The Hollywood Reporter recently pointed out the obvious; even Jennifer Lawrence can’t open a movie. Studios don’t look to big star names any longer, but to brands like Marvel. And without stars, it argues, studios will be “forced back on machine-honed product, which might be fine entertainment but hardly nourishes the soul”.
Now I’ve always thought superhero or comic book movie blockbusters were empty calories. This is unpopular I know, but Marvel makes me feel like I overindulged on Haribo candy (and the DCEU can feel like toothache).
Black Panther is emphatically not another glib Marvel product, but a self-contained story about family, duty and honour. Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the War of the Panthers is a kid-friendly Game of Thrones, where cousins and different tribes fight for power, and the future of the kingdom hinges on revelations about an individual character’s parentage.
The language, artwork, costumes and makeup of this mythical land echo real-world African traditions, while the fantasy element Vibranium – which fell from the sky eons ago – is the source of Wakanda’s secret high-tech infrastructure.
The new king T’Challa is no flashy show-off à la Tony Stark, even if his royal duties include dressing up like a cat. He’s a noble character haunted by the death of his father and torn between righting past wrongs and protecting his people, and overcoming his nation’s isolationism.
It’s a credit to Chadwick Boseman that his graceful performance doesn’t get blasted off the screen by Michael B. Jordan’s swaggering, vicious Killmonger, who wants to swipe the throne and the panther suit, and lead the country in a more hawkish direction.
Killmonger has clawed his way into the Top Ten Movie Villains of All Time, as surely as Letitia Wright’s Shuri has won the Coolest Disney Princess crown. The superhero is king, the superhero is the brand, but the performances are key – especially the movie-star calibre Jordan and Wright. If Hollywood is committed to saving the endangered species of the mega-movie star, it won’t find worthier candidates.
They are the most distinctive performances in a strong cast: Angela Bassett is regal as the Queen Mother, Forest Whitaker is wise as a shaman/adviser, and Lupita Nyong’o is headstrong as T’Challa’s on-off love interest. Winston Duke’s renegade tribal leader M’Baku looks like the mighty Khal Drogo, although in a surprising twist he’s actually a cuddly vegetarian.
I’m not the only one to spot the Game of Thrones parallels, as Daniel Kaluuya made the link a year ago. Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, head of border security and one of Wakanda’s more reactionary voices. I suppose his relationship with Danai Gurira’s valiant General Okoye makes sense, but it seemed a bit of an afterthought. There’s a pivotal moment in a battle scene which left me momentarily dumbfounded, as I’d forgotten they were supposed to be lovers. Perhaps I zoned out. 😦
I know I zoned out during the casino scene and the car chase; casinos and car chases are two of my least favourite things in movies. Yet beneath the special effects, there’s a gentle, sincere exploration of Wakandan politics and culture which makes Black Panther the most invigorating, sane addition to the comic book genre.