As you might have gathered from much of the fervoured press chatter, the 18th film from Marvel Studios – described in turn as “a self-contained marvel”, “a superhero movie with serious muscle and style” and “a superb genre film – and quite a bit more” – is, well, not just about finally giving a black comic-book star a film of his own.
In any case, the latter titbit is far from true, that honour having long gone to 1997’s Spawn, a year ahead of Wesley Snipes’ Blade. Indeed, Snipes himself signalled as far back as 1992 his intention to work on a Black Panther film, only for the momentum behind such a project to not start gathering steam until the mid-2000s.
In the meantime, the Afrofuturism into which Black Panther heavily leans – which can be very roughly defined as an approach to science fiction and fantasy grounded in African cultures and the black experience – has continued to thrive in music through such acts as Janelle Monae, Willow Smith and Kanye West.
Now, film finally has its big-blockbuster Afrofuturist standard-holder – and many observers are wondering why it took so long for a studio to take on the task.
A convention-buckling Coogler epic
There are many more descriptors that one can apply to Black Panther – family saga, espionage thriller or simply another classic in the pantheon of Marvel superhero movies that will giddily excite overgrown and actual 10-year-olds alike. So much of this is attributable to director Ryan Coogler’s already well-honed instinct for the ambitious, audacious and pyrotechnically spellbinding, despite this being only his third film.
For the benefit of those of you who aren’t Marvel dweebs, it all centres on the tale of Black Panther himself – real name T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) – who is officially crowned as the king and super-powered protector of the secretive techtropolis of Wakanda after his father’s death.
Boseman is joined in a predominantly black ensemble by such talent as Michael B. Jordan – who plays the improbably buff challenger for T’Challa’s throne, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens – and Lupita Nyong’o, whose turn as T’Challa’s former lover and an undercover spy for Wakanda undertaking missions in other countries sees her treated to some of the film’s wittiest lines.
Another major threat to the kingdom comes in the form of the brawny arms dealer speaking in a spicy Afrikaner bark, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has his sights trained on Wakanda’s vast deposits of an indestructible metal known as vibranium.
Not just another Marvel juggernaut
Of course, for all of its cultural significance and political nuances, Black Panther remains a big-budget Marvel film, with almost everything that entails – but not quite.
Yes, the third act couldn’t be more Marvel at its heart if it tried – a big, noisy CGI climax. But the moral and political questions that Black Panther contemplates aren’t touched on in the haphazard or peripheral manner that seems the case even with the Dark Knight trilogy or the X-Men franchise.
Instead, they are very much central to its architecture, providing a thought-provoking narrative seam from the first scene to the last – even if you may also simply be having too much fun to notice.