Black Panther (2018) (Review)



It's time to hold my hands up: I was very skeptical heading into Marvel's Black Panther. I had found the trailers to be very unremarkable and the general marketing lacklustre, missing the MCU's usual blanket-coverage outside of social media and causing me to worry that this film may be something of a non-event, especially positioned so closely to Infinity War this coming April. Black Panther represents so much, both in terms of the MCU and cinema in general and I really wanted it to be a success, as cautious as I was approaching it. Does Marvel's eighteenth film manages to sustain the franchises' momentum heading towards its biggest ensemble number yet; more importantly, does the first major black superhero film flourish in its own right; or is it simply a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things?

Centuries ago, fragments of a meteorite made up the alien metal vibranium is digested by a warrior, who gains superhuman abilities from it. He becomes the Black Panther, uniting five tribes and forming the nation Wakanda; fearful that their new highly-advanced vibranium technology could fall into the wrong hands, they isolate themselves from the world and pose as a Third World Country, stepping into conflicts only when absolutely necessary. In the present day, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to assume the throne after the death of his father -- but when a threat possessing the powerful vibranium rears its ugly head, the nation must decide whether they can continue living in secrecy, a decision that could tear them apart, and topple Wakanda altogether.

Marvel are on something of a winning streak lately, and after a cracking 2017 - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok are all solid entertainment - they continue their success in the form of Black Panther. While the film is flawed in areas, one cannot deny the power and thrill of seeing this diverse crop gracing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making welcomed additions to the Avengers line-up. After his scene-stealing debut in Captain America: Civil War, the titular hero facilitates a solo film of his own; one that is refreshing and sure-to-be-embraced by the masses.

A glorified stepping stone this is not, and Black Panther proudly stands on its own two feet, unshackled from an interwoven extended universe; it really benefits from the freedom of doing its own thing, at its own pace and with its own stakes attached. There's no major Avenger cameos or a forced reliance on broader, interconnected plot elements, contained as its own piece of media yet extensive in its future ambitions; to fold these characters into the larger world in the near future. It's thanks to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler that this feels like a well-developed and finely-rendered piece that we will want to revisit time and time again. It's one of the most crowd-pleasing entries the superhero genre has seen, probably since Wonder Woman early last year -- and it is just as vital too. 

Coogler approaches Black Panther with a confidence that seeps through into the final product; his script, co-written with Joe Robert Cole, presents a plethora of dynamics characters in a vivid and visionary world, extraordinarily developed and visually grand. He injects complexity and boldly-political themes into the film, ensuring that Black Panther is a timely and zeitgeist-piercing. With two stellar films under his belt already, Coogler's tight control on plot and thematics, character and dynamics, and his visuals are clear. It is so expertly balanced in terms of genre and tone, with Black Panther becoming a rather fine chapter indeed.

Thanks to a largely fantastic cast, these characters truly come to life on the screen. Chadwick Boseman carries a substantial amount of the emotional weight on his shoulders in the titular role, exploring what it takes to be a king and understanding what's best for the nation he leads with genuine pride. He's truly fantastic -- but the limelight is often stolen from him by the array of outstanding female characters; Lupita Nyong'o is responsible for the film's biggest laughs but delivers the dramatic heft too; Danai Gurira is extraordinary, in what can only be described as a 'badass' performance of an instantly compelling nature; while Letitia Wright is astonishing in her first major big screen debut, equally hilarious and powerful. Andy Serkis makes for a compelling villain while Martin Freeman has improved that American accent, compelling and more human than ever as Agent Everett. Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett are slightly underused but their characters are intriguing enough to be further explored in forthcoming chapters.

For me - and this is where I'll probably get in trouble - there's one major mistake with the casting: Michael B. Jordan doesn't work as Killmonger, Black Panther's main villain. He's a talented actor and the character is refreshing, with renewed intentions that make for a welcome change in the MCU -- but his line delivery feels so forced and heavy-handed that everything is spoken like a punchline. There are a couple of sequences - his introduction in the art gallery and challenging the king - that are particularly misjudged, almost cringe-worthy at times. While he delivers a fine monologue towards the very end, the majority of his performance seems poorly calibrated, diluting the potency of his characters' outlook because of clumsy and awkward delivery. In a nutshell, it's not a particularly bad performance more than it is a misguided one that prevents the otherwise solid Black Panther from rising to top-tier Marvel.

Visually though, Black Panther may be one of the MCU's more impressive feature-lengths to date. It is elevated by some wonderful set pieces built by the art department and many vibrantly detailed costumes that convey so much in terms of the various tribes populating Wakanda and their rich, expansive culture. Rachel Morrison's cinematography is a stand-out, with visual grandeur and style in every scene; the colour grading is marvellous too, with the second 'Challenge The King' sequence particularly gorgeous. The special effects are solid and Coogler's direction is almost always slick.

Unfortunately, I do find the first half an hour or so does have some pacing problems. While short, the opening basketball sequence feels very restless, disorientating and beginning the film on somewhat unstable footing. We continue with two further set pieces - one set in a jungle and the other in an art gallery - both of which are rather clumsily-executed and damaging to the first act. It struggles to find a momentum and becomes scattershot and overwhelming initially, unable to develop an immediate rhythm.

Thankfully though, by the time we've entered the casino all questions and worries over Coogler's ability to direct action were non-existent, resulting in a great sigh of relief. The man does a tremendous job with the likes of the car chase, gladiatorial-style battles and lab-tech scenes, proving himself as a solid, rising director who could have found the key to his own kingdom with Black Panther.

On the whole, Black Panther is not only a solid addition to the MCU but a terrific, exciting and important film in its own right. It is a real breath of fresh air for both the superhero genre and cinema in general, noble and timely. It by no means breaks the superhero formula but it is distinctively fresh nonetheless, with a particularly outstanding second act very difficult to fault; it is graced with some brilliant performances, confident direction and outstanding visuals, all bolstering an enjoyable, crowd-pleasing blockbuster bound to make its mark on the genre and Hollywood.

★★★★★★★
(7.5/10)

Summary: Flawed but entertaining and important, Black Panther continues the MCU's winning streak with a well-rendered superhero film brimming with relevance, fantastic performances, brilliant visuals and a satisfying identity of its own. Wakanda forever, indeed.