Black Panther is a sprawling, often beautiful, globe-hopping, worldbuilding comic book movie that forges a real sense of place, and more importantly, of culture. It’s being hailed as one of the finest of all time in the genre; yes, it’s very good, but that’s a claim that might be overstating its virtues a touch though.
Its cultural significance can’t be understated, however. With a wonderfully diverse cast and the incredible Afrofuturistic setting of Wakanda, with its traditions and heritage brought so convincingly to the screen by co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, Black Panther feels significantly different than not just any Marvel Cinematic Universe entry prior, but also to most every other blockbuster. The fictional nation of Wakanda is a place oozing with colour, African tradition and futuristic technology combining to create a place that’s begging to be explored (in spite of some occasionally janky CGI). And it’s in the exploration of the country’s religious factions, its ritual battles for the succession of the throne and its links to the (visually stunning) afterlife that the film is at its awe-inspiring best. The politicking and Star Wars prequel-style council meetings of the nation that come to the fore in the midsection, however, are not so thrilling.
It’s surprisingly light on action in general, the aforementioned middle act, in particular, bringing a noticeable dry spell. What we do get – essentially two large-scale sequences bookending the movie – is at least excellent. The first, a South Korean salvo to recover a stolen artefact from arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, who’s a treat here), led by the Black Panther, Wakanda’s newly crowned king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). It’s this which is the finer of the two, Serkis’s unhinged villain leading T’Challa on a wild goose chase through the streets of Busan. This is where we get to see Black Panther’s impressive action skillset in full as he breathlessly pounces from car to car, supported by the equally imposing Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the straight-up badass Okoye (Danai Gurira). It’s the events which unfurl from there that pave the way for Michael B. Jordan’s man on a mission, Killmonger, and ultimately lead towards a final showdown between him and T’Challa in the second of the big setpieces. It’s great stuff, there’s just not enough of it.
Rather the focus is on the characters and the world which they inhabit. And whilst a greater parity between this approach and the full-blooded hostilities wouldn’t have gone amiss, at least the characters we spend so much time with are wholly likeable. Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue is a blast. Winston Duke brings a physical presence and unexpected depth to the role of tribe leader M’Baku. Letitia Wright’s Shuri, sister of T’Challa is heartwarmingly delightful. Jordan’s Killmonger steals the show in a meaningful villain role stacked with impact. And while Chadwick Boseman does a decent job with the emotional legwork, Black Panther himself is somewhat overshadowed by his supporting cast. What I can’t quite decide is if that says more of Boseman’s performance or of the exceptional quality of the cast and characters that surround him.
As an origin story for T’Challa, Black Panther is solid. As an introduction to the nation of Wakanda and a brand new, fresh branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s even better. And as a small yet significant step towards bringing diversity in representation to Hollywood, it’s vital. But is it the best comic book movie ever? Sadly not.
Rating (out of 5):