* * * 1/2
Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, a Marvel superhero who can leap and scratch, is the least interesting character in Black Panther. Likewise, his abilities (he also has a suit that can punch you back) are the least interesting thing about him. The most interesting thing is that he’s black, and the most interesting character in the film is actually a country – a fictional African one – called Wakanda.
Wakanda presents as Third World – the rest of the world considers it “the poorest nation on Earth” – but it’s actually the most advanced society on the planet, because it uniquely mines and exploits the enormous power of a mineral called vibranium, not to be confused with the unobtanium found in Pandora in Avatar, a movie which also combined rampant combinations of CGI with naturally beautiful landscapes. When some vibranium is stolen, T’Challa, who is also the King of Wakanda, gathers two female warriors and sets about its recovery.
Thank goodness he took them along, because they’re much more lively than him. Indeed, the double-act of Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and television-famous Danai Gurira as Okoye provide the most consistent fun in a movie that doesn’t so much have three acts as three entire stories. It’s very long, but, unlike some of the Marvel movies, it’s neither bloated nor convoluted.
Instead, it’s proud. Fully aware of its never-to-be returned title as the first really bloody expensive ‘black superhero movie’, the film takes its responsibilities seriously and its time with world-building, character development and ethical discussion. It is constantly talking about race, yet never, as far as I can remember, actually mentioning it. It serves to inspire the ten year old black comic-book loving kid who has never before seen such glories onscreen without radicalising her, and trying – not all the time successfully – not to preach.
It also – again, while rarely mentioning it – has a lot to say about the United States today. Even though Wakanda is technologically advanced, wealthy, happy and seemingly peaceful, it is also a blood-descendant monarchy that uses mortal combat to settle succession issues, which stands in pretty neatly for the country that gave us the iPhone using an electoral system drafted hundreds of years ago that lets minority outcomes elect Presidents and treat them like emperors. Likewise, a big fear, in the third act/story of the film, is that an aggressive, unstable new king no-one really likes will have access to the world’s most dangerous weapons. Sound familiar?
That said, the film’s main agenda is certainly not to comment on white America or Americans. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), who is black, is determined to present an afro-centric – “African” – vibe, even as the aesthetic borrows liberally from Asian cities, Star Wars, and James Bond (the latter not in the Wakanda sequences). Almost everyone speaks with faux-African accents, with the exception of Martin Freeman, a very British actor ludicrously playing one of the few American characters in the film. There’s also a lot of Lion King both in the digitally-enhanced waterfalls and the story of dead and ghostly fathers, fratricide and warring cousins (Lion King being directly based on Hamlet, which doesn’t usually have waterfalls of any kind). What there thankfully isn’t a lot of is references to other Marvel properties. Don’t worry, Iron Man doesn’t zip in and save the day. Can you imagine?
I appreciated Black Panther more than I truly enjoyed it, but that’s about me and superhero movies. If I was that ten year-old black kid who loved comic books, I would almost certainly have just seen the defining film of my young life. For that kid, this is a five star film.