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Film review: Marvel's Black Panther

Film & TV

Marvel steps out of its comfort zone with sensational results, creating an Afrocentric superhero film with political heft, writes reviewer Rachael Mead.

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In the same way that DC’s Wonder Woman proved incredibly empowering for female audiences around the globe, Black Panther’s ensemble cast of powerful black characters whose homeland is an independent and uncolonised African nation is a landmark film that audiences of colour have been waiting for a long time.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed), Black Panther takes a radical step away from the traditional formula of white male hero defending America. We barely see America after the first few minutes. Instead, the film is set in the fictional nation of Wakanda, first introduced to Marvel audiences along with the Black Panther character in Captain America: Civil War.

Continuing the Marvel tradition of sensational world building, Coogler creates a nation that captures what Africa might have been if it was not overthrown and stripped of its resources by European colonisers. Hidden from the rest of the world, Wakanda is an African utopia, home to the world’s most technologically advanced city and protected by a king endowed with special powers.

Wakanda’s wealth and technological advancement derive from its monopoly on the (also fictional) metal vibranium, which the rest of the world covets.

Despite Wakanda’s technological and social advances, it’s still a monarchy, and with the assassination of his father, the incredibly serious Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king.

The coronation ceremony gathers together most of the major characters: T’Challa’s mother, the regal Ramonda (Angela Bassett); younger sister and scene-stealer Shuri (Letitia Wright), a sassy genius who seems to be the Wakandan answer to Tony Stark; W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), head of security for the border tribe; priest and mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker); and the Dora Milaje, the royal guard comprised solely of female warriors, led by the impressive General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and Wakandan operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

While King T’Challa is the latest Wakandan leader to take on the mantle of Black Panther in his black vibranium onesie, he is more warrior with great gadgets than a superhero with other-worldly powers. In fact, the movie paints him more as a conflicted leader, tussling with the decision of whether to keep Wakanda hidden or use the nation’s incredible resources to help the rest of the world.

Black Panther is visually stunning, drawing artistic inspiration from every part of the African continent. But perhaps what is most impressive about the film is the villain and the political dilemma catalysed by his claim to the throne.

MIT-educated, former black-ops soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) is motivated by deep feelings of political injustice and is convinced that Wakanda’s stockpile of vibranium weaponry could arm the oppressed around the world and stimulate a global black uprising. It’s a superhero take on the debate between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Which is more effective – non-violent resistance or the call for militant black action? Which brings me back to the claim that this is a Marvel film with more political heft than any that have preceded it.

An Afro-centric superhero film has been a long time coming, and it’s worth the ticket price just to see this landmark event in mainstream action cinema. Even if you are not a superhero fan, the gorgeous art and design are more than enough to keep an audience riveted.

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