BLACK PANTHER: stirring adventure, and social document of our time

There’s a Black Panther movie to review, and there’s a Black Panther phenomenon to discuss. If you’ve been surfing American news outlets in particular over the last few weeks you’ll have found a great deal written about this latest Marvel Studios film. And not a lot has been to do with the ins and outs of superheroes. This is a movie about T’Challa, King of Wakanda, the Black Panther, widely regarded as the first black superhero of modern times. He was created by two white guys, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, in 1966.

Now, two years after Hollywood was beset by protests at discrimination against Black moviemakers and actors, Black Panther arrives with a black director, black writer, and a predominantly black cast. More than that, it brings to the screen a story which firmly and unabashedly celebrates black African culture, tradition and values. And even more than that, it shows an African nation adept at blending those traditions with the demands of a modern society.

For in this story, Wakanda is rich in a valuable metal called vibranium. Its people have used the metal intelligently to create a modern, smart, powerful country, but one which hides from the rest of the world. The film discusses whether Wakanda should keep to itself, use its power in the world for good, or, seek to wreak revenge on other nations which have suppressed black people around the world.

All this when the current United States president not long ago talked of Africa as a “shithole”. There are PHD’s to be written about the setting in which Black Panther has been released.

The degree to which Black Panther succeeds in stirring all these themes of black pride and identity of course largely depends on whether it’s a good movie that people will want to see. Too soon to judge its popularity, but it is a very good movie. Marvel has set the bar very high with its films, and Black Panther meets that bar with ease.

The film fits neatly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which introduced Black Panther. Here, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) newly crowned as king, tangles with Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) who has stolen some vibranium, and who is supported by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) a young black man somehow connected to Wakanda.

The story often moves along more like James Bond than a superhero movie. T’Challa’s young sister Shuri (a scene stealing Letitia Wright) is the brains behind his brawn and equips him with all the latest gadgetry as would Q.  A casino scene has a very Bond-ish feel about it, as do some of the chase scenes. The fight scenes are well choreographed and thrilling.

But Black Panther moves beyond that comparison, with the sweep of its Wakanda visuals, the depiction of Wakandan myth, and the range and quality of its characters. Apart from Shuri, we have Danai Gurira as General Okoye, with the actor despatching enemies with as much aplomb as she has done for several years in The Walking Dead. T’Challa’s love interest is Nakaia (Lupita Nyong’o) but she is also a political activist. Together with Shuri, and Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Black Panther features a host of strong female characters, who, whether by accident or design, resonates rather sharply in the #MeToo world.

As is usual with Marvel, even its bad guys are well rounded. We get to know why Erik Killmonger acts the way he does, and feel a degree of sympathy for him. Not so much sympathy for Andy Serkis’ unscrupulous and greedy Klaw, but Serkis portrays him with such gusto that I wanted to see more of him than I did. Serkis, together with another Lord of the Rings/Hobbit actor, Martin Freeman – yes, the Tolkein whites in the film  – connect the Wakandans to the outside world, as well as being given meaty acting roles to digest.

Ironically, the character which sometimes struggles for attention is T’Challa himself. He is a classic good guy, noble and well intentioned, and good guys sometimes are lost in the mix.

Still, the acting is to be enjoyed, as are the visuals. Wakanda looks majestic, and the art team here do wonders mixing traditional African imagery with modern design. I particularly enjoyed the tableaux of the Wakanda afterlife, the beautiful costumes, and, some of the aircraft, especially a dragonfly looking machine.

And the story is well told. It’s a far cry from the fun and frolics and outright silliness at times of its Marvel predecessor,Thor: Ragnarok. Black Panther is a political/action thriller, with the various strands of the plot well interwoven and intelligently laid out.

So this gets a big thumbs up. You can enjoy it simply as another well crafted Marvel superhero movie, or look at it within the context of the times in which it is being released. It’s an extremely satisfying watch either way.

Last point: early on we see a BBC news presenter relaying news of Wakanda. She is New Zealander Lucy Hockings, who started out at Television New Zealand news in the early 90’s – when I was there – and has for quite a few years now been working for BBC World Television in London. Nice to see a familiar face in the movie!

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