Afrofuturist superhero movie Black Panther breaks new ground in more ways than one

As well as being the first mainstream black superhero movie, it’s witty and includes plenty of leading women. 

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It’s clear almost from the start of the latest Marvel adventure Black Panther that the title character is not your run-of-the-mill superhero. Did Captain America or Wonder Woman have to drink a purple potion while being buried in red sand, only to emerge in the long grass of the Ancestral Plane, where fiery-eyed panthers doze in the trees under a pink sky before metamorphosing from cat to human? They did not. It is only one of several dozen instances during which the more reflective cinemagoer has cause to wonder if there is anything separating the movie from, say, Yellow Submarine or the psychedelic Monkees film Head. Black Panther is, in every sense, a trip.

There are numerous ways in which the picture breaks new ground, none of which would count for very much if the film itself didn’t work some wonderful miracles within the confines of its genre. It is the first black mainstream superhero movie, the most expensive studio project ever made by an African-American director (take a bow, Ryan Coogler, who only made his debut, Fruitvale Station, five years ago) and the first picture of its kind to be populated almost entirely by black actors. Relatively new faces including Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) mingle with veterans such as Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker.

It is just as notable, however, for tipping the gender balance of its leading characters in favour of women: T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is protected by an all-female security squad from his birthplace, the technologically-advanced African country Wakanda, where the infrastructure and aesthetic provides a good, working, one-stop definition of Afrofuturism. Those bodyguards, known as the Dora Milaje, are headed up by the exacting Okoye (Danai Gurira), who wields her magic spear and sniffs at guns (“How primitive”). Also on hand are T’Challa’s former squeeze Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), around whom he goes weak at the knees, and his teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a gadgets expert who mocks him relentlessly and comes on like a sassier version of Q from the Bond films. Any victories Panther notches up in his efforts to find the villain who has stolen quantities of Wakanda’s deadly metal vibranium are as much theirs as his.

Meanwhile, an audacious theft is in progress over at the world-famous Museum of Great Britain. What do you mean, you’ve never been there? The heist is being masterminded by Erik Killmonger, who represents an example of nominative determinism in action. What if he’d wanted to be a marriage guidance counsellor or a chartered surveyor? He would likely still have exuded the same mixture of suavity, sincerity and menace that is the stock-in-trade of the charismatic Michael B. Jordan. Announcing his decision to simply steal an African artefact from one of the glass cases, he says “how do you think your ancestors got it?” while the (white) curator looks on in horror.

As his South African partner-in-crime Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkis relishes the chance to show his face after nearly two decades of working predominantly in performance capture roles. He is also one of only two white actors in the main cast, the other being Martin Freeman as the CIA agent Everett Ross, and it’s unexpectedly refreshing to see normal superhero film proceedings turned upside down when Everett is left in the lab to operate the tech while his black allies get stuck in on the battlefield, dirtying their hands in the combat proper. Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, and Freeman, who was Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy, have referred to themselves rather marvellously as the new picture’s “Tolkein white boys”, which is as witty as anything in the script itself.

That script, by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, adheres to the usual genre formula of tomfoolery, in-jokes, mythology and outright poppycock, but their knack for teasing emotional resonance out of standard scenarios gives them the edge over predecessors and competitors alike. One character contemplating death says: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” You don’t hear that sort of thing in Batman V Superman.

Black Panther is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.