‘Black Panther’ Review: Magnificent and Super Worthy of a Watch
Since the inception of superhero movies, we have been made to feel safe in the hands of white men. But things changed last year when a woman emerged with her lasso and superpowers to lead a band of boys. It showed the world what it has been missing. Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th offering does something strikingly similar, blowing the already shaken status quo into smithereens. After a woman who offered us ample wonder to ponder, now we have a superhero who is black – a colour that coats an entire film with spirit and freshness.
That said, Black Panther also comes with its set of preordained limitations. It’s a product from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it has to follow the usual action beats of a superhero exploit. But what makes Black Panther an anomaly, and a splendid one at that, is how it stitches an astounding myth out of the same Marvel cloth.
And the idea of myth is everywhere. The film conceives Wakanda, a nation in the continent of Africa where technological marvel co-exist with abundant nature.
It sweeps the entire narrative with characters of African descent, making you aware of how beautiful, how stunning the idea of black is. The costumes (Ruth E. Carter) mine African folklore to make futuristic designs, and the music transports you to a place where you wear your colour black with pride and pleasure.
This myth-building has a lot to do with the man at the helm of the film. Director Ryan Coogler (who broke out with Fruitvale Station in 2013, and reenergised Rocky franchise with black intensity in Creed two years later) is up to a very different game here. This origin story begins with a fabulously animated fable in the jungles of Africa, a far cry from the American cityscapes where most of the alien superheroes or strangely afflicted dudes begin their journey to superstardom. Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa/ Black Panther, who is returning to his homeland Wakanda after the death of his father (an event illustrated in Captain America: Civil War) to become the king.
Wakanda is truly a thing of wonder, for this is a nation that uses a poor, underdeveloped country as a mask, to let their hypermodern world hide from the plain sight of the planet. Because like Unobtanium of Pandora, Wakanda has Vibranium, a rare mineral that holds the key of their glorious achievements, and mythical powers. Comic book nerds know this is the same metal that powers Captain America’s shield.
T'Challa’s story has less superhero mumble, and more Shakespearean conundrum (make it The Lion King if literature bores you) by making brothers fight over thrones, and blood flowing out of family tensions. The story goes to Korea for a little time to show off an action set-piece, and let Andy Serkis have a gleeful time, but Coogler whips the story back into the fabled lane. He is clearly in no mood to let a white guy hijack the story, and brings the antagonist Erik Killmonger to the fore quickly. Killmonger has a link to T'Challa’s past, and he is here to haunt Wakanda.
Michael B Jordan, Coogler’s muse plays Killmonger with muscled heft, and he gives his character real trauma and thirst. He exudes such virile magnetism that for a little while you contemplate whether he should have played the titular superhero. Coogler here pitches Boseman’s Martin Luther King Jr to Jordan’s Malcolm X, letting the former’s pacific ideas burn slowly to finally win the race.
The script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole is clearly aware of the importance of this film’s ascent in popular culture, and they do their every bit to give it cogency and agency. T’Challa’s world is populated by multiple female powers, and they add tremendous veracity to the events. Angela Bassett’s plays T’Challa’s regal mother Ramonda, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) befits his Q, gifting him tech inventions and rip-roaring quips, and his love Nakia (the beauteous Lupita N’yongo) is more interested in becoming a secret agent than a domesticated queen. But the superlatives should be reserved for Danai Gurira who plays Okoye, member of a special cluster of female fighters known as the Dora Milaje. Two of the film’s magnificent moments stem from Okoye’s spear-wielding ferocity – in one, she throws off her wig to swirl down a staircase in flaming red for combat, in another, she compels submission from her adversary like an icon.
Rachel Morrison (who became the first woman cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar this year) shoots action with a clean eye for nifty hand to hand contests since the film refrains from annihilating buildings. Her lithe camera movements slowly show you the vibrancy of the ‘shithole’ countries, and how diversity and representation can only enrich our universe.
Film history has come a long way from Blaxploitation films. Coogler impregnates this blockbuster entity with persuasive political thoughts, giving the villain anarchic ideas, asking us to re-imagine our world without colonised observances – all in the pretext of serving an escapist action-adventure. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might have created Black Panther after reading colonial exotic tales, but this film leaps out of the screen as if it has been schooled by the enlightened minds of Dambudzo Marechera and Chinua Achebe.
It reclaims the superhero space as the rightful legatee. It’s proud of the colourful ancient, but it refuses to stay content in the present, rather it claws its ways into the future, with agility and authority.
If a woman or a black person can be superheroes, why not your child? Ask this question, wherever in the world you are.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)