★★★★ – THE DOMINION POST
- True story. About 650 years ago the West African nation of Mali was one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries on Earth. Mali more or less controlled the supply of gold and salt to half the known world. While my ancestors in England were squabbling with the Scots and the French, Mali could have bought and sold those three countries many times over. Mali was home to great libraries and seats of learning. Her emperors launched fleets of a thousand ships or more to explore the planet.
But here we are, only 30 or 40 generations later, a blink of the eye in human terms, and Mali is not on anyone’s list of countries we think of, when we think of global superpowers. And maybe it was Mali that Black Panther creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were thinking of when they came up with the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
In the comics, Wakanda is a country built around a gigantic meteorite of vibranium, and is the only source in the world of that metal. Vibranium is malleable, impervious to pretty much everything and when combined with Wakandan science, an inexhaustible source of energy. To stop the world from invading and corrupting their nation, generations of Wakandan kings have kept the country’s true wealth a secret, while developing ever more fabulous technologies from their precious resource. Every King of Wakanda is dubbed Black Panther, and tasked with protecting Wakanda and her people from come what may.
As superhero origin stories go, it’s a doozy. And in the bitterly divided USA of 1966, Black Panther must have caused a sensation.
Fast-forward 52 years and T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, after turning up in a few Marvel cameos, has finally been granted his own franchise. And it promises to be a good’un.
As written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) this Black Panther is a superhero ready to slot in seamlessly beside Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow and co. He is urbane, sophisticated, has exactly the requisite amount of angst and heartbreak in his past, and access to an armoury full of gadgets and gimmicks that would make even Tony Stark feel a little under-resourced and inadequate.
Black Panther is the leader of the most technologically advanced nation in the world, and this film never lets you forget it.
In the lead, Chadwick Boseman as the Panther/T’Challa is superb, even as the essential decency and niceness of his character threatens to suck the air out of the film. Around Boseman, the wahine-toa trio of Letitia Wright (Black Mirror), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) make the film their own in every scene they get.
Black Panther comes to life with a real brio and glee whenever these three are on stage, which is gratifyingly often. Coogler regular Michael B Jordan likewise takes the film away from Boseman at times, only to hand it back via a couple of plot twists that seem more about franchise convenience than anything too thematically pleasing. I’m sure I wasn’t only person in the audience hoping to see more of Jordan’s character in films to come.
There is a lot to like about Black Panther. It kicks arse often enough to please any Marvel fan, it wears its politics lightly but explicitly enough for anyone with the ears to hear it (a late speech from Boseman’s T’Challa uses the line “in troubled times, good people build bridges not...barriers”) and the plot turns and twists enough to keep our attention engaged.
This apparently endless series of Marvel movies continues to set some sort of benchmark for how the ridiculous idea of people in lycra saving the world can still be, against all the odds, entertaining, relevant and, somehow, worth looking forward to.