The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) celebrates 10 years this year, with Black Panther the first of three movies from Marvel Studios in the next 6 months. This long-awaited film not only delivers a high-quality action-adventure that Marvel has set the standard for, but may have just set a new high standard of its own.
After a series of commercially successful, but personally underwhelming MCU films in the past couple of years, I was all but admitting that maybe there was such a thing as superhero fatigue. But Black Panther is proof that with a brilliant director at the helm, a truly talented and star-studded cast, and a story that yearns to be told and stands out in its franchise’s overall grand scheme, the superhero genre can be revived and renewed.
(With contributions from Sarah Lee. This review is spoiler-free. Trust me, you want to watch Black Panther spoiler-free. Don’t even watch anything beyond the first trailer.)
Do not be fooled by the simplistic plot
The premise of Black Panther is deliberately unassuming – it is neither an origin story, nor does it directly lead into Avengers: Infinity War. Director Ryan Coogler clearly doesn’t feel compelled to play in the 10-year old Marvel sandbox. Instead, he makes his own – Wakanda.
After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), the grieving T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must return to his home of Wakanda, a technologically advanced society that has isolated itself from the rest of the world and poses as a third-world nation. T’Challa is to be crowned the new King, but must first respond to any challenges to his throne in ritual combat.
In a land where technology, mysticism, tradition and the threat of outside influence are constantly in tension with one another, can T’Challa rise to the occasion? Or will one of his political rivals seize the monarchy for themselves?
It is a wise choice to isolate
Black Panther works well as a standalone feature, despite being the 18th movie of the MCU, and the 6th movie in Phase 3 which began with 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Just in case you don’t remember the events of that film, Black Panther generously provides a handful of quick flashbacks to the death of King T’Chaka to help you get up to speed.
Coogler is no stranger to writing and directing a new entry in a beloved franchise – in 2015, he co-wrote and directed Creed, to critical acclaim. The magic formula, it seems, is setting aside the franchise, and setting up compelling characters to do all the work. Black Panther is no exception. An added plus is all the subversion of what would’ve been offensive and dated tropes; it truly goes to show that an adaptation from a source written back in the day can and should be updated for today’s audience. (Subversion that doesn’t resort to erasure, for one.)
Look to the stars
But even with a visionary director like Coogler, compelling character-driven stories are only as good as the cast. Fortunately for Black Panther, it is overflowing with talent.
Boseman is of course, perfectly cast as T’Challa, bringing with him an aura that allows him to be both regal and magnificent, but also warm and endearing. Yet while Boseman has the titular role, which he performs with charismatic aplomb, so many of the supporting cast still have more than sufficient time to shine, and they never outshine each other.
That said, Black Panther’s female cast are undoubtedly the scene stealers – bringing a huge range of strength, heart, wit and intensity to their roles. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o brings grace and compassion as Nakia, a spy who’s more comfortable away from Wakanda and wants her nation to do more for a an international community in crisis. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira brings a steely and loyal determination as General Okoye, leader of the King’s all-women personal guard known as the Dora Milaje. If the Amazons of Themyscira and the Valkyrior of Asgard left you wanting more, Wakanda’s Dora Milaje absolutely delivers.
Veteran actress Angela Bassett brings with her palpable gravitas in her role of Queen Mother Ramonda, while Letitia Wright brings life to what has got to be the most exciting breakout role in the MCU – Shuri, who despite her youth has designed many of Wakanda’s latest technological feats, including T’Challa’s own Panther suit. The sibling dynamics between her and T’Challa are a delight to have, and he thankfully never succumbs to the Paternalistic Older Brother role to his intelligent and vivacious younger sister.
The joy in watching these women own the screen in every scene they’re in is underscored by the fact that none of the roles played by black women feel stereotypical – they are some of the most holistic characters I have ever seen in a Marvel film. Through these women, Marvel’s signature and perhaps too formulaic brand of humour often comes at unexpected places, which is a joy to experience. In Black Panther, it comes at just the right doses that you’re able to relax when needed, but also feel a sense of dire urgency at high-stake conflicts and emotionally-intense moments that the characters undergo.
Some of the male characters don’t fare as well. Forest Whitaker’s mentor character Zuri never breaks out of the Wise Elder Statesman mould, while Daniel Kaluuya, despite having a stellar 2017 with Get Out, doesn’t really get to do much in his role as W’Kabi, although he remains an important part of the story.
Winston Duke truly surprised me with his brilliant portrayal of one of Black Panther’s comic book antagonists M’Baku. But unsurprisingly, it was Coogler’s frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan’s stunning performance as the villainous Killmonger, ensuring that the character’s misdirected sense of justice remains with you long after the movie has ended.
There are small flaws, of course
Despite being a hugely entertaining action-adventure, Black Panther does fall short when it comes to certain CGI elements. Perhaps we have been spoiled by the amazing technological accomplishments of Life of Pi and The Jungle Book, but the few scenes which dealt with animals was just… too distracting to ignore. The fight choreography, while still stellar, could do with better camerawork.
Admittedly, it’s a small criticism in the grand scheme of things, but what is a superhero movie if not heavily reliant on CGI and fight scenes?
That being said, one has to appreciate the effort that went into making Wakanda look absolutely believable. The wide shots of the city definitely went a long way into ensuring that Wakanda stayed an integral element of the movie, almost its own character.
The other tiny criticism is that Black Panther unfortunately opens too close to Avengers: Infinity War and we’ve seen the trailers and the cast list for the latter movie. Despite some expert storytelling, there was still a sense that our beloved characters were never in any danger – since we knew they’d be back for next instalment of the MCU.
All in all, Black Panther is a triumph
This, undoubtedly, is the movie a lot of Marvel fans should be waiting for. One that unabashedly embraces the source material, but simultaneously infuses it with a lot of real-world sensibilities. It rewards every level of engagement, from those expecting an enjoyable popcorn flick to those looking to find meaning and hope in a superhero movie with a predominantly black cast.
Black Panther is a long-awaited story that shouldn’t have made its audience wait past 17 films for. But now that it’s finally here, it signals a new step in storytelling that Marvel Studios will hopefully continue in the next 10 years. (A World of Wakanda film, anyone?)
Oh, and one last thing Black Panther does right? Making the two post-credit scenes worth staying back for. Stay in your seats, people.
Black Panther opens February 14th in Singapore