Black Panther review - worthy, well made... but rather dull
Before it ever arrived in cinemas, Black Panther was in the wars thanks to a scurrilous online campaign aimed at deflating its Rotten Tomatoes rating.
For those of you unfamiliar with that august institution, Rotten Tomatoes aggregates the views of critics into a neat if reductive percentage score. But attempts have been made to prejudice and affect these scores - for instance, in 2016 an attack on Ghostbusters was orchestrated, it seems, by trolls unhappy about the remake's all-female cast. Last week a Facebook event page appeared with the bluntly stated purpose of giving Black Panther "a rotten audience score on Rotten Tomatoes". Bizarre claims were made about Disney's treatment "of franchises and its fanboys" (with apologies for this trollish grammar) and a sinister campaign to make sure DC Comics movies got bad reviews. It was all most unseemly and Facebook promptly deleted the page, but it is surely not coincidental that this campaign was mounted against the most high-profile movie ever to boast an almost entirely black cast.
It is impossible to escape the creeping tendrils of racial prejudice in America these days, and no doubt Black Panther's bold depiction of a proud and secretly hyper-advanced African country has gotten up the noses of the crypto-Nazis and Klan-types that lurk in the internet's dark recesses. But while the film's ideas might seem very current, it's actually based on a character Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first rolled out over 50 years ago.
The Black Panther is the king and protector of Wakanda, a peaceful nation state that used a local sourced precious metal called vibranium to create technologies far in advance of anything the west has managed. Their weapons are pretty fancy too, but must only be used in self defence. They've kept their success a secret, but in the modern age of smart phones, drones and satellites, that is becoming difficult. Black Panther, aka T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), was first introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a suitably grand title for a franchise that may never end) in Captain America: Civil War, when his father, and Wakanda's king, was killed in a terror attack.
Now T'Challa has ascended to the throne, but no sooner has he taken over than his kingdom is targeted by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, giving it socks), an unhinged South African arms smuggler who has figured out that he who controls all the vibranium might rule the world. In addition, T'Challa must deal with the arrival of Eric Stevens (Michael B Jordan), a swaggering outsider who was raised in America but may have claims on the royal throne. Black Panther is up against it and, when he loses his crown, must find a way of saving Wakanda from the mad designs of a militaristic maniac.
A film like Black Panther would not have been possible in the time before Cgi, and the elegant, high-tech but distinctively African world of Wakanda has been impressively rendered. The locals are whisked around on sleek monorails and silently hovering craft, and can cure practically anything with their vibranium-based medicine. It's a stunning backdrop, but one that characters tend to get lost in.
Ryan Coogler, who directed and co-wrote the film, has explained that he and his team were very careful to reflect real African culture and lore in their storyline, and any film involving an almost exclusively black cast is bound to have political ramifications in this fraught and febrile time. But one gets the sense that too much tip-toeing has been done in terms of sensitivities, and that the film's good intentions have slightly strangled its vigour and dramatic thrust.
Boseman is a fine actor, as he proved in Get On Up and elsewhere, but his T'Challa is po-faced, earnest - a bit of a bore. Jordan's villain is more fun, but the film lacks the humour that might have lightened its portentousness and Martin Freeman's glib CIA agent is the only character given some decent jokes.
Black Panther is worthy, no question, but it's also a little dull.
Check out our other Black Panther reviews from Chris Wasser and Paul Whitington: