Friday, 16 February 2018

Black Panther

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Sterling K. Brown.

"Call it Fant-four-stic one more time, I dare ya."
Marvel continues to take its cinematic universe to new places physically, thematically, and even spiritually in its latest outing Black Panther.

Much has been made of the importance of having a predominantly black cast and crew bringing to life the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, and how huge it is for people of colour around the world to see such a thing in a major blockbuster spectacle. But this would count for nought if the movie wasn't any good.

Thankfully, Black Panther is great. It boasts a sense of grandeur as it tells a sprawling Shakespearean tale that traverses the political, the racial, the ideological, the familial and the fantastical.

Prior MCU watching is not a prerequisite here, but for fans this picks up in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, with Prince T'Challa (Boseman) preparing to take the throne of mythical African nation Wakanda following the death of his father T'Chaka.

As T'Challa grapples with ruling his people and keeping his country hidden from the outside world, new and old enemies emerge - the unhinged Ulysses Klaue (Serkis) and the mysterious Killmonger (Jordan), both with deep connections to Wakanda.

Of all the thematic ideas explored across the MCU films, Black Panther boasts some of the most interesting. Wakanda's national modus operandi is very much "Wakanda first" - as part of the it's elaborate hi-tech secrecy that quite literally hides it from the outside world, they accept no refugees, offer no foreign aid, and are reluctant to engage on a global stage. These ideals are all the more intriguing because of Wakanda's incredible wealth, both financially and technologically.

The film's philosophical crossroad comes in the form of a character who has seen the injustices wielded against black people in the US, and wonders why the power of Wakanda couldn't be used to level the playing field in the face of racism - an ideology closer to the Black Panther Party of the civil rights movement than the Marvel superhero of the same name. This sentiment digs even deeper when a dying character invokes the slave trade with their final words in one of the most poignant moments the MCU has seen.

It's fascinating fodder for a CG-heavy blockbuster from the biggest mega-franchise the world has ever seen. To Coogler's (and Marvel's) credit, the film doesn't pay lip service to its racial themes - it owns them and is all the better for it.

And while the extra levels of well executed intelligent ideas elevates this above, say, Justice League, there is also the requisite amounts of action and CG carnage. One particularly lengthy take involving a fight in a casino is mindblowing, while a car chase through the South Korean city of Busan is another highlight. However, the inevitable final showdown between T'Challa and Killmonger is a bit too heavy on the CGI, as are some sequences where green screens stand in for the wilds of Africa.

The cast is another reason to see this. Jordan's Killmonger is one of the best villains we've seen in the MCU because he's one of the most interesting - you could almost barrack for him or at least empathise with him. Serkis' Klaue is more cartoonish, but adds a manic level of fun to every scene he's in, which helps break up some of the seriousness. The script also adds enough grins and winks to lighten the sombre tone enough, while Wright's Shuri provides welcome comic relief.

Nyong'o and Gurira are also highlights and make the most of well written roles with real strength to them. Freeman feels out of place but it works, Whitaker adds gravitas, and Kaluuya's W'Kabi is another interesting character well portrayed.

But it's Boseman and Jordan's show, and when they go head to head the film sizzles. Their relationship holds up the second half of the film. The first half coasts along with a James Bond vibe, but once Killmonger gets to Wakanda, it becomes a superhero version of Heat, with two equally matched, equally driven, and almost equally sympathetic characters lighting up the screen. Boseman has a regal swagger, while Jordan is more street, yet they are not terribly dissimilar.

It's a shame some CG-heavy sequences don't look great because it's one of the few downers in this. There are also a few too many pushy moments in the score, although it's worth noting that when the score works, it's some of the best music we've seen in an MCU movie.

The production design is also great. The techno-Africa look is cool, rivalling the work of the Sakaar scenes in Thor: Ragnarok.

All up, Black Panther is a thoughtful yet exciting superhero journey into deepest Africa that does the character and his people proud.

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