Black Panther

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Black Panther
"It's almost a disservice to talk about Black Panther in the context of the MCU, because perhaps more than any other it stands alone."

Black Panther is the 18th feature outing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first of this tenth year of the MCU, the first standalone film for a character created by Marvel back in 1966 - facts, history, weight, each of which gives some context to something that is enjoyable and entertaining and well constructed. Black Panther is a film that embraces complicated questions of history, of ownership of narratives, of identity, of race, and does so with magic potions and robot arms and critical (and pointed) analysis of centuries of American foreign policy and colonial interventions and armoured rhinoceroses as well.

A dialogue about provenance and attribution of artifacts is perhaps more sophisticated than some would expect from a film that's got tie-in Lego(TM) sets, but this isn't a comic-book movie - not in the sense that might still have been understood ten years ago. What Feige and his team have created is almost on a par with the classic alcohol and tobacco advertising campaigns, opportunities for art to flourish under a massively commercial umbrella. That's to do a disservice to Ryan Coogler's film. It's a testament to his talent that it seems almost impossible to countenance that this is just his third feature. I have no doubt that (just as with Channel 4's Coming Up) access to the Marvel Studios trainset comes with plenty of assistance, but even with co-writer Joe Robert Cole this is Coogler's picture. Questions he has asked in Creed, in Fruitvale Station, are differently asked here - and all the more powerfully for context, for cast.

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Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is regal, humane, a rounded and sympathetic character in a film full of them. It's hard to single anyone out for performance in a film with a cast like this - every time I start I recall other bits of other turns that delighted - but Michael B Jordan's Killmonger is exceptional. He manages to be the Marvel villain with the best argument for success - and that's one of Black Panther's greatest strengths, that it asks and acts on difficult moments of balance.

Black Panther's origins are in the pages of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four, a much loved comic book franchise whose movie outings invariably disappoint. That Jordan (like Chris Evans before him) has had a redemptive performance after failing to ignite as a Human Torch just adds to the depth of this film. Kirby and Lee had a fondness for nation-building through the adventures of Reed Richards and his extended family, Wakanda's king (like Latveria's) got a start as a character there. An afrofuturist science hero, with a writer's roster that now includes Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nnedi Okarofor, Black Panther is a notable counterpoint to the kinds of pale stale males that throw other costumed freaks in jails. Jokes about "Tolkien white guys" highlight the fact that is a cast of actors of colour, but obfuscate the fact that there are enough women in Black Panther that this in the tiny set of comic book movies that pass the Bechdel test (a test that was from a comic strip).

The film does a lot within the requirements of the franchise - the obligatory scenes within the credits (and it's still inexplicable to me why people might leave during credits at all, nevermind be taken by surprise by the presence of them in Marvel movies now...) - and creating back story not only for T'Challa but Wakanda, which is to play a major role in Infinity War. There's through continuity from other movies of the MCU, but these threads are touched upon lightly by the film because it's weaving its own, satisfying, story.

Before we had the MCU we had superhero movies, not quite at the rate that we do now but also not of the same quality. Marvel stable-mate The Punisher got his start as a villain in Spider-Man, but even the best bits of his three film outings can't scratch what Black Panther claws out of a couple of hours. As part of 'wave three' we are at a point where the Marvel films have to be seen now as a production-driven juggernaut in the vein of Bond or Star Wars - a place where the keys to the kingdom can be yours if you observe the right rituals. It might be reading too much to suggest that some of the suggestions about succession in Black Panther are about the weight of artistic endeavour in this kind of shared universe. It almost certainly is with reference to The Last Jedi, though I'll make that argument, po-faced. It's also almost a disservice to talk about Black Panther in the context of the MCU, because perhaps more than any other it stands alone.

Looking back, billions upon billions of dollars later, it seems vanishingly unlikely that there was any risk to the MCU project, but in 2008 Robert Downey Jr wasn't Iron Man, he was Robert Downey Jr. emerging from a wilderness through mainstream friendly projects like A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac, as Telephone Jack in Lucky You. Black Panther feels like a reward for that gamble - as sure a bet as anything - that the robustness of the franchise and the resources it can command and the calibre of the actors it can draw allow for the creation of truly entertaining films that happen to be part of a spandex and vibranium oligopoly.

Reviewed on: 23 Apr 2018
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T'Challa, the King of Wakanda, rises to the throne in the isolated, technologically advanced African nation, but his claim is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T'Challa's father's mistake.

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writer: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Mertin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker

Year: 2018

Runtime: 134 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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