With a new year comes a big new helping of superhero movies, and today I went to begin the glut of 2018 with Marvel Studios’ Black Panther. The build-up to this movie is a great example of set-up in a franchise done right, something that the DC Extended Universe and Universal’s Dark Universe tried to rush and ultimately made a mess of. T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, first appeared onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, where he had enough of a role to establish who he was, but not enough to awkwardly draw focus away from the main plot of that film. Andy Serkis’s villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, and Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett Ross, who had minor roles in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Civil War respectively, also reappear in this movie with considerably more to do.
Following the death of his father in Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda to be crowned king. This African country maintains an illusion of impoverishment to the world at large, but in fact possesses great wealth and ridiculously advanced technology, thanks to its supply of the precious metal vibranium (the material that Captain America’s shield is made out of). As king, T’Challa is also his country’s chief protector in the guise of the Black Panther, granted enhanced strength and agility through a special herb. It isn’t long before he heads back out into the world to capture Ulysses Klaue, who has previously stolen some of Wakanda’s vibranium – but also involved is a young man named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan), who has a special interest in Wakanda and a bone to pick with T’Challa.
Definitely the best thing about this film is the effort put into its production design. Much of the Wakandan culture portrayed – from the characters’ appearances to their tribal structure – is inspired by the traditional cultures of African countries, and feels genuine. But at the same time, this is interwoven with the country possessing advanced weapons, aircraft, and other things that even Tony Stark would be impressed by. It could have been a mess, and yet it combines smoothly into a great setting which serves as a really interesting expansion of the MCU. I was also happy with the size and variety of the female cast, with T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his chief bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) all playing significant and enjoyable roles in the story. With its primarily black cast, and T’Challa’s uncertainties about how much Wakanda should integrate with the rest of the world, the film also doesn’t shy away from addressing the historic oppression of black people, which ends up driving a significant chunk of the conflict, but without being forced and heavy-handed.
The story has its strengths and weaknesses. It certainly has multiple compelling layers, with T’Challa having to decide what kind of king he is going to be as well as having to contend with direct threats. In the first act, it’s unclear where the plot is heading: some of it even feels like a James Bond film, with Shuri giving T’Challa a Q-like rundown of the gadgets available to him, before he heads off to South Korea and goes incognito in a casino. This leads to easily the best action scene in the movie: a car chase through the streets of Busan, backed up by a great beat on the soundtrack. Later in the film, however, when the story is heading in a clearer direction, several of the plot points it lays down are a bit too predictable: it’s still a good plot, but this keeps it from being a great one. MCU films are known for having weak villains more often than not, and while Jordan’s Killmonger has a complex backstory and understandable motivations which serve him well as a character, he’s still not especially memorable as villains go. Serkis’s Klaue is good fun with his simpler, more blatant and enthusiastic villainy, however.
Entertaining, diverse and with an impressive production, Black Panther is a strong start to 2018’s run of superhero movies. Rating: 4/5.