In 1966, a pair of white guys (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) created the Black Panther as a guest star in Fantastic Four. To Stan and Jack, the Panther’s home Wakanda was another fantastic realm on a par with Atlantis, Asgard, Attilan or Latveria – comparable Marvel monarchies, which somehow seeded a fictional universe with swashbuckler codes of succession, a deep belief in the divine right of the true king combined with suspicion of his usurping relatives, an emphasis on the sorts of palace intrigues favoured by Ruritanian-Graustarkian imaginary countries, and a let’s-not-think-too-much-about-it social order in which non-voting citizens get to be serfs or (in the case of the Inhumans) slaves. Every subsequent writer-artist team to take on the character – and there have been a lot — has had to squirm and reboot to get out of some embarrassing stuff, including an arch-enemy called Man-Ape and a harem of warrior babe bodyguards.
The one factor that differentiates T’Challa from Namor, Thor, Black Bolt and Dr Doom is his real-world ethnicity – he represents African cultural identity the way Dr Doom (a Heathcliff-like gypsy under the mask) doesn’t represent the traveller community. The Black Panther’s stature as arguably the first black superhero makes him a figure on a par with Superman,Wonder Woman or Captain America – though, crucially, he isn’t the first African-American superhero. The many Marvel comics readers who were waiting for that innovation had to make do with a few place-holders until the debut of the Falcon and Luke Cage, who had the advantage of not being an out-of-touch monarch and speaking a more street-level jive than the high-flown neo-Shakespeareanism Wakanda shares with Atlantis and, frankly, Mongo.
It’s no surprise then that Marvel have waited until deep into their cinematic universe to give the Panther his own vehicle, though Chadwick Bozeman’s T’Challa got a solid intro – which gets recapped here – in Captain America Civil War. This isn’t the first black superhero movie – deep breath, but the Blade films, Catwoman, Steel, Spawn, Meteor Man and Blankman got there first, and the non-comics-derived Hancock was even a big budget black superhero film. Admittedly, two out of three Blades aside, this isn’t a particularly inspiring group … and Marvel have gone all out by casting black actors in depth, and hiring a mostly black set of creatives. The inevitable tag aside, there’s little crossover with the other films in the series so this feels like a new start, with a different look and tone (especially the use of music) even if we still get a lot of MCU trademarks like big flying contraptions that have to be shot down, CGI-assisted skinsuit grapples and a family drama built around dead or absent Dads (seriously, Hollywood, get over this issue!) and sibling rivalry (here, between cousins). In its own way, the film is as important for the way it gives its hero four interesting black women as team-mates – with Martin Freeman not overdoing the doltishness as token whitey – as for the way it frames Bozeman as a hero the way previous superhero movies have framed Aryan ideals like Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans. T’Challa is still kind of a stiff character, but that’s part of the package of being an icon – here, the camera looks at him the way John Ford lit Woody Strode as if he were a bronze John Wayne in Sgt Rutledge.
The trick with Black Panther has been to accept that he’s an upright character who risks being seen as too clean-cut to be as interesting as angry ex-con Luke Cage or even half-vampire Blade or farther out characters like Brother Voodoo or Monica Rambeau (hey, Marvel, when’s the Brother Voodoo movie due?). The saving grace is to surround him with an eccentric, scheming supporting cast and director Ryan Coogler has gone all-out in this direction, taking cues from series written in different decades by Don McGregor and James Owsley (the guy who stole Christopher Priest’s name) and building up solid roles for Lupita Nyong’o (ex-girlfriend), Danai Gurira (warrior woman), Letitia Wright (techie sister), Winston Duke (that dud character Man-Ape reinvented as a terrific, sinister-comic ambiguous nemesis), Andy Serkis (as longtime Marvel baddie Klaw) and Michael B. Jordan (as the big bad). That’s not even counting Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, John Kani and Angela Bassett, who are along for the ride – Kaluuya literally, on an armoured rhino. The script, by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, hinges on getting Wakanda out of the corner Lee and Kirby painted it into – like Shangri-La (another persistent Marvel influence), this advanced and sage society is cut off from the world in its own colourfully art-directed Afrofuturist techtopia, and it’s the villain who wants to break tradition in the name of global revolution.
As a contemporary comic book movie, it has that slightly rote Marvel feel, whereby there’s enough innovation, freshness, amiability and excitement to coast by on, but the risk of doing something different is mitigated by sticking so faithfully to the three-act story structure there are too few surprises. As the exile of Edgar Wright proves, Kevin Feige isn’t going to let the likes of Ang Lee or Guillermo del Toro or even Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer get near the franchise any time in the future. Coogler is a canny filmmaker – and manages to retain his identity from project to project even at this level, as did Taika Waititi – and is surrounded here by a team of superb technicians. This entirely admirable film is impossible to take against, but so on the nose it flirts with the high-level blandness that sets in with too many MCU properties. Maybe next time, T’Challa should do one of his Coming to America-type storylines, like the one where he subs for Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen or his team-up with Blade and Luke Cage in post-Katrina New Orleans, and let Wright’s character wear the mantle of the Black Panther. An odd aside reference: the herb-induced rite of passage hallucinations that come with taking on the Panther suit seem to take place in the same universe as Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People remake.