(out of 5)
The (fictional) African nation of Wakanda is a place of great technological advancement whose vibranium, a renewable fuel supply, is so powerful that it must be kept a secret to avoid disaster for a country in an already excessively plundered and colonized continent. The ruling family of Wakanda is headed by a king who drinks this substance and gains superpowers that make him the Black Panther, a position that Chadwick Boseman‘s T’Challa inherits after his father dies in an attack. A nasty arms dealer (Andy Serkis, overdoing his human characterizations as usual) is our hero’s first target thanks to his connection to his father’s death, but this pursuit leads T’Challa to an even more nefarious villain who has even deeper ties to his own life: a young man from Oakland (Michael B. Jordan in disingenuous hair) who wants to use vibranium’s power as a corrective for the challenges facing African-Americans in his own country. The bad guy’s methods are extreme and inexcusable, but I found myself somewhat sympathetic to his cause; really what is the value of keeping so incredible a resource to yourself when it could help so much more than just your own sparsely populated country? It’s hard to tell if the film’s conservative flavour is accidental or intentional, having as it does a villain whose lesson to us is that being justifiably angry does not justify all actions, and a number of female characters who, despite being powerful warriors with magnificent personalities and skills, are only in the plot as ancillary objects to mens’ needs. There’s something a bit jarring about a film that turns an entire nation’s issues with systemic racism into the gripes of a bratty criminal, and even more confusing is its taking place in a country where T’Challa’s delightful and highly adept sister Shuri (a scene stealing Letitia Wright) can basically run the entire country from her laptop but is treated like a favoured guest in a place that is all about scientific achievement but determines its political leadership through brutal, man-on-man combat. Such contradictions are likely Marvel’s way of trying to have it all, giving its main character a glamorous sense of culture and legend by connecting him to African heritage but still needing to find a way to include modern day obsessions with costumes, weapons and speed, and while the elements don’t combine as smoothly as they should, the overall effect is entertaining. Boseman’s role has little depth or internal conflict and he is easily outshone by Jordan (though neither role is particularly interesting), but the film moves in a tight, straight line without unnecessary complications. The sleek visual style that emphasizes inky night skies and a lot of purple motifs is the film’s greatest pleasure, suggesting that cinematographer Rachel Morrison to have a mastery of shadowy images that, along with her celebrated work on Mudbound, could establish her as a modern day Gordon Willis.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Cinematography by Rachel Morrison
Produced by Kevin Feige
Music by Ludwig Göransson
Production Design by Hannah Beachler
Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter