Wesley Snipes was once up to play Black Panther, back when Marvel Comics’ movie rights were bouncing all over the place, did you know?
As far as playing a Marvel character is concerned, he got as far as the first three letters of the name, at least.
Good thing, because – no offence to the baddest vampire slayer on the planet – it’s really hard to imagine anyone being able to out-regal Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, king of Wakanda and its hereditary protector, the Black Panther.
Not after he made such an impactful appearance in Captain America: Civil War that he immediately made the role his own.
And certainly not after this outing. Neither T’Challa nor Wakanda would be unfamiliar to longtime comics readers. Though not seen till now, the nation has been mentioned earlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – notably in Avengers: Age Of Ultron – as the world’s only source of the incredible metal known as vibranium (which Captain America’s shield is made from).
While T’Challa has already left his mark on the MCU (and on Cap’s shield), this time it’s his whole country’s turn.
And in what is perhaps the MCU’s most culturally rich and diverse offering to date, it becomes quite apparent that Wakanda is going to be a game-changer.
Suffice to say that it is a land of technological wonders, wisely (some would say selfishly) kept from the rest of the world throughout history.
And that isolation is the source of much of the tension in the film, though it doesn’t get in the way of a wonderfully 007-ish “mission” in Busan in the movie’s first half.
What’s the film all about? Why, it’s about T’Challa officially becoming king to succeed his father (who was killed by the manipulative Zemo in Civil War, remember?), of course. Only thing is, a few people are standing in his way.
As usual, there is villainy afoot: the sleazy/nasty Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), last seen in Age Of Ultron; and the slick killing machine Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), whose motivation you can actually sympathise with (if not his methods).
And while this may be a standalone Black Panther movie, the hero doesn’t stand alone. Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) have gone to great lengths to surround T’Challa with some highly memorable supporting characters.
Of the bunch, three women stand out: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his chief spy and love interest; Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), his chief bodyguard; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), his sister and resident tech genius.
And of the three, Shuri is a scene-stealer, getting some of the best lines as she gleefully unveils one amazing gadget after another to help her brother in the field and wow the viewers in our seats (we love you, Shuri Q).
The dynamic among T’Challa and his entourage is so nicely realised, it’s almost as though this is the second or third chapter in a series rather than a “debut” movie as such (the “don’t freeze” reference in the trailer is of course made clear here, to hilarious effect).
And the film also raises interesting moral questions about Wakanda’s isolationism, the typical superhero’s quandary of having all that power but not being able to do more with it. It reflects some of the sentiments felt about injustices in the world today without being overly political.
Also, the dilemma is extended to an entire country, and the things that happen in the second half of the film show that the questions have been weighing heavily on some of its citizens’ minds too.
With Black Panther, Coogler has given the MCU one of its most kaleidoscopic, vibrant entries that cleverly weaves its questions into the fabric of its story and its characters.
One thing I wish Coogler had done, though, was take the time to let all those Wakandan wonders sink in a little.
There is an opportunity to do that, to let the audience experience the marvels of the land through the eyes of first-time visitor Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, also returning from Civil War).
But no, Ross barely gets enough time to raise his eyebrows when everything goes sideways for our hero and his entourage.
That’s the trouble with paradises – there’s never any shortage of serpents.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown