Hailed as remarkable for its attention to race relations and African culture, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is fast becoming known as one of the ‘smartest’ blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. But if you strip down this veil, it is at its core still just another superhero film and, while it may break new ground, its loyalty to the expanded Marvel universe comes first.
Following the newly crowned King T’Challa as he deals with the fallout of Captain America: Civil War, both old and new villains arrive to threaten the peace of the hidden paradise Wakanda. In terms of plot, the film does manage to build a realistic and deep mythology for the fake African country but with a breakneck pace and large ensemble cast, Black Panther always seems to feel on fast forward. While the technology and culture of Wakanda are fascinating to discover, we are constantly torn between different plot threads and Marvels incessant need for big CGI set-pieces; in the end its exhausting for the viewer and difficult for them to sympathise with the fate of a country we’ve hardly spent time in. Regarding the special effects, it’s appalling to see a 2018 film look more like a PS2 cut-scene when so much time and effort has been put into the immaculate and culturally aware set and costume design. While the earlier work of director Ryan Coogler is clearly visible in the film, it is anchored not supported by the wider Marvel universe and the need to regulate each directors work with a consistent aesthetic and frequent nods to other parts of the franchise.
While some of the supporting cast offer entertaining performances, one of the biggest flaws of the film is the lead himself, Chadwick Boseman; the stoic, one-minded T’Challa is only ever the mature straight man reacting to the insanity of Andy Serkis’ Klaw or the charisma of Letita Wrights Shuri. This is most evident in scenes featuring Boseman against antagonist Killmonger, played brilliantly by Coogler veteran Michael B Jordan, where it becomes clear that the film is far more invested in its villain than its hero.
Black Panther is a good superhero film but that’s all it really is. While it does pay respect to the character’s African heritage, underneath the brilliant world building and beautiful aesthetic it still conforms to the strict rules of the tired Marvel formula.