Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.
As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I consider Black Panther a triumph, one of the best origin stories the film series has produced, packed with engaging and enjoyable characters, and boasting a story that deftly balances comic-book action and political machinations to create something wholly unique in the MCU.
As a fan of the comic books on which it is based, and particularly the most recent run by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I consider Black Panther a triumph on every level, utilising what I love best about the character – his internal conflict between what is best for his people and what is best for the world, and his shoot-last approach; see more on that below – to bring him to life in a way that very few of the other MCU films have managed.
But most of all, I consider Black Panther a triumph because this is a film that isn’t for me.
Not necessarily, at least. And I feel a little uncomfortable even venturing into the territory of race because of what it means, on all sides. I’m just trying to say that I was proud to go into a theatre, and watch, and love – LOVE – a film that was made to celebrate a man, a people, a race, that does not look like me.
Or to put it another way: this film obviously means much more to people of colour than I could ever understand. Last night, I went into a sold-out movie theatre, packed to the brim with Maori and Pacific Island men, women and children. And they cheered and clapped all the way through the film. They saw themselves on screen, portrayed in a way that people of colour are so rarely shown, celebrating culture in a way that is so rarely shown.
I mean, I’ve never cheered at a white superhero. I guess I’m kind of blaise about them by now.
None of that is to say that I felt discluded or left out. To the contrary. And this is the thing that I notice about films that are truly representative: when you go and see a film that is primarily about white people, they are invariably middle-upper class, and invariably having white people problems. Even characters that are not white are having the same issues. They are reduced to the social norms of the white people in the film.
But you go to a see a film that offers true social representation, that is about an ethnic or racial group that is not white – those films are always about something much more resonant, much more universal.
I don’t know what it is like to be oppressed in the way that black people have been, and are, racially oppressed in the United States, but I can start to understand and I can empathise. I haven’t been forced to persevere through anything like what black people – or, really, any racial group that has suffered through slavery or colonisation – have been through, but I get it. I understand, even if just in the smallest of ways. I can empathise.
It seems a contentious thing to say, but white people do enjoy a position of privilege. And you can’t always see it clearly in today’s society. We’ve deluded ourselves into believing it doesn’t really exist. “I have friends who are Maori, and I work with a Fijian, I’m not better off than them.”
But I’ve nevered cheered for a white superhero simply because one finally exists.
Black Panther is a triumph on so many levels. It is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the comics, particularly the Christopher Priest run on the character from 1998 to 2003. Ryan Coogler gets T’Challa in the same way I do: this is a man who values culture and tradition first, who is a politician before anything else, who approaches violence as a last resort, and who is trying to be a good man – and you really get that in both Coogler’s writing and Chadwick Boseman’s performance. This is a very nuanced character who appears fully-formed on the screen.
T’Challa comes up against an antagonist who is almost as complete as he is. Michael B Jordan takes Erik Killmonger and makes him sympathetic in a way that few Marvel Cinematic Universe villains have managed. Sure, a lot of that is possible because we’re so well versed in how this universe works. But a lot of credit, again, goes to Coogler: the character of Killmonger is complex, but easy to understand, and you kind of start to side with him a litttle bit.
I also have to give a shout-out to the supporting cast, too. Andy Serkis does some great work as Ulysses Klaue – last seen during Avengers: Age Of Ultron – but the real stars here are Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira, who play T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri and the head of the Dora Milaje, Okoye, respectively. These two steal every scene they are in, and I can’t wait to see them explored further in Avengers: Infinity War and beyond.
Oh, and stay till the end of the credits for a well-earned cameo.
All in all, Black Panther is a true success in blockbuster film-making – and, I hope, a financial success that starts to swing the tide in Hollywood. And I can’t wait to see it again.
Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler, from a script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis. It is in cinemas now.