When I saw Avengers: Infinity War earlier this month I’d seen all but one of the films in the Marvel franchise. The only missing part was the biggest hit Marvel had seen up until Infinity War was released. It wasn’t as if I’d intended to skip Black Panther. I mean I was super excited about it before it came out. Hell, as soon as T’Challa turned up in Civil War was couldn’t wait to see how the MCU dealt with introducing us to Wakanda. It was a big moment for so many people and for so many reason. But, thanks to an annoyingly hectic schedule, I missed out and I had to make the choice to see Infinity War without it. Aside from a few characters I’d obviously never seen before, I don’t think I lost anything by not seeing it. It’s probably the only Marvel film that it’s kind of okay to not have seen pre-Infinity War. That said, it’s not something you should skip entirely. I had the chance to finally see it this weekend and, honestly, it left me feeling amazing. All the time I was watching it, I had that feeling that I was experiencing something special and important. As if history was taking place right in front of my eyes. I realise that sounds not only melodramatic but also fucking pretentious but you can’t escape the feeling that something changed with this film. It was a whole new Marvel experience and a whole new approach to super films. It’s only the second time I can remember leaving a comic book movie feeling so inspired and empowered. This experience is up there with Wonder Woman in its importance to both me and the film industry as a whole.
And to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Remember how Kenneth Branagh’s Thor had the task of introducing the idea of other realms and Gods to the MCU? It was a tricky business and one that didn’t necessarily work out as planned. Guardians of the Galaxy went on to show us that there is plenty of life going on beyond the stars and opened up the Marvel universe even further. Then, most recently, Doctor Strange added magic and parallel universes and dimensions to the whole thing. We’ve certainly come an awfully long way since 2008’s Iron Man. In Black Panther we are one again seeing something new. The film opens by giving us a little of Wakanda’s history. The civilisation came to be when a meteorite containing the mysterious metal, vibranium, crashed to Earth. A group of African tribes came together to protect it from the outside world and started their own community. Using vibranium’s strange powers they become technologically advanced and self-sufficient. Posing as another Third World country, the Wakandas are left alone by the rest of the world and that’s exactly how they like it.
But there is a lot more to Wakanda than meets the eye. Black Panther takes place during the aftermath of Civil War where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), still grieving from the loss of his father, steps up to take the throne. After first defending his claim from a rival tribe leader M’Baku (Winston Duke), the new King must protect his home from notorious arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the vengeful cousin he never knew he had, (Michael B. Jordan). This cousin, Erik, challenges the T’Challa having spent years in America growing angry that the people from his homeland refuse to help those suffering in the rest of the world. Turns out Erik, also known as Killmonger, is quite the opponent and manages to overthrow T’Challa quite easily. Can the Black Panther prevent his cousin from releasing advanced Wakandan weaponry to the rest of the world in order to start a civil war?
Black Panther has the basic trademarks of every other Marvel film but there is something very different about it. It feels like a much more mature release from Marvel. It is certainly the most politically and socially minded film in the franchise. It feels new and important. It speaks to the current social climate and raises important questions about the divide between Western and African cultures. It is a film not afraid to point out that economically advanced countries could and should be doing more to help those with less. It gleefully flips everything on its head to show us an African country that is the most advanced in the entire world and which manages to seamlessly blend futuristic tech with African tradition. It’s a visually and politically exciting film and is one of those rare comic book movies that really transcends its genre.
It is also presents us with a mostly minority cast of characters who feel developed, real and complex. It is a thing mostly unheard of in Hollywood and it’s really exciting. Not only for me personally but knowing that there is a whole new section of society seeing themselves represented in this kind of film. When I watched Wonder Woman last year, I genuinely got tears in my eyes seeing so many strong women on-screen in the opening scenes. It was the first time I’d seen my own gender presented that way in this kind of film. I imagine there were plenty of people who felt something similar when first watching this film.
Although, considering the amount of badass women on show here I started to feel a bit of deja vu. Wakanda is the home to the Dora Milaje, a group of female soldiers who act as the country’s special forces. Their leader is the absolute amazing Okoye (Danai Gurira); a character so fucking badass that I spent every single scene she was in whispering “love her” to myself. Then there’s T’Challa’s little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) the one-liner spouting, inventor who creates every weapon and Black Panther suit that her brother could dream of. She’s everything and steals each scene she’s in. Even T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o ) is an absolute hero. We first see her acting as a Wakandan spy and helping a bunch of women escape the clutches of an evil militant group. This film has so many empowering moments for so many different aspects of society that it almost doesn’t matter how good it is as a superhero film.
Thankfully though, it manages to do that side of it very well indeed. It has some of the traditional Marvel let downs, obviously, but is a solid action film that introduces us to Marvel’s newest hero perfectly. As much as I loved Michael B. Jordan’s role as the evil Killmonger I do think he deserved more development to really let his motivations sink in. Everything is a little glossed over in order to get to the fighting but he’s still one of the best villains we’ve seen in the MCU. If I hadn’t seen this post-Infinity War I’d probably think he was the greatest. Thanos really has ruined us. Although, I do think that Killmonger and T’Challa have the best on-screen dynamic of any hero and villain that we’ve seen so far. They are both two sides of the same coin and it’s interesting to see their stories play out alongside each other. Boseman maintains his mature and statesman-like approach whilst Jordan has the youthful swagger of a revolutionary. It’s fantastic to watch them together.
I have to say that Black Panther quickly inserted itself in my MCU top 5. I knew I was going to enjoy this film but I wasn’t prepared for how much it affected me. I was moved by everything I saw on-screen. The visuals are stunning and the costumes are breathtaking. It’s a film that manages to mix together traditional African culture with this futuristic vision in such a realistic and mesmerising way. It fuses comic book action with social commentary without really alienating anyone. I mean I’m sure it did alienate some people but they aren’t the kind of people we need to worry about. Black Panther gives us action and battle scenes on a huge scale without ever losing the intimacy that is at its very core. This is a Marvel film that is very localised and personal. It never really leaves Wakanda behind and, when it does, it remembers to stay as close as possible. It’s a very different Marvel film and it’s easy to see why it became such a hit. I’m just sorry it took me so long to finally see it.