It's hard for a good man to be king.
Cinema-goers first met African prince T'Challa, aka Black Panther, in Captain America: Civil War. In that film he took on the superhero mantle (figuratively speaking - the costume is a body-fitting one-piece, not a cloak) to seek revenge for the assassination of his father. Now in the Black Panther stand-alone movie, T'Challa - played once again by Chadwick Boseman - returns to his native Wakanda so he can officially assume his role as king of that mysterious nation. The result is without doubt one of the best Marvel movies to date, one that combines entertainment value with intelligence and thematic bite.
There are several key reasons why it succeeds so profoundly. First is the fact that Black Panther stands alone as a story. Yes there are references to other films in the Marvel canon, but like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange there is nothing to jar or confuse, if you come to it fresh. Both Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman pop up in previously established roles, but ultimately this is all about the Kingdom of Wakanda - and that's a whole other reason to get excited.
The country to which T'Challa returns is a hidden phenomenon - a civilisation literally founded on vibranium, the extra-terrestrial metal that has made Wakanda the most technologically advanced place on Earth. This is an El Dorado, whose royals have decreed to keep vibranium a secret from the rest of the world. But that secret is under threat from South African mercenary Ulysses Claue (Serkis and pronounced 'Claw'). Nor is Claue the kingdom's biggest threat; working with him is so-called Erik Killmonger (Creed's Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops-trained terrorist with a deeper and darker purpose underscoring his actions. From there the plot developments are swift and unpredictable, another of the movie's major plus points. Suffice to say the new Black Panther should expect no honeymoon period as King, forced instead to confront some tough truths about both his royal heritage and his country's place in the wider world.
Wakanda itself might be the most ingenious Marvel landscape to date, a glorious creation that merges ancient tribal culture with astonishing tech. The film makes the most of rolling African grassland and precipitous waterfalls, while introducing a CGI city that perpetually dazzles. And if some of the computer graphics prove not quite on point, it's thankfully not enough to distract. What the movie does successfully is to immerse you in a unique culture, so that you truly get to absorb it. Yes there are some jet-setting James Bond-style escapades along the way, but most of the action is proudly Wakanda-centric - and it's a fascinating place to hang out for two hours.
The wholly new story introduces a roster of well-drawn characters, too, of which the regal and self-contained T'Challa (Boseman embodies the role to perfection) is but one. Killmonger is a noteworthy villain, one of greater psychological complexity than his name suggests, and whose motivations provide the movie with a real political edge. Then there are the women in T'Challa's life. Take Okoye, commander of the royal guard (katana-wielding Michonne from The Walking Dead). Or his ex-lover and international spy Nakia (12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o). Or his precocious sister Shuri, a junior tech-genius played by British Guyanese actress Letitia Wright. Each is a distinctive and spirited creation, whose presence in the narrative really matters. Nor does the cast stop there - Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker both provide gravitas among these bright young things - for this is a true ensemble, populated with great characters so that T'Challa is merely first among equals.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler deserves kudos for adding a true original to the Marvel canon, and for helming a blockbuster that carries real cultural significance. Much has been said in the media about Black Panther's status as a superhero film with a black lead, a predominantly black cast and a broadly African aesthetic. But none of that would count for much, if it wasn't any good. Happily it's better than good. This fantasy sci-fi adventure is genuinely thrilling, with a more challenging subtext than your average comic-book movie. Even if you're not a genre fan, go see it. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Gut Reaction: I think I was actually bridling with enjoyment (if that's a thing) during this one. And there are some laugh-out-loud moments too.
Where Are the Women?: See above. The girls are all over this one.
Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. Black Panther is adrenaline-fuelled and unique entertainment, that lands punches both ideological and emotional. It sets out to be fun, but also to be a movie that matters. Job done on both counts.