If ever there was a film that was going to be as bullet-proof as the Black Panther’s suit then it was this one. The time is as right as it ever could be for releasing the first superhero film with an African-American lead (except that it’s not really the first) and it seems to be by general consensus – even before the film’s release – that if you don’t hail Black Panther as a seminal, groundbreaking five-star masterpiece then you’ll be able to hear the screams of “RACIST! “in darkest Africa.
Still, here goes.
I loved the first appearance of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. I thought that everything about the character looked great and I was really looking forward to his first solo outing.
Following a 1992 prologue the present-day action starts off one week after the events of Civil War before then tracking T’Challa to his Wakanda homeland, where he is to be crowned king after the death of his father.
The outside world believes that Wakanda is a third world nation, although it remains isolated and refuses all aid. In fact, enormous holograms cover up the reality that nothing less than an enormous super-city exists there and that it is in fact the wealthiest nation in the world, due to its enormous quantities of vibranium, Earth’s most sought-after substance.
This is where my problems started. Arthur C. Clarke once said something to the effect that any truly advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. And that’s the way it is here. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) makes things that are just so far ahead of anything the West has that I had no idea what was going on half the time.
Especially the teleporting. What the hell was that? And if like me you aren’t familiar with the 52-year old comic book character on which it is based, then the film isn’t going to help you. Half the time I thought that I had wandered into either a Dr. Strange movie or a James Bond one, around the time that he was swanning about in invisible cars.
And then Shuri gives him his new suit. Christ, don’t get me started. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned costumes? This is another one of those battle-armour things that do everything for you except make you breakfast in the morning and tell you what a great lover you are. Remember the Tony Stark-designed one that ruined Spider-Man: Homecoming? It’s like that. Any tension that is being built up goes right out the window because in one of these babies there is nothing that can defeat you. You can take on armies, for heaven’s sake! I hate this nonsense. I mean, Iron Man has been like that since his origin; that’s what he uses. But all these other supersuits just destroy any realism that there is left.
Anyway… in this jungle paradise there is growing political instability. In a development that could have been really interesting, the topical ‘immigration question’ is raised and reversed, with some Wakandans believing that they should be sharing their gifts with the world and others objecting that taking in immigrants means that they bring their problems with them. Don’t worry, it doesn’t go anywhere except towards a lame, barbed anti-Trump comment towards the end, that is as predictable as it is tedious.
Black Panther is the third film from director Ryan Coogler, who did the interesting Fruitvale Station [reviewed here] and the Rocky spin-off Creed, which I didn’t see. What really makes this film (and by that I mean that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all without him) is the lead actor, Chadwick Boseman. He simply dominates the screen: handsome and charismatic, he exudes all the qualities of royalty and yet subtly suggests the insecurities he feels.
The back-up cast is also good. It goes without saying that Forrest Whitaker as the high priest Zuri is at the very least watchable in anything he turns his hand to. And Andy Serkis has a great old time acting without a suit for a change and effortlessly stealing every scene he’s in as an arms dealer who is so ‘Sattt Afrikaaan’ that I kept expecting him to do Joss Ackland from Lethal Weapon 2 and start yelling about ‘Diplomatic Immunity!!!’ In fact I was kind of sorry that he wasn’t the main villain, that honour going to the less-than-interesting but very swaggering Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger.
And talking about villains, I actually thought that CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) was one when he started waving his gun about like a maniac, firing indiscriminately around a packed casino. Then he completely lost me by turning into one of the good guys. I guess that old Martin got to be the token decent white man.
Black Panther is a pleasant enough 18th addition to the DC Cinematic Universe, streets ahead of Dr. Strange, streets behind Ant-Man. But it’s not the life-changing experience that you’re being led to believe. Some of the comments on how important this film is, are on a par with Pauline Kael’s hysterically over-the-top pronouncements on Last Tango in Paris back in the ’seventies.
Oh and since we seem to be having director-themed movies these days – you know, a female director for Wonder Woman and an African-American director for Black Panther — do you think it’s too late to get David Cronenberg for the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp?
OK, he’s not an insect but he did The Fly? He made Spider?
Sorry… just couldn’t resist it.