The 50 best films of 2018: No 6 – Black Panther
Friday 14 December 2018
espite the slick, well-constructed framework of the Marveluniverse (an ongoing work of cinematic art compared to the slapdash scramble of the DC alternative), superhero fatigue has still been slowly creeping into their output. It was inevitable that after so many similarly structured capers, all acting as connective tissue to one another, that familiarity would breed contempt but it was less easy to predict just how grindingly dull so much of it would get.
What a joy it then was to experience Black Panther this past February; a vibrant, thrilling, intelligent and most importantly, distinctive addition to an overcrowded landscape. It managed to smoothly slide into the pre-existing canon while also leaping out from the pack with character and force, doubling up as an exhilarating action adventure and a poignant drama infused with a rare social conscience. Anyone who’d seen director Ryan Coogler’s first two films, devastating fact-based drama Fruitvale Station and rousing Rocky reboot Creed, might not have been entirely surprised by his ability to deliver both with such confidence but given the restrictive nature of the MCU, it was nothing short of a miracle that he managed to retain such staggering creative control.
Working with co-writer Joe Robert Cole, Coogler understood that any great superhero film needs a sturdy foundation and their sharp, humane script found a way to anchor the fantastical elements with relevancy and genuine pathos. While Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is an effortlessly charismatic hero, the film undeniably belonged to an electrifying Michael B Jordan, whose remarkably nuanced villain Killmonger provided one of the most compelling motivations we’ve ever seen in the genre. There were tough, weighty questions being asked, especially within a big-budget studio release with race, power, responsibility and class all under the microscope. Killmonger’s fury at both the systemic racism that was killing other black men and the refusal of his extended, priviliged family to do anything about it led to an uncomfortable discussion, extending way beyond the screen and at a time when the news is still haunted by imagery of dead black bodies, it felt like a profoundly necessary blockbuster to be heralding.
There was also a great deal of wit, Coogler lightly zipping between tones with swift confidence, the majority of funny moments arriving courtesy of a star-making turn from Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s gadget guru, just one of many unusually substantive roles for black women in a blockbuster of this scale. Travelling to Wakanda, the film’s fictional country in sub-Saharan Africa, was also a giddy pleasure, one of the most immersive big-screen worlds we’ve encountered in years and Coogler’s slick yet singular aesthetic, along with a pulse-pounding soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar gave the action scenes a thrilling buzz.
Before the release of Black Panther, the inevitability of yet more superheroes infiltrating the multiplex was a rather glum thought, but Coogler’s show-stopping hit has managed to singlehandedly reinvigorate the genre. Its record-breaking box office, coupled with the fact that it’s tipped to become the first comic-book film to score a best picture nomination at the Oscars, has changed the game and rather than dread the idea of sequels, I’m craving them.