“You’ll believe that man can fly.” When the Superman movie first came out in 1978, we’d never seen anything quite like it. Our relationship with cinema, heroes and telephone booths was instantly, irrevocably altered. An exceptionally handsome man made a beloved character come alive and literally spun our world around. We were enthralled, amazed and – probably most importantly – calmed. Here was the true hero to save us all. He’d got us. And the line on the poster was no lie.
With a superhero film released every other month, it’s easy to forget how much of an event these movies once were when they dwarfed us every dozen or so years. That Superman, the first Batman in 1990, the second Spider-Man in 2004, they struck us like meteor-sized shots of dopamine, filling us with exultation and wonder, reducing grown-ups to kids and making kids believe in grown-ups. I didn’t think I would ever feel that way for a superhero movie again. Now I realized I was dead wrong.
I’ve loved some of the recent Marvel movies – positively loved them – because they’ve amused and tickled and been gloriously bonkers, but this is something else. This is awe.
First comes colour. A magical potion that looks more purple than Prince’s blood, viscous and thick, drunk by a man streaked with warpaint, before he’s buried under red, red sand. This is a world sewn from kente cloth, calling for the brightest shades and patching them together into a wondrous zigzag. All draped around miles and miles of melanin. Wakanda is the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in the world, a fictional African nation that hides its splendour under a pastoral hologram. It wants to stay pristine by not letting the world in, even if it means not shining for all to see.
The nation of Wakanda owes its wealth to Vibranium – named by its king, T’Challa, in a way that lets us hear both the ‘vibe’ and the ‘brain’ baked into the word – and it is viewed as Earth’s most powerful metal. Captain America’s shield is made of this. Yet within Wakanda, their application of technology is tremendously human: they sew Vibranium into their clothes, they hide space-age armour inside sexy necklaces, they create holographic communicators that encourage multiply-shared communication. Even their self-driving cars aren’t self-driving but steered from far away.
Most of their ultra- modern technology relies on human contact. The world balances ritual and modernity with grace: we see a man with a giant green lip-disc exhorting rulers-to-be to battle under a waterfall, but we later see the same gent indoors, sitting with legs neatly crossed, dressing in a matching shamrock suit and a chartreuse shirt.
The duality goes to the ruler as well, for when he’s not formulating policy decisions next to niftily-kitted women and men, he’s off being Black Panther, a superhero lifting through the air to stop sex trafficking. T’Challa is mighty, righteous and, for the time being, a little young and overwhelmed. Good thing he has incredibly strong women to support him.
The Black Panther comics, brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was first released in the mid-1960s – coincidentally right next to the birth of the radical Black Panther Party – and I always felt they owed something to Lee Falk’s Phantom, and his fictional African nation of Bangalla. Even though he main difference this time was the fact that there was no white hero in sight.
The nation could take care of its own, and it’s true that director Rian Coogler seized upon with Black Panther. This is the first big-budget superhero movie with a black leading man, for sure, but it may be an even greater feat that this is also the first Marvel movie that doesn’t make you long for a cameo from another Avenger. It stands alone.
Which, I hasten to assure you, doesn’t mean it is all about one man.
Black Panther is populated with gripping characters of morally complex shades, shades as varied as their amazing clothing. The bad guy is a ridiculously charming revolutionary who happens to cut notches into his own body to count the number of those that fallen under him. The king’s saucy little sister is the most intelligent woman in the world – which is to safely say the smartest person in the world – and the great gadget-inventing quarter mistress, but also a spry women curious about Coachella festival.
As befits a film primarily about race, subculture and tradition, the question at the core of Black Panther is not an easy one: Should a powerful nation live in self-contained idyll, or should it find a way to share resources and help the world, at the cost of its own potent and secret privacy?
At what point should we dare wage wars on behalf of others, and does simple physical superiority give us the right to do that? These are heavier questions than superhero films grapple with, bringing Black Panther a provocative sense of urgency. It is a film that knows its own strength.
Chadwick Boseman is brilliant in the role of T’Challa, the Black Panther, brilliant not just at flaunting the feline grace necessary for this particular superhero, but also at leading us into T’Challa’s self-doubt, his current hesitation and the overall to-the-throne-born condescension he has trouble shaking off. Letitia Wright is hands down wonderful as T’Challa‘s litte sister Shuri, sharp as a switchblade with quips pointy enough to match – she refers to the ‘token white guy’ with the word “Coloniser” – and deserves her own films.
As does Danai Gurira, who portrays Okoye, a fiercely proud warrior girl who takes a James Bond style casino encounter and turns it quick into the Crazy 88 scene from Kill Bill before Mad Max-ing a car chase so that Black Panther can at last Ben Hur a tyre with his bare hands. You’ll see what I mean. She slays.
Angela Bassett is imperious as T’Challa’s mother, while the redoubtable Forest Whitaker is tenderly evocative as the king’s uncle. TV star Sterling K Brown (best known for his roles in This Is Us and The People Vs OJ Simpson) has a vital role as does Lupita N’yongo, escalating the movie’s dramatic conflicts and stopping our hero in his tracks. Much of the film’s appeal belongs to frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B Jordan who plays vicious villain Erik Killmonger, sculpted and smart and scarily seductive.
With a name like that, I assume he will just keep having to step up and be MVP. It is a gorgeous film, with cinematographer Rachel Morrison doing justice to the intricately fashioned Wakanda, dizzyingly taking us into a world more vibrant than we’ve seen.
Black Panther movie is a film with frames busy and mesmerizing enough to worth an IMAX screening. Ruth E Carter’s costumes are enchanting, a mix of tradition and aggressively forward fashion, where neck-coils meet strikingly colourful armour. Coogler wears his influences on his sleeve, and the movie doffs its hat at many touchstones of African culture as shown in American cinema, from Coming To America to The Lion King. Now, of course, Black Panther is right atop that list.
Whenever the king wrestles a challenger on a waterfall, the crowd is impassive till the king strikes. Then they begin a beat and start to shout his name to go with his blows: T’Challa (beat, beat, beat,) T’Challa (beat, beat, beat,) T’Challa. This rhythmic T’Cheer is heady and irresistible, like this timely film and its propulsive Kendrick Lamar soundtrack.