Director: Ryan Coogler
Rating: 5 Stars (Out of 5)
"You'll believe a man can fly." When the first Superman film came out in 1978, we'd never seen anything 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, overwhelmed and - perhaps most importantly - comforted. Here was a hero to save us all. He'd got us. And the line on the poster was no lie.
With a superhero movie out every other month, it's easy to forget how much of an event these films 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'd ever feel that way for a superhero film again. This week I learnt I was 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 potion purpler than Prince's blood, viscous and thick, poured into the mouth of 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 richest, most technologically forward country in the world, a fictional African country 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.
Wakanda owes its riches to Vibranium - pronounced 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 considered 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 hypermodern technology is based on human contact.
The world balances ritual and modernity with style: we see a man with a huge green lip-disc exhorting kings-to-be to fight under a waterfall, but we later see the same gent indoors, sitting with legs tidily crossed, wearing a matching shamrock suit and a chartreuse shirt. The duality extends to the king as well, for when he's not formulating policy decisions alongside niftily-kitted women and men, he's off being Black Panther, a superhero flying through the air to stop sex trafficking. T'Challa is powerful, righteous and, for now, a bit young and overwhelmed. Good thing he has incredibly strong women to steady and steer him.
The Black Panther comics, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, came out in the mid-1960s - coincidentally right alongside the birth of the radical Black Panther Party - and I always felt they owed a debt to Lee Falk's Phantom, and his fictional African nation of Bangalla. The crucial difference this time, though, was the fact that there was no white saviour in sight. Wakanda could take care of its own, and this is the truth that director Rian Coogler seized upon with Black Panther. It is the first massive-budget superhero film with a black leading man, certainly, but it may be an even greater feat that this is also the first Marvel film 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 peopled with thrilling characters of morally complex shades, shades as varied as their spectacular clothing. The villain is a ridiculously charismatic revolutionary who happens to cut notches into his own body to count the number of people he has killed. The king's sassy kid-sister is the smartest woman in the world - which is to safely say the smartest person in the world - and the ultimate gadget-inventing quartermistress, but also a spry girl curious about Coachella.
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 country live in self-contained idyll, or should it seek to share resources and help the world, at the cost of its own potent and secret privacy? At what point dare we wage wars on behalf of others, and does mere physical superiority offer us the right to do that? These are weightier questions than superhero movies grapple with, giving Black Panther a provocative sense of urgency. It is a film that knows its own strength.
Chadwick Boseman is excellent as T'Challa, the Black Panther, great not just at flaunting the feline grace necessary for this particular superhero, but also at letting us into T'Challa's self-doubt, his current lack of readiness and the overall to-the-throne-born condescension he has trouble shaking off. Letitia Wright is flat-out fantastic as T'Challa's sister Shuri, sharp as a switchblade with quips pointy enough to match - she addresses the 'token white guy' with the word "Coloniser" - and deserves her own movies. As does Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, a fiercely proud warrior woman who takes a James Bond style casino encounter and turns it briefly into the Crazy 88 sequence from Kill Bill before Mad Max-ing a car chase so that Black Panther can finally 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. Television sensation Sterling K Brown (from This Is Us and The People Vs OJ Simpson) has an integral role as does Lupita N'yongo, escalating the film'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 guess this actor 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. This is a movie with frames busy and beautiful enough to deserve an IMAX viewing. 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 film doffs its hat at many touchstones of African culture as depicted 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 start a beat and begin to chant 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. Black Panther has both grace and the spirit of Grace Jones. This is not merely a great film but, vitally, a cool one. It is in every way - visually, spiritually, temperamentally, swaggeringly, stylistically, philosophically - cool. You'll believe a man can be fly.