It wouldn’t be the release of a Marvel movie without a cacophony of hype to go with it. Yet, the publicity drive for Black Panther has been even noisier than usual. The film has become a major talking point because writer-director Ryan Coogler has gone all guns blazing in bringing a defiantly African vision to the big screen, with black actors in nearly every leading role.
The story is set in the fictional land of Wakanda – an African country enriched by vibranium. This extremely precious metal allows Wakanda to pioneer the most advanced tech on the planet, which includes a superhero costume that gives its king the kind of special powers Batman would sell Alfred for.
The newly enthroned king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), follows the example set by his father of only using vibranium as a weapon in order to protect his country. To this end, he heads to Korea with a couple of his toughest buddies, female warriors Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), to apprehend Ulysses Klaue, a tattooed villain played by Andy Serkis, who previously launched a raid on Wakanda to steal some of their precious resource. But T’Challa quickly discovers that it’s not Klaue he should fear the most, but a pretender to his throne called Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan). The clue really should have been in the name.
Black Panther won’t change the minds of people who hate superhero films, but fans of the genre will adore it. Coogler melds sci-fi with an eye-popping vision of Africa, bringing a refreshing edge to a familiar framework. While I don’t want to sound like a football commentator at the World Cup waxing lyrical about the free spirited play of the Cameroonians, it’s hard not to be swept up by the sheer spectacle of it all, from the pulsating soundtrack and dazzling palette to the muscular fight sequences at the top of a waterfall. The way more earnest elements of the plot are undercut nicely by a succession of strong gags is a real plus point, too.
Martin Freeman playing Everett K Ross, the least convincing CIA operative in the history of cinema, is the butt of many of these jokes. Alongside Serkis, he’s the movie’s token white guy, and is mocked mercilessly, but Coogler knows better than to just target white people for laughs, making sure his film chuckles at itself, as well. Prime examples include a Grace Jones zinger at the expenses of a couple of the shaven headed female fighters and a cracking cannibalism gag that it would be a crime to spoil. The film also helpfully gives those concerned about the possibility of a black James Bond a chance to test their idiocy with a few 007-esque scenes, including a head-spinning fight in a casino and the Black Panther being armed with some whizzy weaponry by his sister, Q-like tech expert Shuri (Letitia Wright).
Wright’s is just one of many excellent performances, including Gurira’s tough as hell royal bodyguard to Serkis’s demented turn as Klaue, in which he unites Jack Nicholson’s Joker with a racist white South African farmer. British Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, as one of the tribal leaders, is also worthy of mention, as is the appearance, as T’Challa’s father, of John Kani – the legendary Apartheid-defying actor.
Of course, this being a superhero movie, the final act drones on noisily and artlessly. T’Challa and Killmonger battle it out in an underground cavern, while above ground all hell breaks loose, with more than two tribes going to war and spaceships smashing into each other with abandon. It’s all a bit of a mess, and not even the presence of a load of charging armoured rhinos can quite salvage it.