Is there really anything else like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s a miracle that its even turned out as well as it has. Disney and Marvel Studios have crafted such a perfect representation of the source comics (mostly- *cough* Thor: The Dark World *cough) under the leadership of producer Kevin Feige. It has woven countless stories together and formed a true universe that despite containing aliens, magic and super soldiers, feels real and alive. That said, the MCU isn’t without criticism, often rightly so. Despite excellent characterisation, their films, in particular the solo movies, had begun to feel formulaic and somewhat predictable. The movies often lack a compelling villain and as a personal bug bear; (mostly) lack memorable soundtracks or even leitmotifs or ‘themes’ for characters that could carry from film to film; the obvious exception here being Alan Silverstri’s excellent ‘Avengers theme.’ However, happily, the two most recent Marvel efforts; 2017’s ‘Thor Ragnarok’ and now this years ‘Black Panther’ take these tired tropes and turn them on their head, creating some incredibly fresh concepts and a new standard for MCU movies.
Marvel has again managed to replicate the underdog success of properties such as ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Dr. Strange’ by taking a relatively unknown title in terms of general audience perception and turn them into a household name. ‘Black Panther’ is, simply put, an excellent movie with incredibly well written characters performed by talented actors. Chadwick Boseman shines as the titular ‘Black Panther’ also known as the to be King T’Challa. While I initially thought Boseman played him as a bit too much of a boy scout, he is given the opportunity to demonstrate a wide range of emotional depth as the narrative takes the character through increasing hardship. As a fan of the comic books, seeing this well respected character bought to the screen so perfectly was incredibly satisfying. The supporting cast is also excellent, with better than average development given to Letitia Wright’s Shuri who essentially fills the role of ‘Q’ from the Bond movies, with some welcome levity coming from her relationship with her brother, T’Challa. However, the performance that steals the show is Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. Despite the ridiculous name (which is explained to be a nickname thankfully), Jordan presents us with the answer to what the MCU has been crying out for for so long: a relatable, complex and well developed villain that feels like the hero’s equal. For so long we’ve had only Tom Hiddleston’s schemey schemer Loki to point to as an example of an memorable and well written MCU villain. Well, those days are over; Killmonger is expertly crafted into the narrative and the beef he has with T’Challa not only feels earned, but frighteningly enough, somewhat justified. While you root for T’Challa as the well developed hero he is, you also find yourself sympathising and understanding Killmonger, which shows a truly three dimensional character, rather the stereotype of an evil mirror image of the hero, which, to be honest, I assumed I’d be getting following the trailers. We’ve seen evil Ant Man, Iron Man, Hulk and Iron Man AGAIN so I wasn’t expecting much. Thankfully my expectations were blown out of the water, with a tragic villain that was both expertly written by writer and director Ryan Coogler, but also wonderfully performed by Jordan. A real highlight of the film.
It is also worth touching on the narrative structure, which also superseded my expectations. For the first twenty minutes or so it felt very much like a ‘business as usual’ Marvel film: black SUV chase through a city, the odd one liner here and there and the establishment of the setting and the rules of this world. Reusing Andy Serkis’ Klaue from ‘Captain America: Civil War’ further cemented the movies origins as part of the wider universe and made me think we’d be getting another passable, but forgettable solo movie. However, half way through this all changes. Without going into spoiler territory, the film keeps up a strong pace and quickly nosedives into a much more compelling plot that threatens to change the way T’Challa views not only his heritage, but his culture as a whole, again being woven expertly in with the story of Killmonger. It is this element that makes the writing of this film far more successful than most other solo Marvel films and completely subverts the standard formula of what we’ve come to expect from this studio. In the same way that Thor turned the world destroying catastrophe of ‘Ragnarok’ into a hilarious buddy cop adventure movie, so does ‘Black Panther’ elevate the mythos of the Marvel universe to a new level via compelling and even at points, genuinely touching drama and social commentary.
I would of course be remiss to not touch on the social aspect of the movie. With an almost entirely black cast bar the well placed additions of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, the film is a milestone in the casting of black actors. Huge praise must be given to Disney for pushing and succeeding in creating a movie like this, that touches on the history of the race in a subtle but impactful way whilst casting some of the most talented black actors working today. The movie examines themes of prejudice, isolation, betrayal, self preservation and heritage wonderfully and uses them to drive the narrative forward in an organic and satisfying way. However, it is also a movie about a secret future city and a man who dresses like a big cat and has claws, so it stays true to its comic book roots, keeping an appropriate level of levity and more humorous moments to balance out the drama. And to touch on that future city; the way that Wakanda has been realised is just incredible. The city feels real, breathing and gives us a real taste of what a place like this might be like. The CGI is well used with some excellent wide shots of the fictional landscape as well as some truly beautiful dream sequences. However, there were times where it looked a bit dodgy and unfinished, which is a shame for a film that nails so much else.
Overall, ‘Black Panther’ is great. I went in expecting to see a fun and entertaining, albeit generic superhero solo movie and left the cinema wanting even more. What could’ve so easily been just another Marvel origin story set to the standard three act structure does something really new and engaging. It perfectly weaves in topical social messaging without being heavy handed by driving these messages through the actions of the truly excellent characters. It manages to create a truly great standalone movie with well rounded characters, a consistent tone and continuity that allows it to fit in perfectly with the rest of the MCU family. Bravo, Marvel; you’ve started 2018 by setting the bar high. Now bring on the hype for seeing all of these characters back in Infinity War in May. I for one, can’t wait.