With all the recent talk of whitewashing in Hollywood, welcome to a big-budget, predominantly black, action spectacular. It shows real progress when Martin Freeman – as competent as he is as the ‘good’ white man working for the CIA – feels a little superfluous to proceedings. The nation of Wakanda also turns the African stereotype on its head. This is no backwards country with its hands out for aid dollars, it’s a disguised superpower protecting its valuable vibranium from potential colonists. And its technological prowess would send Tony Stark’s jaw plummeting.
The mix of mysticism and tech works well, as does the Shakespearean tale of family dynasties that we can’t help but feel is cocking a snook at The Lion King. There’s no Elton John soundtrack here, despite the death of the elder statesman king. However, the royal ascension is not without its trials – quite literally, as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must fight to claim the throne, and become the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda.
Despite the empowering messages, so far, so Marvel. Yet Black Panther stands out with a more sombre opening that promises a greater investment in character. We don’t mean T’Challa himself, who is saddled with the serious and restrained role, while everyone around him gets to have more fun (his eye-rolling at the open discussion of his relationship woes is about as relaxed as he gets).
We’re not even talking about Andy Serkis’ gun runner Ulysses Klaue, who makes for an unpredictable and uncaring bad guy, in a step up from his previous sidekick responsibilities in Age of Ultron. In another great moment of a white man giving way to a brilliant black performance, Klaue’s merely a proxy for a much more dangerous – and even more well-rounded – threat. It’s almost as if someone at Marvel realised a hero is only as good as the villain they’re fighting, and put more resources into that area. It also doesn’t hurt that this new threat brings a little hip-hop into their lives.
An awesome baddie, some close quarters fighting that gives the usual combat a more personal edge, and some important messages that avoid sounding like preachy statements (“During times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers”), this is a superhero flick with brains and brawn.