‘Black Panther’ Review: A Super-Empowering Addition to the MCU. Includes Q&A with Ryan Coogler

Writer-Director Ryan Coogler visited the BFI Southbank to introduce an advanced screening of the new Marvel film Black Panther. In the film, Chadwick Boseman plays King T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and the alter ego of the vengeful Black Panther. His new reign is challenged by Wakandan exile, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). T’Challa must work with his brave allies to protect his secretive nation.

In discussion, Coogler revealed that this film was the culmination of a great many things. His own extraordinary career that includes the powerful Fruitvale Station and the thrilling Creed, the gradually diversifying Marvel Cinematic Universe (and blockbuster movies in general) and a number of cultural movements such as Afro-futurism. There was something euphoric in the crowd at the BFI last night. A palpable feeling that this film was long overdue.

Luckily, Coogler does not disappoint. Black Panther is one of the most exciting MCU movies in years. It looks beautiful and unique, it has strong characters and a sense of adventure that so many blockbusters lack. The film is also not afraid to be political. The central conceit of having the most technologically rich country in the world being in Africa is used to explore the treatment of black people around the world. Colonialism, both past and present, is very much a target of the film. Isolationism is a key theme and poses some very interesting problems to the audience.

Most impressive is how personal Coogler made the film. In discussion he remarked on how far he had come. He grew up in a community where people tended not to leave their neighborhood  and is now on the other side of the world promoting one of the biggest films of the year. Within the film, a character remarks that he’s just a street kid believing in fairy tales, who never thought he would find himself where he is. Sequences set around an apartment building in Florida feel intensely personal, quite a feat for a big budget blockbuster.

Coogler also mentioned growing up in the nineties and seeing actors like Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Will Smith and wondering why they never appeared in a movie together. He was therefore proud to bring together so much black talent in one movie, and the cast is definitely a highlight of the film. Chadwick Boseman is authoritative, cool, but deeply emotional. His subtle self-doubt is a very welcome change from the traditional Marvel heroes. Michael B. Jordan is the perfect counterpoint to Boseman. He is angry, self-righteous but also afraid. He may be the most relatable and tragic villain that Marvel have featured in one of their films.

Gratifyingly the film also empowers its female characters. Almost all of T’Challa’s allies are women. There’s Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a spy who wishes her country could be more involved in helping those suffering around the world.  Danai Gurira is the silently terrifying warrior Okoye whose stern presence commands every scene she’s in. My favourite was Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister who serves as Black Panther’s Q as well as the comedic relief. Her performance is charming and hilarious.

Other excellent performances come from the soulful Daniel Kaluuya, the larger than life Winston Duke and Martin Freeman who gets a little more to do here than in Civil War. Andy Serkis also returns from Age of Ultron with his delightfully over the top weapons merchant.

It is however, still a Marvel film. Consequently the action is fairly hit and miss. Once gravity becomes nonsense and the line is blurred between actual stunts and CGI recreations, my investment definitely suffered. This isn’t to say that all the action is bad. There is an exceptionally thrilling sequence involving a South Korean gambling den and all of the one-on-one fights are well choreographed. The final battle, however, is just a little uninvolving. Though that is certainly no fault of the actors or the script.

In discussion, Coogler spoke of wanting to challenge the conventional demeaning view of Africa. He wanted Wakanda to feel like a country, one that was undeniably African whilst also challenging audience assumptions. He certainly succeeded as Wakanda is an extraordinary setting. It is occasionally frustrating as much of this fantasy is kept tantalisingly off screen as we instead have scenes in South Korea and London. But it can be no bad thing to want to see more of this movie’s rich world.

Other strong features of the film include the striking cinematography by Rachel Morrison who ably picks out dramatic hero shots and mesmerizing landscapes. The soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson with original songs by Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest to be featured in a Marvel film. The disparate elements and sounds come together beautifully, and the main theme is hauntingly powerful.

I was once again struck by the versatility of the Marvel universe. The film moves from historical epic, to science fiction, to spy thriller in a few scenes and it is never incongruous. Black Panther is a welcome addition to this universe and one the freshest instalments in this franchise in years. It’s also funny without undercutting the drama, political without feeling simplistic and epic without losing that personal touch.

4.5 / 5

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