Film Review: Black Panther

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Always Bet on Black

All superhero movies are about identity and the intersection between who you are and what you do, but with the recent exception of DC’s lone star in the critically acclaimed firmament, Wonder Woman, there’s seldom been a release as informed by the politics of self as Marvel’s Black Panther.

Ryan Coogler’s film, in keeping with the rest of the Marvel series, is not doing anything new per se – this is just a race-flipped appropriation of movies about succession anxiety in fantasy kingdoms, with a judicious drop of monarchical mayhem and even a little James Bond, which given the film’s stance on colonialism is a neat joke at that other long-running series’ expense. Blaxploitation’s been here before, changing the power dynamic within stories, proudly asserting BAME culture. But here it is, not as a sub-genre or cult offering, but a fully-fledged monster-budgeted blockbuster, albeit one in a series that’s played it safe for 17 pictures. Given the box office tracking, one senses they’ll never feel obliged to do so again.

Can one review Black Panther sans the identity politics? It’s tough because the story has no interest in being colour blind – it’s unapologetically a movie about the colonial legacy in America and around the world, about how white imperialism had subjugated and impoverished Black people both in poor countries and the poorest parts of its own.

It could have been a simple, generic superhero movie about the xenophobic race of Wakandans under threat from Andy Serkis’s evil South African – a man hoping to exploit their precious alien metal resource for profit. Instead, this is a sub-plot to set up the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart, namely whether Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the titular King, should open up his kingdom’s advanced technology (and curiously traditional) society to the world, with attendant risks like cultural contamination and involvement in international affairs (including wars). Or should they remain hidden while the ancestors of slaves suffer gross social injustice? This is something like substance in a Marvel series that’s usually jovial and inconsequential, and these themes, explicitly discussed, though with enough finesse to avoid arresting the plot with didacticism, lend the film much weight.

Coogler’s movie isn’t quite the break with formula some would have you believe. The novelty of an exotic location and the blessing of personality aside, this still has some familiar origin story beats – a primary antagonist that mirrors the hero but lacks his values, the development of a love interest between the Panther and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, the requisite setpiece fights and vehicular mayhem, and of course the tech. But the emphasis on identity politics and the social critique of White America, gives Coogler a little space to fashion something distinctive – a different flavour of Marvel movie if you will, with a great new taste, even if the ingredients are well known.

Black Panther may not be the most personable, or even the most interesting of Marvel’s heroes, but his debut solo movie is distinctive and as hard hitting as a film formulated for teenagers can be.

Given the importance now affixed to representation in mainstream cinema, and its prominence in debate, it’s likely the film’s formulaic elements will be forgotten. Coogler’s movie puts a black actor and supporting cast centre stage in one of the industry’s most lucrative franchises, and that’s a win for both the studio and audiences alike.

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Country: US

Year: 2018

Running Time: 134 mins

Certificate: 12A for Martin Freeman, leasing out the digital removal of Andy Serkis's arm to the wrong FX house, and too many characters with drooping left eyes.

One Response

  1. FranksHeadjustwentWOWZA says:

    “how white imperialism had subjugated and impoverished Black people both in poor countries and the poorest parts of its own.”
    Lol, right. You do realize crap was happening before that as well right? I mean Black people sold off black people to the slave trade, whites were also slaves. Even now Blacks in Africa aren’t doing well even though they could be. Their politics are filled with dictators and immensely corrupt politicians. The US fairs better (barely) in the corruption but at least everyone gets a shot over her. Whites were kept as slaves by black people.

    Many blacks do well in America, and like Justice Clarence Thomas said, the fact people are doing badly is because they are stuck in a senes of self-victimhood. They blame their prolbems on others instead of trying to work hard and move forward.

    Not to mention T’Chalia is a horrible super hero think about it, he’s a frickin dictator. He purposefully destroys Wakanda’s supply of Virbranium thereby destroying the economy and making the people reliant on him. He chooses the religion and the laws are his prefrence, and what he says goes. He lets no one leave and no one enter, won’t let his people mix with others, etc.

    Some super hero, he’s a racist isolationist dictator.