Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Panther leaps onto screens with style and depth

Marvel’s growth as a cinema brand was always set to continue this year, with Avengers Infinity War due out in the spring, Deadpool 2 shortly after that and Ant-Man and the Wasp in mid summer, but for a whole bag of reasons, Black Panther is arguably the biggest release of them all.

Sitting in a packed cinema on opening day, with one of the most mixed audiences imaginable, it was impossible to miss the expectation, just as it’s impossible not to be aware of the film’s cultural importance.

The eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s based on the superhero comics series that was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

The film gives us a basic backstory about the creation of a fictional east African nation made up of five tribes that are united as Wakanda under the first Black Panther. Once established, Wakanda develops extraordinarily advanced technology, that – among other things – enables it to hide itself from the rest of the world by appearing to be a poor Third World country.

Fast forward to Oakland, California, in 1992, where a Wakandan prince has become convinced that isolationism is wrong and that the country should share its technology with people of African descent around the world to help them defeat their oppressors.

Fast forward once more to the present, just after King T’Chaka’s death and the accession of his son, T’Challa, to the throne. But before hes got time to properly get his feet under the royal table, faces from the past reappear, determined to exploit the change of monarch for their own ends.

This is a cracking Marvel romp, but with enough of a philosophical edge around the issue of isolationism – and the legacies of colonialism that the film also makes clear, open references to – to illustrate (were it needed) that comics and the films based on them don’t have to be vapid.

Scripted by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by the former, the film also benefits from excellent production design by Hannah Beachler, who creates a visually convincing Wakanda that melds the advanced technology with a vivid sense of actual African cultures.

The cast too is uniformally excellent – starting with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (channeling Mandela a tad, but why not?). This is a character who’s dignified, brave and morally intelligent – and fortunately Boseman ensures that hes sexy and complex too, avoiding that oh-so-serious quality some Marvel superheroes have.

Michael B Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is another who adds a pleasing level of complexity to his role, while Lupita Nyong’o as undercover Wakandan spy Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister and the nation’s tech genius, Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the country’s all-female special forces and royal bodyguard the Dora Milaje, Florence Kasumba as Dora Milaje member Ayo and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, give the audience more really strong impressive female characters in one film than anyone would usually expect.

And not to forget Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder statesman Zuri, Andy Serkis – appearing almost without CGI! – as South African black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster Ulysses Klaus, Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K Ross and South African acting legend John Kani as T’Chaka and there’s not much chance things are going to slip in the acting department.

The action sequences are as good as you’d expect; the whole thing looks superb and some of the mythical/ancestral plane sequences are really beautiful. Indeed, the sense of the mythological in the film is part of why its so successful: it has a feeling of a story that really does go back into the mists of time.

Irrespective of the expectation, Black Panther is a top-notch entry into the Marvel film universe.

Of that expectation – no film is going to spark a revolution, but it has gone way beyond simply avoiding being ‘not disappointing’. It offers black audiences – actually, all audiences – a whole raft of positive black characters and a positive black/African world.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what might be inspired by that.

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