty, fiercely-ethical general, Okoye (Danai Gurira).
Each of these women are absolutely and critical integral to the wellbeing of Wakanda, the holder of the throne, and to Blakc Panther’s storyline, which makes effective use of every single one of them in stirringly meaningful ways that are a far cry from the tokenistic efforts of most Hollywood films which fail the Bechdel Test with depressing regularity.
It is the willingness of Black Panther to place this emphasis on issues of great social importance – it never once shies away from addressing issues of powerlessness, poverty, loss of freedom and economic parity – and to elevate women and people of colour to places of prominence that make it such a refreshing change from many other super hero films.
Black Panther not only has some worthwhile and important things to say but more importantly is allowed to say them in a way that is wholly faithful to the source material, with not a hint of the “whitewashing” Hollywood has been guilty of in the past.
Visually the film is jaw-droppingly impressive too, with everything from sweeping African vistas – this includes the capital city of Wakanda itself which is captivating melange of Afro-steampunk retro-futuristic styles that melds African and Western influences to create a thoroughly unique aesthetic (all credit to Hannah Beachler) – to its costuming, courtesy of the immensely-talented Ruth E. Carter creating the impression of a vibrant, self-possessed country and people in charge of their destiny and beholding to no one.
It is perhaps an idealised view of society, any society, but so exacting and profoundly well-detailed is the world building that it feels authentic every step of the way, and you can’t help feeling somewhat melancholy as you watch people of principle and morality fighting for a world that shouldn’t be the stuff of idealists and dreamers but which all too often is, especially in today’s often heightened fascistic landscape.
There is are schisms certainly as the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger, and to a lesser extent M’Baku (Winston Duke) of the mountain tribe that proves integral to Wakanda’s fortunes later on, but there is hope, a sense of justice and a willingness to uphold it not just as it’s convenient but as a matter of course, and far more often that you might expect, some crackingly funny oneliners (thank you hilarious MVPs Shuri and M’Baku).
Black Panther is a gem – it’s big, brash and epic with the requisite larger-than-life fight scenes that are the backbone of every Marvel effort, but it is also thoughtful, introspective, nuanced and insightful, a cerebral blockbuster that is entertainingly accessible throughout, a highwater mark in current efforts to make movies far more representative of everyone, that doesn’t simply say the right things but lives them out in every single immersively engaging scene.