After being introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), the fabled Black Panther, now gets a chance to shine without sharing the spotlight with his more well-known MCU counterparts in director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Black Panther, like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man before him, is arguably one of Marvel’s lesser known characters. However, remember that there was a time when the same could be said about Iron Man before Jon Favreau’s movie and Robert Downey Junior’s portrayal of the character catapulted ol’ shellhead into the mainstream consciousness. Yet, going in to Black Panther, even I had had very little exposure to the character and, as a result, had no real expectations for the film other than I expected it to be pretty good.
After a bit of a backstory regarding Wakanda’s origins and how their society was created around their massive Vibranium mines and has cloaked itself from the outside world for generations, the film opens a short time after the events of Civil War, T’Challa is returning to Wakanda to assume the mantle of king after this father T’Chaka’s (John Kani) untimely death at the hands of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). He and the captain of his forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira), stops off along the way to pick up his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who has separated herself from Wakanda to help out those less fortunate in Third World countries. Reunited with his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and successfully defending his right to the throne in ritual combat against M’Baku (Winston Duke), T’Challa is crowned king and receives some encouraging words from his father in the afterlife. Determined to continue his father’s efforts to keep Wakanda safe from outsiders by maintaining the lie that they are a struggling Third World nation, T’Challa defies the general consensus of the Wakandan council to hunt down and bring in Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) once they obtain information on his whereabouts.
Klaue, now sporting a plasma cannon hidden in a fake arm after his encounter with Ultron (James Spader), has allied himself with Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a mercenary who also goes by the name Killmonger and who is, in fact, T’Challa’s cousin N’Jadaka. After Klaue slips through his fingers due to Killmonger’s interference, and he brings CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to Wakanda to receive urgent medical treatment, T’Challa loses face with his closest friend and ally, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who is more than willing to accept Killmonger into Wakanda after he delivers Klaue’s dead body. Killmonger immediately exorcises his birth right but challenging T’Challa to ritual combat and defeats the Black Panther, leaving him for dead, and begins a plot to turn Wakanda’s advanced technology against the outside world so that the oppressed can rise up against their oppressors. As soon as Black Panther begins, you can tell that this is a very different film to the usual MCU offerings. It definitely feels as though Marvel Studios has been favouring world-building, character pieces, and smaller scale films with far reaching potential in recent years, probably as a result of the massive Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) looming over the horizon. Also, with some of the MCU’s biggest names rumoured to be leaving the franchise soon due to contractual obligations, there’s never been a better time to start setting up the next generation of Avengers and superheroes. Therefore, Black Panther presents a highly advanced society built purely around the marriage of technology and tradition that immediately stands out from the rest of the MCU and truly renders the diabolical efforts of the Inhumans (Various, 2017) to shame.
Shuri, who channels the spirit of James Bond’s Q, outfits T’Challa with his gear and a brand new fancy suit, one comprised of Vibranium nanotechnology and compacted entirely into his necklace. She is also able to manually operate and drive his Lexus from their lab and, later, even contributes to the final battle against Killmonger and his fellow extremists. Equally, Okoye holds her own as a strong-willing, aggressive warrior; between the two of them, they really bring some much needed strong female characters to the MCU who can more than stand side-by-side with their male counterparts. The main thrust of the film is to set up Wakanda ahead of Infinity War and you really get a good sense of their society, one built on tradition and respect. When Killmonger defeats T’Challa and assumes the throne, Wakanda’s inner circle (Oyokye included) largely accept him as their new king due to being unquestionably loyal to the throne, rather than the man sitting on it. Others, obviously, wish to inspire a revolution and turn to M’Baku for assistance. M’Baku, also known in the comics as the Man-Ape, is a fantastic addition to the film; his tribe are largely ostracised from the rest of Wakandan society and have little interest in helping those who they feel look down on them. He brings some levity to the film, which is hardly short on amusing moments but far from the over reliance upon them seen in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017).
As good as Boseman is as the titular superhero, bring a cool smoothness not seen since Wesley Snipes as Blade, the real stand out of this film is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Adorned with self-inflicted scars from his many, many kills over the years and carrying more than a chip on his shoulder from the oppression of his people and his separation from Wakandan society due to the actions of T’Challa’s father, making his motivations believable and more than personal. While, like all MCU villains, he does disappear for a large chunk of the movie, Klaue more than fills the void as a side villain, and his ultimate goal to arm oppressed people around the world is one with truly devastating potential. Ultimately, Black Panther is a very different superhero film, one that is as much about world building and politics as it is about kick-ass action sequences and spectacular special effects and sets. T’Challa, who has evolved from a revenge-obsessed renegade into a self-assured, prideful leader of a nature, is a welcome addition to the MCU and a potential worthy successor to Captain America’s (Chris Evan) role as the default leader of the Avengers, should the franchise turn that way. The final act of the film is maybe a little rushed, with perhaps two or three too many plot lines being mashed into the narrative, but it never feels like the pacing is off and sets Black Panther up nicely as a diplomat who is not against suiting up and fighting against injustice when it rears its ugly head.
Recommended: Black Panther is more than enjoyable; while not the best MCU film I’ve ever seen, it’s still a great addition and really expands upon the MCU’s scope in a way that can only pay off dividends in the future.
Best moment: While the final battle between Black Panther and Killmonger is an awesome fight scene, spanning the plains of Wakanda down to the Vibranium mines, Black Panther’s thrilling car chase against Klaue is pretty awesome as well.
Worst moment: Just the fact that Killmonger was absent for a noticeably pan of screen time; I would have really liked to have seen another scene of him doing diabolical things before he shows up in Wakanda. However, this is a common issue in MCU films.