After a superb 2017 for comic-book movies, Marvel are kicking off this year’s superhero game with the first of their 3 2018 releases: Black Panther.
Picking up after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned to Wakanda – the African nation concealing its multitudes of wealth and power from the rest of the world - to inherit the throne as king after the passing of his father. But when a mysterious warrior from Wakanda’s past (Michael B. Jordan) emerges to challenge T’Challa’s mantle as king and protector of its nation as the Black Panther, our hero finds himself having to find the balance of being a good king and a guardian and fight for his life and his country.
18 entries in now, Marvel have nailed the formula; we can expect their films to be good – bare minimum – at this point. It just seems to be a given. Just how good tends to vary, though. As an Afro-futurist film, Black Panther is remarkable – boasting a stellar African-American ensemble (the first blockbuster of this calibre to do so) and its stunning representation of the ethos of African culture. This is a historical and monumental film in that nature – one that means so much to so many people. As a film itself, it is good. It’s very good. It’s just not amazing, though. And given everything that this film could have been, and everything it has already achieved, it’s a little disappointing in that regard.
The world that Ryan Coogler has created here is, of course, breath-taking to witness. When T’Challa’s plane finally dips into the nation of Wakanda, it pops with colour and ingenuity. It’s lusciously, not to mention ever so meticulously, realised; the production and costume design from Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter, respectively, is majestic. Coogler masterfully creates a world that is equally as immersive as it is gorgeous here, enthralling us in the clan rituals and dynamics, the gorgeous tribal attire and traditions, the sweeping landscapes. This is easily the MCU’s most visually arresting film yet; from the textured, stylish cinematography to the majestic set design and costuming. Wakanda is very much alive in Black Panther and we are very much present and there for the runtime; it’s Marvel’s most otherworldly and extravagant marvel yet. It’s populated by a plethora of great performances too; Boseman, following on from an impressive debut in Civil War, is terrific as our flawed hero here, and Jordan makes for one of the MCU’s best villains yet – a complex, relatable antagonist grounded in veritable humanity and pathos. And the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and the scene-stealing Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sharp, witty little sister Shuri make for the strongest female ensemble in any comic-book film to date – holding their own against their male co-stars and kicking serious ass. The performances are, frankly, all great and it’s superb watching all of this superb, acclaimed black talent come together for this.
Where the film perhaps falters is in its formulaic, Marvel-y approach to the material. Yes, the visuals are great. Yes, the cultural significance and representation is impeccable. The characters are superb and the world will swallow you whole. Black Panther has commendable verve, that’s for sure. But it lacks bite. 18 films in and, yes, the MCU formula has been fine-tuned over the years but we’re beginning to hit familiarity and tedium with it now too; this has been the case with a few of the recent MCU flicks, but it feels more apparent as a hindrance now than ever before – whilst the other films were still fine, Panther feels like its true potential is askew as a result. The story is predictable; the action, whilst occasionally shot with that Coogler flair, lacks any punch and falls into that bracket of “Marvel-y action”. For such a bold film with such visual ingenuity, it lacks much imagination elsewhere – Killmonger echoes Loki; T’Challa’s coming to terms with being a hero is conventional MCU origin fare; even the post-credits stinger (which felt more alternate ending than tease) feels a lot like the ending of Iron Man. It’s a very self-contained film, which works in its favour, but it feels like there’s a masterpiece trapped inside this MCU recipe.
Ryan Coogler does do a great job in the hot-seat behind the camera, but it stills feels restrained – this isn’t quite as Coogler a film as Thor: Ragnarok was a Taika Waititi film – and it suffers here as a result. Black Panther is a film full of muscle and style, but it’s more Marvel than Coogler and this is where it falters. It’s far from a bad film; there’s a lot to like about it, it’s quick on its toe and slick in its execution and the film is full of enough great characters and charm to keep you entertained for its runtime. The casino sequence is amongst the highlights. But for all of its visual splendour, the film lacks the personality when it comes to its action and story and feels too much like a hodgepodge of too many other MCU and comic-book elements to really shine with originality. It’s a film that brings a lot of verve to the table but it’s more bark than bite; tonally, it feels caught somewhere between the pulp and comedic timing of Guardians and Ant-Man and the intensity of The Winter Soldier – meandering between the two, not always working on either front (some comedic beats don’t land at all, whilst some of the edge feels strained at times too). There’s a masterpiece trapped in here somewhere, but what we get is a film that is very enjoyable, yes, but one that is hindered by a formula beginning to age and holding back the greatness this could have strived for.
Black Panther has commendable verve and style, but it lacks the necessary bite and oomph to make it stand out from its MCU counterparts. A cultural landmark, yes, but merely a good film.
About the Author
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.