Marvel’s Black Panther arrives in cinemas with aspirations to be more than your average superhero film. Taking place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Panther finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to take the throne and fulfil his role as the protector of Wakanda.
As coronations go his first week could have been more relaxing. Beset by threats, T’Challa finds his mettle tested as his throne comes under siege by forces that would use Wakanda’s considerable stores of Vibranium (a nearly indestructible metal) to start a conflict that could cause irreparable damage. Can T’Challa defeat his foes and preserve his nation’s way of life?
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There’s a great sense of expectation and interest surrounding Marvel’s Black Panther. In some ways it's a litmus test, one that recalls Marvel's first film in 2008's Iron Man.
There haven’t been many (if any) big-budget films of this scope fronted by a predominantly black cast and made for a worldwide audience. Factor in a young, relatively inexperienced director in Ryan Coogler, whose previous films were tiny in comparison and this could have been burdened by expectation.
But Black Panther arrives with a confidence that’s reflective of a studio that’s made 18 successful films in ten years, and knows not only what it’s doing but is clear in its process. Marvel has hit upon a formula, and what’s fascinating is how they continue to find different shades and new voices without sacrificing each film's sense of individuality.
Panther shines a light on an otherwise lesser known corner of the MCU, the film benefitting from smaller – but still significant – stakes and a central conflict that’s more grounded and personal. The tone is different in some ways to what's come before but familiar (there's riffs on James Bond in places) and it feels fresh and confident in its storytelling, imbuing the proceedings with plenty of humour too.
At its heart lies themes about identity, family, responsibility, throwing into the mix thoughts about international seclusion, while tackling the idea of the mistakes of an older generation impacting the younger one. That’s not to say it's a weighty film per se, but it gives you more to chew than you might expect.
T’Challa’s father comments that it’s hard for a "good man to be king" and Boseman’s struggle to become a worthy king and lead his country is a representation that we haven’t seen in a series dominated by super-soldiers and billionaires in metal suits.
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And in Michael B Jordan’s Eric Kilmonger the film has an antagonist that's a step above most of the villains in the MCU, which admittedly is not terribly difficult.
His purpose is initially hidden, but you’ll understand where he’s coming from and Jordan has a compelling, ruthless and intense presence that contrasts with Boseman’s more regal and suave attitude. Their conflict ends up being surprisingly compelling, and if you feel the film has played its cards right, unexpectedly emotional come the conclusion.
There’s plenty else to like and maybe even love. Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s little sister Shuri is adorable; the Dora Milaje, led by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, are a formidable group of women that make up T’Challa’s royal protectors. Lupita Nyongo'o's Nakia shares good camaderie with Boseman and isn't relegated to being window dressing while Andy Serkis appears to be having a whale of a time reprising his Ulysses Kraue character from Age of Ultron.
But the film isn't perfect despite our gushing. Some characters serve their purpose but are thinly sketched (such as Daniel Kaluuya's W'Kabi). The beginning is a little flabby as the film finds its rhythm, the action scenes (apart from a fun scene set in Seoul) aren’t the most original, a few marred by some shaky staging, but they do entertain (and Black Panther's suit is very cool). There's also an over-reliance on CG effects, which affected last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and gives the action an unwelcome sense of artificiality.
It is a good-looking film as you'd expect from Marvel, full of rich tones and colours - the clothing and scenery that should leap off the screen when the film arrives in 4K later this year. The black of T’Challa’s suit will be able to put any TV's black levels to the test.
The soundtrack features a few songs produced by Kendrick Lamaar (opens in new tab), with an orchestral score that’s both percussive and mixes influences from African-American music. The film can feel a bit over-scored in places, but the soundtrack offers a vibe and authenticity that contributes to the film's vibrant palette.
Buy the Black Panther soundtrack on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
Black Panther comfortably fits into the fold of Marvel's MCU while also presenting itself as different proposition to previous films in the series. It's a positive and complex depiction of a black community and that's something we haven't often seen, at least in a film of this scope.
An origin story of sorts but one that doesn't feel as hemmed in by convention like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man felt, there's plenty of humour to it. The film finds a good balance between being serious and emotional, but also has fun along the way.
Every character makes an impression, especially Boseman and Jordan, and there's a breeziness to it that's helped by the film being a little outside of the established MCU order.
It's a refreshing change and a step forward for the genre in terms of representation. Heavy lies the crown on Black Panther's head, but it shrugs off that expectation with ease and confidence, continuing Marvel's recent run of very entertaining films.