To say that Black Panther is a movie of the moment is one of the most significant understatements of the decade. Aside from the character’s solo feature debut representing the culmination of nearly thirty years of various attempts to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book creation to the silver screen; the film also carries the weight of being the first mainstream example of Afrofuturism. Embodied in art, music, literature, and cinema: The movement employs a science fiction lens to cast light on issues about black culture and history such as African diaspora and alienation.
With all that said, Black Panther is a brutal, stirring and nourishing film that provokes fascinating questions about equality and isolationism. Taking place immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War: Marvel Studios’ eighteenth film is about the heir apparent T’Challa (Chadwick Bosman) returning to his home of Wakanda to take up the mantle of the Black Panther. Once crowned, the picture depicts the challenges T’Challa faces as a ruler of a technologically advanced nation that exists as a faint whisper to the rest of the world.
Aesthetically, the film is a melange of varied sources. The sweeping wide angle shots of Wakanda’s radiant and natural beauty, which come in the form of its waterfalls and green mountainous terrain feel like they have been inspired by the majesty of the Planet Earth documentary series. Elsewhere, the streets of the fictional nation feel like they owe a debt to District 9 insofar as visually portraying a place that has kept its cultural identity in the midst of technological innovation.
Even some of the imagery from the film seems as though it has been claimed back in a sense. In particular, the blue and purple engulfed vistas of the ancestral plane seem like a direct response to James Cameron’s Avatar in which the fluorescent nighttime sequences went a long way in portraying an analogue for a natural and spiritual planet that was on the brink of colonisation.
Less impressive are some of the clumsy camera moves that director Ryan Coogler employs to make some quite simply inane points. A particularly egregious instance is when Erik Killmonger (Micheal B. Jordan) is approaching his newly won throne, and the camera slowly pans from its established 180 degrees angle until it we can see the new leader taking up the frame in a right side up shot. As an illustration of the kingdom becoming topsy-turvy, it’s not so much an elegant directorial fingerprint as much as an awkward smudge.
Jordan’s electrifying screen presence and casual manner combine to create a central antagonist whose point of view injects the film with its real Afrofuturist thematic weight. African diaspora refers to the spread of the people from their native homeland to many places around the world. One of the prevalent questions that the issue raises is about identity within these new countries where Africans have forged their new lives.
In the context of Black Panther, Killmonger believes that people outside of Wakanda should have the same luxury of absolute supremacy over their environment and external threats. To this end, he resolves to take weapons from the nation and hand it to crime bosses to wage war against the system to continue his father’s goal of African descent.
Aside from reframing the struggle between Killmonger and T’Challa as an alternative spin on the haves and have-nots for their respective people: the plan does neatly expound upon the central conflict of the movie, which is whether or not Wakanda should intervene with the plight of people within the world at large. Or remain an independent nation that upholds its customs and scientific advancement for the betterment of its citizens.
From Lupita Nyong’o’s assured performance to the comically manic intensity of Andy Serkis, Black Panther’s ensemble cast is a treasure trove of upcoming and veteran talent that lend the proceedings with a light touch. However, Chadwick Bosman’s compelling central performance gives the film a real potency. Balancing the understandably doubtful characteristics of a newly appointed leader and the firm physicality of his superhero identity; Bosman’s portrait of the title character is a rich tapestry of surprising elements that combine together to create the most human character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Captain America.
In spite of all this, the film does fall victim to the problems that plague contemporary cinema. Despite the film’s contrasting action sequences that vary between an ultra-futuristic James Bond car chase and tense one on one primal fights with immediate stakes: The film’s third act battle never feels particularly exciting or engaging. This is primarily because of the extensive use of CGI and some of the immediate character changes.
And perhaps more than any film before it, Black Panther demonstrates the harmful side of Marvel Studios’ post-credit sequences. The film’s ending scene is commendably efficient insofar as it gracefully wraps a bow on its thematic exploration and symmetrically aligns with the pre-title sequence. However, the mid-credit sequence seems far too important to be relegated to after the movie, and it becomes so bothersome that it should have been excised from the film entirely. Or at least be one of the opening scenes of the sequel.
Black Panther was one of those few movie experiences in which I felt a tinge of surrealism in witnessing and contemplating that a major studio produced a film like this. Like the outliers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film is made with firm confidence. But unlike many of those pictures, it dares to consider the world and its many morphing contradictions.