The new king of a fictional African nation struggles with how best to serve his people in Black Panther, the eighteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that manages to inject some much-needed fresh blood into the usual superhero proceedings.
Much has been made of the fact the the cast is almost entirely black, the action is set in Africa, and the movie celebrates cultural themes that perhaps haven’t been touched upon in a movie of this scale.
But in Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler hasn’t just swapped out the skin color of the super-powered being in the spandex suit: his film is so tangibly different than the Marvel movies that have come before it – in tone, style, and even story structure – that it becomes a breath of fresh air for those suffering superhero fatigue and one of the very few distinct voices that this franchise has produced.
Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, King of the advanced vibranium-powered nation of Wakanda who was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Here, he couldn’t be further from that superhero mashup, and the struggle is not one to save the world but to protect his people and come to terms with his role as a leader.
The first half of the film resembles something more like a James Bond movie than anything from the Marvel universe, as T’Challa, ex-girlfriend and international spy Okoye (Danai Gurira), and royal guard warrior Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, a real highlight here) set off to Busan, South Korea to hunt down South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).
Meanwhile, flashbacks and concurrent scenes tell the story of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who previously starred in Coogler’s Creed), whose ideas about Wakanda’s role in the world are diametrically opposed to T’Challa’s – but not, necessarily, inherently wrong.
Boseman is an especially charismatic presence in the lead, even if the T’Challa character is a little flat; despite the best efforts of the screenwriters, his internal conflict boils down to the usual business of doing the right thing.
Much more interesting, I felt, was Jordan’s Killmonger, a character who seems born of the revolutionary Black Panther Party that arose around the same time as the original Marvel comic book (for a short time, the comics character was even re-named Black Leopard).
Coming from the streets of inner-city Oakland, Killmonger is a ruthless killer but one with worthy goals: he seeks justice for the oppressed worldwide, and sees the advanced nation of Wakanda as a means to provide it. He’s one of the more interesting villains the Marvel films have created, with a nuanced backstory and moral stance that gives the film some of its finest moments.
Like last year’s Wonder Woman, Black Panther isn’t immune to the franchise that contains it. An action-packed final battle echoes the superhero showdown in Captain America: Civil War and feels oddly inconsequential; we go into it with the knowledge that diplomacy will resolve more than any violence, and that the only resolution can be a peaceful one.
As in other MCU movies – most recently, last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming – spotty CGI work is apparent; in some shots, the costumed Black Panther distractingly turns into a fully-animated creation. The lack of any bloodletting during the extended fight scenes also rob them of some urgency.
In the end, however, Black Panther is easily one of the most distinctive movies to come out of the MCU – and 18 movies into the franchise with no end in sight, that can only be a good thing.
Note: in Prague, Black Panther is screening in both Czech-dubbed and English-language, Czech-subtitled versions in most multiplexes; check listings before heading out to the cinema.