‘It’s hard for a good man to be king.”
Marvel’s latest superhero movie is its least Marvel and least superhero movie yet. As a result it’s also one of their greatest. That is not because it abandons these elements, but because it builds upon them. ‘Superhero’ isn’t really a genre, it’s an amalgamation of conventions, and the best films/tv/comic books that fall under this category are those that work in other genres. Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, a limited series run by DC featuring the Justice League solving the murder of the wife of one of their one, is one of the finest comic books I’ve ever read as it reads like a gritty who dunnit. When it comes to Marvel’s output on Netflix there’s clear distinction between those that did and those that didn’t due to their scope. Daredevil has the narrative arc of a martial arts movie, Jessica Jones a film noir and Luke Cage a western. Ironfist was… Ironfist. And Black Panther? At its core is a drama about family and identity that is of Shakespearean proportions.
There’s so much depth to proceedings and so much heart. The dynamics between characters are so well built-in and play out to perfection. Director and writer Ryan Coogler is a man who knows how to tell a story. At only 31 years of age, with this being only his third film after Fruitvale Station and Creed, he has a body of work that has the degree of solidity many would be envious of. All three films have fully fleshed out characters with developed yet wholly arcs who we watch live out lives that feel real and who we come to feel that we actually know.
With Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) isn’t ‘just’ the Black Panther. He’s a son, a brother, an ex-boyfriend, a best friend and an opponent. Each of these aspects are not just labels, they are important parts of his life which are given a hugely deserved amount of screen time and importance rarely seen in a film of as large a scale as this. His narrative plays out with them having active roles in his life and actually having their own lives, as opposed to being passive participants in ‘his’ journey. Few films feature female roles as developed as those of Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). They are strong women, they are fierce and are respected by T’Challa just as much as they respect him. There’s clear adoration infused in each of these relationships and a well-pitched amount of humour to keep things even more believable. Although it might be his name on the title card, this is their film just as much as his. They’re given story arcs and are not just there to furnish his or help him along.
This is truly refreshing to witness in any kind of film, least of all a film from a series that hasn’t always served it’s female characters the fairest of hands. Another recurring problem Marvel has faced is with its villains – the fact they’ve not always been all that villainous or all that memorable. This is a huge problem when it comes to narrative momentum, the threat needs to be great and purposeful to fully engage the viewer. Of all 18 of their films, Loki has been the most iconic and most beloved of all the villains. Erik Killmonger (Michael B.Jordan) is the best since, or for many, the best ever.
A true villain never set out to be a villain. The rage that drives them, the very anger that formulates their purpose, has a cause stemming from circumstances beyond their control. That’s more than true for Erik – life happened to him, his cynicism, rage and need for destruction come from this. He’s T’Challa’s doppelganger; the epitome of the other life lived; the coulda shoulda woulda been. Their traits aren’t too dissimilar, like hate and love, villian and hero share some space on the venn diagram.
This characterisation in turns leads to the film’s overarching theme about national responsibility. If one nation has progress, harmony and liberty, is it their duty to preserve it or assist others. It’s a hugely topical theme, and has been for a long time. It’s senstivally handled and immensely thought-provoking as a result.
‘With great power comes great responsibility’ has universally entered our vernacular but it’s not something we ever fully contemplate – just how great is the power of one individual, one nation, and what is the true remit of their responsibility? What’s truly fantastic about Black Panther is that it is able to portray such complexities in a film that is so entertaining and is a true joy to watch.