Black Panther: Paving the way for an iconic black superhero

Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa, leader of a fictional African nation who becomes the powerful Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa, leader of a fictional African nation who becomes the powerful Black Panther. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY



135 minutes/Now showing/ 3.5 stars

The story: Thanks to the wondrous metal vibranium, Wakanda is a technologically advanced African nation. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends the throne and becomes the powerful Black Panther with the help of a magic potion. But he faces a challenger, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to export Wakanda's weapons to the outside world. In T'Challa's corner are his former lover and special ops member Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and American intelligence officer Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).

Black Panther is a pretty entertaining film and an important one, even though it stops short of being a great one.

For starters, it features a black superhero in the blindingly white pantheon of Marvel characters. And he is not just a lone token symbol. Much of the action takes place in the fictitious Wakanda and the white characters, including Freeman's obliging Ross, are the secondary characters.

It is almost like peering at a black-and-white photograph with the blacks and whites reversed.

The film also answers the question of what a technologically advanced African society might look like.

The landscape is both recognisably African and sci-fi sleek at the same time. The futuristic-looking flying vehicles sport a mask-like design while colourful murals decorate the gleaming laboratories.

Black Panther also asks the resonant question of what responsibilities, if any, such a society has to the rest of the world: isolationism or engagement?

While Boseman (who played legendary singer James Brown in the biopic Get On Up, 2014), with his lovely lilt and noble mien, is the focus here, he is surrounded by many powerful women.

One definitely does not want to cross the spear-wielding Okoye, played with absolute authority by Gurira (from television's ongoing zombie hit The Walking Dead). There is also T'Challa's bubbly younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is the equivalent of James Bond's gadget master Q.

The excellent soundtrack curated by American rapper Kendrick Lamar (see review on page D6) adds to the distinctive sense of place - be it Wakanda or Busan in South Korea, where a major scene plays out.

It is a pity that the movie sags in the middle and it takes the appearance of Jordan, who was in acclaimed football drama Friday Night Lights from 2009 to 2011, to liven things up as the villain with a tragic past.

Perhaps director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, 2013) could have taken his cue from the titular creature and prowled at a faster speed where pacing was concerned.

Nevertheless, kudos to Black Panther for successfully showing moviegoers what a black superhero film looks like.

So Hollywood, how about that Asian superhero flick?

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline Black Panther: Paving the way for an iconic black superhero. Subscribe