Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 144 minutes
Of all the themes Black Panther tackles in its 144-minute run (and it tackles a lot), the one that resonated with me the most as I left the cinema were that of circularity. From the slick camera work that juxtaposed urban Californian landscapes with the stunning expanse of Wakanda, to the plot and characterisation—each pivotal moment in the film connected to another.
With the hype and expectations that have surrounded Black Panther since its announcement, I found myself nervous as the cinema darkened around me. It wasn’t lost on me that, for better or worse, this film would make a massive cultural impact. That tension instantly disappeared as the first images of the film set the tone for what would be an amazing film packed with explosive action, strong character development and detailed world-building all wrapped together in an experimental soundtrack by rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Black Panther begins in the immediate aftermath of the death of the King of Wakanda, T’Chaka (John Kani), and the coronation of his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Prosperous and far more advanced technologically and socially than the rest of the world, Wakanda has hidden its true power from the world for centuries and T’Challa—eager to live up to his family’s legacy—has no intentions of changing that particular policy. However, T’Challa’s determination and strength as a leader is tested as he hunts down the notorious psychopath Klaw (Andy Serkis) and in doing so, comes into contact with a new villain that threatens the safety of not only Wakanda but the world.
Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed), who co-wrote the film with Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther sees a low-key casting of stars including Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurria (Okoye), Martin Freeman (Everett Ross), Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi), Letiticia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (N’Jobu), Angela Bassett (Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri) and Andy Serkis (Klaw).
Boseman definitely holds up the film as its star, whose acting approach co-star Letitica Wright rightly describes as full of “internal” depth—but Boseman could not have shone quite so brightly without the nuanced performances of his castmates, notably Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya. Taking a moment to focus on Jordan’s Killmonger, I was astonished by how easily he brings to life the embodiment of black male rage. Killmonger often made me uncomfortable as I realised that I understood his motives and at times could justify his actions. Killmonger is the perfect reflection of T’Challa—Coogler’s rendering of the effects that systematic violence and racism can have on a young black boy. However, without the quiet pain, desperation and, yes, anger that Jordan infused with everything he did, we would have lost the nuances that combined to make Killmonger one of the best (if not the actual best) MCU villains I’ve ever seen.
I mentioned before circularity. Coogler often achieves this through smooth, almost undulating sweeps of the camera in shots that often stretch longer than expected but created a sense of the organic. This was my first time seeing Wakanda and following the lives of its inhabitants, and I often felt like I was right there, twisting my head around, desperate to absorb every detail. Colour is, of course, a key part of the film’s visual style, but it is often muted and regularly contrasted by the bleak cool tones of the world outside the peaceful Wakanda.
Throughout the film, I was simply blown away by the action sequences—I wasn’t just on the edge of my seat, at some points I was literally crouched in anticipation for what would happen next. Coming from someone who has a tendency to get bored during action films, that’s really saying something. Upon reflection, this was likely because each scene—whether a fight for dominance between T’Challa and Killmonger or a high speed car chase—adds new depth and understanding to the personality of the characters and fundamentally humanises them.
Unfortunately, my biggest gripe was that I struggled to feel like any of the main characters were in any serious danger. I suppose this comes from years of knowing Marvel’s superhero film roster and thus which characters will survive, but this film’s rather straightforward conflict set-up results in this knowledge lowering the stakes in what is otherwise a gripping story.
Black Panther wasn’t created in a vacuum. With increasing calls for diversity in the film industry, it hasn’t come too soon, and fans have eagerly been awaiting its release since Marvel announced the film in 2014. I guess we should remember that from the beginning this is a film with slightly different actors than we’re used to—but the benchmark of quality is still there. I live in a predominantly white town in Northern Queensland. Still, the cinema was packed and often vocal as they shared the laughter, despair and excitement of each character on screen regardless of skin colour.
And you know what? I had no idea that Black Panther was going to place women so front and centre. In an industry where Black women are often an afterthought, it was refreshing to see them become integral to the survival of the main character. At the beginning of the film, I couldn’t help but notice the small detail of T’Challa succeeding the throne as T’Chaka’s oldest child, rather than his only son. There were entire sequences where we see Nakia and Okoye not just holding their own, but owning. Not to mention the Dora Milaje, resplendent in their red uniforms, who were a strong but varied presence throughout the film.
I also can’t forget that this is a Marvel film, and like all Marvel films, Black Panther was often hilariously funny. Physical humour and pop culture references placed the film firmly in reality and revealed to us that, yes, the King of Wakanda watches vines.
All in all, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been incredibly hopeful for Black Panther’s success. Its importance to the wider issue of diversity, not just of skin colour but also of stories can never be understated. The time for painting by numbers when it comes to blockbuster films is over—audiences are starved for new, interesting and compelling stories that relay the hero’s journey to us in ways we could never imagine. And Black Panther delivers—and then keeps on delivering. Every shot was a stunning image; every scene composed with the utmost attention and the entire movie was brought home by masterful performances from the entire cast and Kendrick Lamar’s modern and dynamic soundtrack.
I’ve always said I love a good superhero film. This is a great one.