BLACK PANTHER ★★★½
(M) 134 minutes
Black Panther has perfect timing, lofty ambitions and extremely good intentions.
Along with Marvel's first black superhero, it has an African-American director and a strong African-American cast of characters, many of whom are women, as well as warriors.
There is no doubt at all that it's doing its duty as far as Hollywood's professed embrace of diversity is concerned. And judging from some rapturous early reviews and encouraging advance ticket sales, it looks like being a hit.
It certainly works hard to cover all bases. As well as incorporating borrowings from everything from Bond to Blade Runner, its design draws on tribal motifs from all over the African continent – to dizzying effect. You don't quite know where you are but that, I guess, is the point.
Black Panther, aka T'Challa, crown prince of the mythical state of Wakanda, dates back to 1966 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby included him in a Fantastic Four comic book but director Ryan Coogler and his team are clearly intent on creating and furnishing an entirely new corner of the Marvel Universe for him to inhabit.
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) made his screen debut in 2016 in Captain America: Civil War, a film which saw his father assassinated at an international conference. Now he's back in Wakanda, ready to take his place as the new king.
But first, we're treated to lengthy and slightly ponderous tour of the place. It's an African Shangri La, hidden away in a valley so isolated that it's been able to keep its technological marvels secret from the rest of the world. It's a CGI paradise with skyscrapers, sky trains and a extravagant arsenal of gadgetry, much of it invented by T'Challa's precocious 16-year-old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda's equivalent of Bond's Q. These achievements are all made possible by the country's possession of a miracle mineral called vibranium. This will be the source of the Black Panther's power and a solemn-faced Forest Whitaker, cast as the country's spiritual leader, is on hand to perform the necessary ceremony.
But there are inevitable complications, among them Andy Serkis, making sweaty work of his role as a villainous South African arms dealer out to hijack the vibranium, and Michael B. Jordan as the aptly named Erik Killmonger, a Wakandan exile with a grudge. Having grown up in the US and absorbed all the mannerisms of a gangsta rapper, he's gone on to become a black ops soldier in the Middle East. Now he's returned to Wakanda with an urge to take the throne for himself. And he has no interest in maintaining the country's policy of peaceably keeping to itself. He wants war.
Behind all this is a highly relevant theme. Should Wakanda remain in its blissful state of seclusion from the rest of the world? Or should it engage with its neighbours, not by fighting them, but by sharing some of the wealth that its store of vibranium provides?
This is T'Challa's dilemma but he's also haunted by a new revelation about the actions of his dead father. This necessitates a brief trip to the after-life as father and son resolve their difficulties then it's back to the action, and there is no shortage of spectacle. Wakanda's all-female special force, the Dora Milaje, arrayed in red armour with gold and silver trimmings, is the film's star turn. But it's all so humourless that you're inordinately grateful for the script's rare joke.
Wright's Shuri lifts the spirits whenever she appears, playing the teasing little sister to Boseman's overly earnest T'Challa, and Martin Freeman provides more light relief as a bewildered CIA agent caught in the middle of the action. I also liked Winston Duke as the chief of a neighbouring tribe. Determined not to take himself too seriously, he has a way of dispelling the reverential air which frequently settles over everything, helping to account for the film's excessive length.
All up, it's a very rich buffet – geopolitical thriller, futuristic fantasy, coming-of-age story, African adventure with mystical overtones. And it offers a wide variety of tastes and sensations but they never really come together to form a satisfying whole.
Sandra Hall is the author of two novels (A Thousand Small Wishes and Beyond the Break), two histories of the Australian television industry (Supertoy and Turning On, Turning Off) and Tabloid Man, a biography of Ezra Norton, the man who established Truth and The Daily Mirror. She was film critic at The Bulletin magazine prior to joining The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter