Black Panther

BLACK PANTHER. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Michael Jordan, and Martin Freeman. Also starring Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Rated M (Action violence). 134 min.

This American superhero film is based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, and is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It tells the story of T’Challa, Black Panther, who returns home to mythical Wakanda, his home country in East Africa, to assume his rightful place as King. His throne is threatened by factions in his country, and the conflict has global consequences. Events occur after those of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016).

Its themes are rooted in the cultures of Africa. The film has a primarily black cast, and the director of the movie is Ryan Coogler, an African-American. Chadwick Boseman is the superhero, “Black Panther”, and Lupita Nyong’o is Nakia, who heads the female cast as the leader of T’Challa’s special team of bodyguards.

Wakanda is rich in a mineral that gives technological superiority to whoever owns it. Among T’Challa’s enemies is Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael Jordan), who is an American soldier who seeks military and economic power for himself and wants control of it. Also, native traditionalists, like Okoye (Danai Gurira), don’t like the changes that they see coming under T’Challa as their leader. It soon becomes clear to the new King that Wakanda is being dragged into world war, and Black Panther teams up with C.I.A agent, Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), to try to prevent it.

Many films have argued the case for gender diversity, and this movie argues strongly for change in attitude about colour and ethnicity. It deals very obviously, in live-action fantasy format, with black identity. Marvel movies have previously made sure that black persons, like Black Panther, have been removed from Africa. In this movie, African culture lies at its core. It asserts Africa as the spiritual motherland, and this is impressively captured by the film’s cinematography, its vivid colour, vibrant design of clothes and textures, traditional music, and characters like Zuri (Forest Whitaker), keeper of the Heart-Shaped Herb, an African emblem of spiritual significance.

As a visualisation of black identity, the film symbolises a very significant shift in the Marvel series. Costume design plays a special part, and it is the first time that a black super-hero has taken the lead in what previously has been white-man’s territory. Chadwick Boseman plays the character of “Black Panther” reflectively, but in appropriate Marvel-action style, whenever the situation requires it of him.

Black Panther was first added to Marvel Comics in 1966, and to the Marvel Cinematic Universe  in 2016, but never has a black person taken the lead up front. The movie is a celebration of blackness, but it is also relevant to contemporary, political social commentary on black civil rights. Villains (like “Killmonger” Stevens) who want to plunder Wakanda’s mineral resources are there to help drive the plot line along, but, as expected, they come to a sticky end. The film tackles several themes and moral conflicts of power from a black perspective, but the fantasy production of Black Panther may ultimately prove an unfortunate weakness. The nature of the Marvel fantasy-series, of which this is an excellent, but decidedly different example, will find it hard to live up to the expectations of a Black-Superhero that have been left unfilled for so long, and the film’s direction by Ryan Coogler is Africanised to the point that it is hard to know what might follow. Because of the alleged technological superiority of Wakanda, the film is especially well suited to the display of sophisticated computer effects. It shows some spectacular and unusual special effects, not the least of which, are two combat “challenges” to T’Challa on the cliff edges of the magnificent Iguazu Falls while the warring tribes of Wakanda, dressed superbly, look on.

This film was made on a budget in excess of 200 million US dollars, and requires a massive return. Maybe like “Wonder Woman” (2017), a fresh franchise will be reborn, but the nature of the film is such that it seems unlikely we will see “Black Panther 2”. And more’s the pity.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office of Film and Broadcasting

Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Released February 15th., 2018

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