A popular prince returning home to claim his throne after the death of a much-loved monarch is a chance to use the resultant outpouring of goodwill, and sheer spectacle, to bring a country closer together.
But it’s also a time of disruption, when nations are most vulnerable; as CIA man Everett Ross points out later, about the very kind of discord-sowing that villain Killmonger already has form for, from his days in black ops.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a political, beautiful, nuanced story about social justice, and how that can best be achieved. It’s occasionally predictable, but in the main it’s exhilarating, moving and funny, the best kind of superhero movie, with costumes to die for (don’t worry, that’s not a clue).
T’Chaka is dead, killed in a bomb attack at the UN. And T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has come home to the African kingdom of Wakanda to take his place as king. Here in this small country, the king is shielded by the all-female Dora Milaje, vibranium spears and sheer athleticism protecting the new monarch.
His predecessor is still able to impart wisdom from the ancestral plane, though in true fatherly style it is rather a case of damning with faint praise: “you’re a good man with a good heart and it’s hard for a good man to be a king”.
Wakanda is a kingdom wealthy beyond measure, with technology that would be the envy of the world if the world ever knew about it. But it’s a kingdom approaching a crossroads. And it’s all thanks to vibranium, a special metal that crash-landed in their country millennia ago.
Although Wakanda’s scientists could hardly be accused of sitting on their laurels (Shuri, T’Challa’s hugely talented sister runs the lab with a mantra of “just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved”) the kingdom itself has pursued a policy of insularity and isolationism.
Not all Wakandans are happy with this approach. T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) wants the country to open up, accept refugees, share its good fortune. His best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) tries a different tack: Wakanda should go outside its borders to proactively right wrongs; his frustration with the new king soon builds.
One of T’Challa’s first decisions as king is to travel to Busan in South Korea with Nakia and Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira), to bring arms dealer and vibranium stealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a ball) back for trial. (Klaue has a vibranium arm cannon with a hand that splits in two, one of the most useful inventions I’ve seen since becoming a mum).
The action sequences in the Busan casino are wittily awesome; a later car chase along its brightly-lit streets fast and untidy, as Black Panther and Okoye leap from car to car in hot pursuit, poor Nakia always in the driving seat, even when that’s all that’s left.
Klaue is a distraction though; the real threat to T’Challa is Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He is a complex, layered villain, whose heart was, originally at least, in the right place. Left fatherless as a small boy, he now sees Wakandan isolationism as a waste of resources that lets down billions of people of colour around the world. His radicalisation hasn’t happened in a vacuum, and if you take out his revenge fantasies he’s not that different from the movie’s heroes.
As it moves from laboratory to grassy clifftops, underground tech caverns to snowy mountain ridges, the visuals are stunning. The Wakandan battle, as the kingdom wobbles over the chasm of civil war, is a blast, with both sides evenly matched in weaponry and martial arts.
Costumes are gorgeous and practical (though I was so overwhelmed I forgot to check whether the Dora Milaje’s streamlined red and gold outfits had pockets. If you don’t understand why, ask a woman. Pockets are a feminist issue). Black Panther’s extraordinary second skin, his mother’s regal headresses, blue-patterned wool cloaks, a sharply cut green jacket paired with a green mouth plate, purple-clad priests – function is not enough without style, colour and texture.
Killmonger himself is an eye-catching figure even before he shows his torso dotted with symmetrical scars, one for every kill. And there have been lots of kills.
Despite the practical support from Klaue, Killmonger seems to be less an agent of change and more someone taking advantage of circumstance to make his move. He’s a usurper, but many Wakandans are loyal to the throne rather than an individual sitting on it. Revolutions tend to happen when change doesn’t keep pace with expectations, so it’s not surprising that people frustrated at T’Challa are quick to back Killmonger.
Not all the jokes hit the spot, though two characters can always be relied on. Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is hilarious, constantly laughing at her brother: “Everybody’s looking at me! Wait let me put on my helmet!” she mocks him over the old Black Panther suit, as she demonstrates his new improved instant body armour. M’Baku (Winston Duke), who heads the Jabari, the only tribe in Wakanda who refuse to be ruled by the Wakandan throne, is a consummate scene-stealer; at one point threatening to feed a key character to his children before admitting the whole tribe is vegetarian.
Boseman is superb as T’Challa, a man learning to manage power in a place where political decisions are made behind closed doors with a tiny group of advisers, but traditional challenges for the throne take place on clifftop waterfalls in public. Angela Bassett as Queen Mother Ramonda has a regal quality that silently drenches every scene she’s in. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is clever, thoughtful and always her own person (Coogler really knows how to write and direct women).
Black Panther is also, with its blend of tradition, mysticism and technology, about the bonds of family (in all its meanings). Laying claim to one’s ancestors gives us a sense of place, and an authenticity. (And for an African nation, that sense of place and stability is even more important because of slavery.)
But to possess moral authority you have to challenge past errors too. Only by tackling these can T’Challa truly become a king. It’s having to deal with the fallout from decisions made decades ago that have led to T’Challa having to face Killmonger’s hatred now: “he is a monster of our own making”.
Black Panther is more than a superhero film – it’s a big budget, hugely successful Hollywood film playing across the world with a mainly black cast. May Coogler’s extraordinary movie, like one of those two credits scenes, herald a new dawn.
Watch the Black Panther teaser trailer: