Black Panther first review: 'It is expected to stand for something bigger than itself - the strain is visible'
For better or worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest instalment is no mere superhero movie.
Fourteen months into the Trump presidency, Black Panther arrives on storm-clouds of hype and with the presumption that, as the first African-set Marvel movie, it will deliver a resounding high-kick to prejudice and decades of hierarchy, racial and otherwise, in blockbuster cinema. It is expected to stand for something bigger than itself.
The strain is visible, especially in the performance of Chadwick Boseman as Prince T’Challa – the eponymous Black Panther. In the context of the place United States finds itself today, and where it has come from, Boseman knows he can’t wise-crack his way through the film in the fashion of, for example, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, and the responsibility to be at all times sincere weighs on him.
T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, was assassinated at the start of Captain America; Civil War and, as Black Panther begins, the prince is about to ascend to the throne. Under his dominion is Wakanda, a hidden “Afro-futurist” nation at the heart of the Continent which can exist apart from the rest of the world thanks to its endless reserves of the superpower mineral,“Vibranium”.
In the wrong hands, the substance could be turned into a force for destruction – hands such as those of evil South African Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, exuding a gleeful hamminess the movie could do with more of).
Abetting Klaue in his Vibranium-hunting is Michael B Jordan’s “Killmonger”, a mysterious assassin whose fascination with Wakanda is violently personal.
Also in the mix is Martin Freeman as a buffoonish FBI agent Everett Ross while back at Wakanda the cast if filled out by Lupita Nyong'o as top spy / T’Challa’s love interest, Angela Bassett as his mother and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend, W’Kabi.
A neon-splashed early chase sequence in Korea is in the tradition of Marvel's best action scenes – as with justly praised airport slug-out in Civil War it goes on forever and is confidently marshalled by director Ryan Coogler in his first excursion into popcorn filmmaking.
Handled with a similar bombastic flair is T’Challa’s violent coronation, in which he must defeat mountain tribe leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) in single combat – a biff-fest that recalls Coogler’s previous movie, Rocky sequel Creed .
But from here Black Panther spirals into a stodgy tale of internecine feuding, in which T’Challa is required to come to terms with the sins of past generations.
What he doesn't get to do much of is jump around beating-up bad guys. That’s a shame. Marvel has finally given us an African superhero. The hope surely was that he would be allowed do superheroic things.
Black Panther is released Tuesday February 13
Check out our other Black Panther reviews from Paul Whitington and Chris Wasser: