Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Film Review: The vibrant, brutal Black Panther finds Marvel as you've never seen it before

After the disappointment of the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Marvel settled into a bit of a groove. Spider-man: Homecoming served up a new take on both the origin story and Spider-man as a character himself, while the excellent Thor: Ragnarok found the multi-billion dollar studio at their most playful and experimental, handing the reins over to indie director Taika Waititi and allowing him to improvise a whole bunch of the film - a risk not many huge studios would take. Next up in the MCU's offerings is Black Panther, the first full length feature for the character since his debut back in Captain America: Civil War (which remains the franchise's best film) and the film that will open the doors to Infinity War in just two months time.

But that's not really all Black Panther is selling. This is the first Marvel film to feature an almost entirely black cast, the first one helmed by a black director, the first Marvel film with the potential for serious cultural impact. Whichever way you look at it, Black Panther's mere existence is groundbreaking and likely to revolutionise the playing field while inspiring a whole new array of younger audiences to the belief that they, too, can be superheroes. Even if Black Panther turned out to be a bad film, the sheer notion of it playing in cinemas would be a wonder to behold - a form of representation unlike anything the genre, or maybe even cinema in general, has seen before.

Better still, Black Panther is a great film. Ryan Coogler's first dovetail into the superhero genre is a runaway triumph from almost every angle. Origin stories have been done to death in the MCU by now, but Coogler's script (co-penned with Joe Robert Cole) finds a new approach. We know from Civil War that Wakanda as a country is all about Kings and heritage, but Black Panther goes a step further than "Can I be a King?" and instead focuses on "What does it mean to be a King?". The result is a thematically rich story populated with fully fleshed out characters, skipping the Save the World narrative in favour of something much more personal - it's less "save the world" than it is "save our world".

At the centre of it all is T'Challa, played with grit and force by Chadwick Boseman. T'Challa's father has died and so he must now become the new King, which he does with honour and pride surrounded by those he cares for - mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and close friend W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). While this is going on, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) plans to overthrow Wakanda due to his vastly different beliefs in what the country should be to the world, while Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) attempts to smuggle the country's source metal Vibranium into potentially dangerous places. There's a lot going on in Black Panther, but Coogler's tight script keeps things focused while permanently moving them forward.

Black Panther doesn't begin at lightning pace, with a slower first act that spends most of its time simply showcasing Wakanda to us - and what a sight it is. The country's culture feels fully realised from the get go, with stunning costume design and breathtaking sets helping to flesh out an environment and turn it into a place that feels lived in. This sense of culture is deeply important to Coogler's film as so much of his narrative hinges on what Wakanda as a place means to various characters, so spending this time here at the beginning and engaging in all of its ceremonies and traditions feels important - but, also, fun. Black Panther could be heavy going, but Coogler knows to keep things enjoyable - his script is deep and complex, but his film remains entertaining.

A lot of this is helped by the action scenes he presents us with. It isn't the crispest action you've ever seen - sometimes cutting too quickly for its good, especially towards the climax of certain scenes as if Coogler gets over excited by what he's doing and just sort of implodes on screen - but there's a number of terrific set pieces here that make solid claim to be Marvel's best action work in years. A car chase through the streets of South Korea is particularly notable for how many standout moments in manages to find within one sequence - a moment featuring Danai Gurira's Okoye and a well timed spear throw is especially leap-out-of-your-seat awesome - and the film's climax succeeds in staging multiple smaller one-on-ones inside the larger war taking place.

What's more, these individual fights all have their own weight to them - every fight, every punch counts. Coogler even indulges in a pair of Gladiator-esque brawls during T'Challa's claim to the throne, surprisingly violent fist fights that feel as brutal emotionally as they do physically. Coogler's time directed a boxing film is demonstrated here perfectly, you feel every blow to the head, every fist to the gut. There are times where Black Panther threatens to be almost too brutal, but it juxtaposes the violence with vibrant cinematography from Rachel Morrison - the film finds set piece after set piece of eye-popping visuals, and Morrison frames them all gorgeously. What with the equally dazzling Ragnarok only a few months ago, perhaps Marvel have finally found a visual style to stick with.

Coogler's best asset, though, is his cast. Boseman is terrific as the film's lead, but even he is out shined here repeatedly: the ferocity and personality Nyong'o and Gurira bring to their characters is undeniable; Letitia Wright is a bonafide scene stealer as Shuri, landing almost every joke perfectly and livening up each frame she's in; Michael B. Jordan is frankly stunning as the film's villain, the anger he brings to the character is most notable but he also finds a charm and soul to him, a humanity. We understand his motives, we maybe even relate to them - it's a truly terrific performance, easily the film's best. There's rarely a weak link to Black Panther both on screen and behind the scenes, Coogler's film takes charge of the MCU and commands it like its been in control the whole time. Black Panther is progressive and groundbreaking and genuinely deeply inspiring, but as well as all of that, it's simply good film making. Marvel, consider this a hot streak.

In A Sentence

With a tight, focused script and a handful of first rate performances, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther leaves a bold mark on Marvel's franchise, as well as blockbuster film making in general.

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