Black Panther has, rightly, been heralded as a watershed moment for popular culture and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chadwick Boseman’s superhero was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War, but this film delivers the rich backstory his character deserves. We pick up T’Challa mourning the loss of his father, and wrestling with the new burden of ruling his country of Wakanda.
But his succession to the throne isn’t without challenge. A debate about Wakanda’s future rages between our hero, and his challenger, N'Jadaka, played by Michael B. Jordan. The former seeks to continue the politics of his father and those that have ruled before him - of isolationism to protect the priceless vibranium that has created Wakanda as they know it. By hiding in plain sight, the country has been overlooked by the colonialism that has blighted the rest of the African continent.
Meanwhile N'Jadaka, having seen racial injustices play out elsewhere, argues fiercely for action not just words. His vision is to share the riches and power of vibranium shared with oppressed black people everywhere. But then he goes further, calling for a new Wakandan empire to rule over peoples around the world – becoming the conquerors rather than the conquered. And it’s here that he crosses the line into villainy.
Many have drawn parallels to the similar philosophical debate between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during the American civil rights movement. And it’s one we’ve seen elsewhere in the MCU, between a Magneto shaped by his experiences of the Holocaust and his counterpart Professor X. But in Black Panther Michael B. Jordan successfully creates enough ambiguity in the debate about legitimate ways to challenge injustice, to deliver the complex Marvel villain we’ve long deserved. He’s an absolutely scene-stealer, and if not already on your radar as an upcoming star, will be by the end of the film.
We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to brilliant supporting characters, thanks to T’Challa’s team. Special mention has to go to the equal parts kick ass and humorous Okoye (Danai Gurira), who heads up the squad of all-female royal bodyguards. Meanwhile Lupita Nyong’o brings a fierce ethical drive to the spy Nakia, and a scene where the pair debate their duties to their country and their beliefs is in my view one of the movie’s most compelling. T’Challa’s tech genius sister Shuri, wittily played by Letitia Wright, make similar characters from elsewhere, like Bond’s Q and Batman’s Alfred, appear dry and stale in comparison.
The film bravely turns on its head the treatment often given to characters of colour and women in too many other films – instead placing them front and centre, and granting their characters range and depth. How often does a mainstream film centre on an almost entirely black cast – let alone a mainstream superhero flick?
Meanwhile the glorious sets and costumes do a fantastic job of establishing Wakanda and its fantastical blend of futurism with tradition. The big set pieces pay homage to epic films that have gone before, with echoes of battle scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
While not without its problems, it’s both a timely contribution to the public debate about race, and an enjoyably fresh addition to the Marvel universe.
Lianne de Mello
Black Panther is screening at the No.6 Cinema on Saturday 5th May at 7pm. Buy your tickets here.