It’s a challenge developing yet another MCU blockbuster. Thankfully, Black Panther offers us a refreshing take on the superhero trope. The new king of a hidden superpower must plot his nation’s course and grapple with a dark legacy. This refreshing logline (in the context of the MCU) provides a suitable foundation for the development of the Wakandan family drama.
The temptation for creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to rely on the safe play – a joke-a-thon spectacle. Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole forego the tight-aggressive approach and instead try to raise a host of real issues, including tribalism vs unity and tradition vs conscience. The themes of colonial history and responsibility of a state are also touched on (without being too substantially dealt with). It doesn’t feel too heavy, and the payoff is substantial. The stakes in the movie do feel fairly weighty. At the end, T’Challa finally decides that with great power must come great responsibility, as he charts a new course for his country. The exploration of the aforementioned themes adds depth and texture to the film, giving a fatigued audience some new food for thought.
The inciting incidents at the start include the christening of the new monarch and the heist at the British Museum. One grouse I had was with the Killmonger-Klaw sub-plot at the start. Erik already has his father’s ring, which is his passport to legitimacy in challenging for the throne. It is also understandable that he needs Klaw’s head to persuade W’Kabi to support him. But then, it’s unclear why Erik assists Klaw in pilfering the vibranium exhibit, breaks him out of CIA/Wakandan custody and then slays him. In other words, why not shoot him at the start and take him straight to Wakanda?
Having said that, kudos to the post-production team for the overall pacing and plot, which are generally appropriate. We have a relatively short first act, which then plunges into a mega second act. There are not merely one but a number of confrontations. There’s T’Challa’s internal conflict, the unravelling of the Oakland incident and of course, the conflict between the incumbent and the foreign upstart. The first post-credit scene also provides a suitable denouement to the proceedings.
The Wakandan settings are dazzling. We have Birnin Zana (the Golden City), Warrior Falls and Jabari Land, to name a few. The Golden City is a colorful megapolis, part Singapore and part Cape Town – a vision of an African capital that never fell into colonial hands. The sets are intricately and beautifully designed. I particularly enjoyed the haunting, primeval frozen Jabari caverns. I also love how the magnificent giant statues of Panthers and Gorillas loom from above like regal gargoyles. The Wakandan underground is another exceptionally crafted scene, as mag-lev trains gracefully snake through the stunning, intricate tunnel system. The dream scenes are sprawling and spectacular, as we are offered a glimpse of the Wakandan afterlife, heartbreakingly-beautiful twilight sky and all.
The costumes burst with color and creativity, particularly in the coronation scenes at Warrior Falls as well as the Birnin Zana street scenes. Each of the four tribes’ garments are painstakingly designed, and it all comes together as a colorful visual spectacle. The tech, armor and weapons are also cleverly designed, and I particularly loved the armored battle rhinos harnessed by W’Kabi and gang. Visually, there’s a dollop of tradition mixed in with all the tech, and the final cocktail is quite remarkable.
Boseman’s nuanced take on T’Challa is commendable. The heir to the throne is vulnerable and introspective, giving us a unique and welcome character in the MCU. The protagonist’s character development is also discernible and well-played. The struggle with tradition and heritage is notable, as the character’s conscience is weighed upon on more than one occasion.
Michael B Jordan, Ryan Coogler’s long-time collaborator, gives us a worthy opponent to the new Wakandan monarch. The unfortunately named Erik Killmonger is a tragic character – a brutal, blunt instrument forged from a difficult past. This is Simba on crack – orphaned, abandoned, and struggling to find his identity (and without the tutelage and companionship of a warthog and meerkat). The effort taken into building the antagonist’s backstory warrants praise, and there is certainly some empathy for this forgotten cousin. Erik’s challenge is not only an important plot point in the film, but also representative of the class struggle between royalty and the huddled masses. At the final duel, there is pathos aplenty. T’Challa’s empathy for his nemesis is palpable, and there’s a touching aerial sunset scene as Erik takes his final bow.
The female characters threaten to steal the stage. Danai Gurira’s Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Letitia Wright’s Shuri hold proactive and integral roles in the film, and it is notable that they are discernibly more vocal, forthcoming and assertive than any of the other male characters, including T’Challa himself. Commendably, Wakandan society appears to be very much feminist.
The score and soundtrack are fluid and seamless. Kendrick Lamar’s curation is spot-on and catchy, while Ludwig Gorranson’s score is quirky and excellent. In particular, T’Challa’s signature talking drum solo threatens to become an iconic theme.
Kudos to Ryan Coogler and co. for designing a compelling sub-universe, that has firmly carved out its own place within the MCU. It is very much clear that in this jungle, the Panther is sovereign. The King is dead. Long live the King.
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