We first met Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Now Chadwick Boseman’s African superhero gets his own origin film, mounted on an epic scale by Ryan Coogler who writes (with Joe Robert Cole) and directs.
On the passing of his father, T’Challa (Boseman) has been recalled to the African kingdom of Wakanda to take his rightful place as the new king. But first he must face any challenger to the throne and fight them off on a cliff edge that drops into a raging waterfall. T’Challa is supported by most of the tribes and of course by his mother and sister. He has also got a highly skilled all-woman army watching his back.
Lupita Nyong’o plays his former flame and a Wakanda spy Nakia. Danai Gurira is fantastic as General Okoye, and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a tech wizard who makes Q from the Bond series look outmoded. Not only does Wright get the toys, she is the scene-stealer, relishing her character’s irreverence as she addresses CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, the token white actor) as “coloniser” and asks for the crowning ritual to wrap up so she can get out of her uncomfortable corset. Other pivotal characters are played by Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Sterling K Brown and Forest Whitaker.
Wakanda is rich thanks to its endless reserves of the precious mineral Vibranium, a resource it protects fiercely, and a purple flower that gives the leader incomparable superpowers.
T’Challa is not just a tech-enhanced suit-wearing, world-saving superhero. He’s also a leader with a conscience and responsibilities. He must fend off threats by South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, too excited to play a human part and not just a mo-cap model that he overdoes the act) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan, in top form).
Like T’Challa’s world, women of power flank Coogler too. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, in particular the way she shoots the action scenes, is noteworthy. Ruth E Carter’s vibrant costumes and Hannah Beachler’s production design enhance the extravagant hat-tip to Africa – with herds of animals running across orange-toned wild expanses and magical sunsets.
Coogler doesn’t bother much with shades of grey in this Marvel superhero saga. It is painted in the colour of politics – black and white. The script is replete with jibes against the colonisers, mentions of slavery and tribal integration. Flabby and repetitive in parts, the film is often caught up in its own sense of importance.
The special effects, sets, costumes, music (tribal drums and hip-hop tracks dominate) and production design are bombastic and overpowering at times. Yet, it’s also one of the more well-rounded superhero origin films – with a beginning, middle and open end that efficiently sets itself up for the next encounter with the Black Panther.