Long Live The King
My review for Avengers was an incredibly messy love-letter, praising everyone involved for creating something enjoyable and thrilling that I never thought possible (as a comic book fan). Prepare yourselves because this review is going to pretty much repeat that sentiment.
Set shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, King T’Challa returns to home, the secretive country of Wakanda – a technologically advanced thriving African nation, posing as a third world country – following the death of his father. As he takes his place as monarch, his responsibilities change from warrior to leader and when an old enemy appears in South Korea, his council present different advice for how best the king can lead his people.
To start with the most outwardly obvious factor, this is a spectacularly pretty film. The production design, costumes, sets, props, hair, make-up, they all live and breathe with an exquisite beauty unique to central African culture. And this is a feat repeated multiple times as each of the five tribes have their own look and its evident that so much thought and attention has gone into every facet of the visuals on display. Going beneath the spellbinding surface, Wakanda and the way it’s represented as a thriving (albeit secretive) nation is such a singular vision; an antithetical portrayal of how African people have been presented cinematically to date. More than merely role reversal, the film raises extremely interesting questions about isolation and national responsibilities. This isn’t some surface level fantasy, an idyllic dreamland paradise but a grounded aspirational community with its own realistic faults, flaws and contradictions. This is true world building, this is what high-fantasy writers try to create when picturing a complex society unlike anywhere on Earth but one that feels like it could be real; the great tragedy is that such a place could exist were the landscape of our shared history drastically different. Another way Wakanda and its citizens are impressively created is being called to question for their inaction. They are clearly a global geopolitical force with agents placed around the world but solely for the purpose of their own protection; when operating in South Korea, their goals are exclusive and they have little time or tolerance for the workings of other nations.
In the past I have chastised Marvel for their lack of themes and engaging musical scores. By and large they feel like safe renditions of other work, sterilised and distilled from temp tracks. Thankfully, this has been changing of late and we are starting to get a few standout pieces which come closer to matching the visual accomplishments. But Black Panther hit me in a few ways. The inclusion of so many big artists makes complete sense and sets this fantastical tale in our universe; this is an obvious move and nothing stood out in a negative way. The score itself, however, by Ludwig Göransson is blisteringly good; a memorable medley of African instruments and rhythms combined with futuristic swells and impacts that we have come to expect from big superhero/scifi blockbusters. On a more depressing note, as the drums beat away and the vocals slowly rose above them, I immediately thought “Huh, reminds me of The Lion King.” In of itself a harmless statement but the fact that I can’t think of a mainstream release of extreme notoriety with an African setting that doesn’t portray the people and setting in question as a desolate warzone was crushing. And that film is filled with cartoon fucking animals!
Much like the setting, it would have been so easy to create a cadre of idealised individuals, void of failings and ultimately personality. Instead, we have an array of fascinating characters with their own motivations and visions for how their nation should be presented to the world and at the centre of them all is T’Challa, trying to establish a harmonic equilibrium. On the one hand you have T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri [Letitia Wright] who wants to bring Wakanda further into the future with her technological plans and advancements. Equally, Nakia [Nyong’o] feels Wakanda should advance by stepping into the light and helping the world as a course of national moralistic responsibility. On the other end of the spectrum we have W’Kabi [Daniel Kaluuya] the leader of the tribe who have protected the border and feel Wakanda’s place is at the top of the food chain, leading the world – by force if necessary. I would argue that Killmonger factors into that too but I’m going to talk about him in great detail later. The moderates of the cast are General Okoye [Gurira], leader of the fearsome Dora Milaje, loyal to the throne of Wakanda, only wanting the best for her people, M’Baku [Winston Duke] leader of the isolationist mountain tribe, the Jabari and the deliciously reprehensible Klaue [Andy Serkis], a South African arms dealer who is only interested in profit and exposing Wakanda for the lie they globally project. In truth, I could list every single character and tell you why I love them, nothing is too small from the secretive world of global espionage to the smart and powerful female roles, this is such a bold feature in terms of characterisation of black people. And at the centre of all that is Boseman, carrying the weight of this entire character and franchise on his shoulders (as all Marvel leads do). Interestingly though, Black Panther is not a superhero as such. Nor is he a space cowboy, deity or wizard surgeon. He is a warrior leader of his people, balancing when to act and when to negotiate. He is as much politician as he is fighter, as much statesman as spy and Boseman carries over this diverse magnanimity from Civil War with ease.
Let me put this as simply as I can: there is next to nothing to criticise in this film. I appreciate that may sound like a copout but it’s genuinely hard to fault. One could argue that you need to watch a backlog of Marvel films to appreciate the nuances of the story but in truth, you really don’t. One could say that the CGI is a little questionable in places but what major blockbuster doesn’t suffer a few ropey shots? You could also say that the editing in the fight scenes left a little to be desired, making the action a touch hard to follow but none of these things detracted from the overall for more than a couple of minutes. The greatest negative I walked away with was the sensation of feeling robbed. That because of how films and society have supressed cultural and creative decisions we could have had decades of films of this calibre.
In summary, Black Panther undeniably stands above other Marvel features and ascends its superhero trappings to tell a pertinent story about justice, history, heritage, race, politics, pride, power and unity. Frankly, it’s a triumph.
16th February 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
Black Panther genuinely is a feast of standout scenes that musing on a particularly impressive moment starts a rabbit-hole spiralling of compounding scenes, evoking memories of childlike wonder with phrases like “and this happened, oh and obviously this bit.” One moment that stood out for me was Shuri and T’Challa discussing the new tech. We’re pretty used to seeing some wizened mentor like Q or Lucius Fox outfitting our hero with the latest tech but it’s rare that it actually reflects our reality by presenting an eager, talented and excitable young woman who is passionate about her advancements and in Shuri we get that by the bucket-load.
Michael B Jordan’s role as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is quite easily Marvel’s greatest villain; complicated, deep and absolute in his belief that he is right. But more than that, the message he brings about Wakanda’s refusal to help over two billion fellow black people the world over is an incredibly powerful one. If this film were shown from a different perspective, it would be quite easy to portray Stevens as a hero. Jordan’s presence and physicality is amazing and the power and venom behind his words are brutal. Case in point, when we first see him in the role, he is observing African artefacts held in a British museum. When he challenges the curator as to the origin of a particular piece, he is met with hostility and an assumption of ignorance. A derision which is heightened when the museum official explains the items are not for sale, to which Stevens counters “How do you think your ancestors got these? They took them” A fantastic and poignant portrayal and a truly interesting, ruthless character.
“You’re a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king”
In A Few Words:
“I have seen the future and it is glorious”