Black Panther (2018)

Ryan Coogler | 2hr 14min

The type of world building that Marvel Studios has refined over the past decade through a sprawling universe of superheroes and world-ending threats is certainly an impressive feat, and yet there is too often a tangibility and imagination lacking in its design that sacrifices creativity for mass appeal. The arrival of Black Panther, the 18th instalment in the franchise, does not so much shake up the genre as it sensitively applies a singular, artistic voice, unimpeded by the demands of a studio to undercut tension with cheap quips and grind its pacing to a halt for the sake of fan service. The world building that Ryan Coogler delicately crafts here is not based on crossovers or cameos, but is instead revealed through Wakanda’s rituals, politics, people, and perhaps most importantly, the striking visual design that ties each of these together.

Perhaps the greatest instance of this manifests early on at the Warrior Falls, a grand set piece that Coogler reveals through a slow tilting of the camera upwards to reveal a set of steep cliffsides, swarming with Wakandans robed in bright regalia. Across these rocky surfaces, vivid, earthy colours are weaved through intricate costume designs that divide the kingdom up into tribes, and while little time is spent expositing where each stand in relation to each other, we learn just enough to understand the expansiveness of this world.

A gorgeously staged set piece that Coogler returns to twice over, packing so much world building around rituals and tribal cultures into his visuals.
A level of detail in the production design not often found in Marvel films, weaving delicate colour palettes, textures, and patterns that tell the stories of these characters.

The Border tribe, recognised by its bright blue textiles, are the first to leave T’Challa’s side when civil war erupts, while the Mountain tribe, clothed in brown leather and furs, distantly isolate themselves in Wakanda’s snowy alps, and adopt the mannerisms of wolves. That W’kabi and M’baku, the main representatives of both communities, carry their own fully-realised character arcs through supporting roles is a testament to Coogler’s remarkably rich storytelling in Black Panther, efficiently implementing an impressive level of formal detail that sets the stage for the central, political conflict.

It is in the clash between the ideologies of T’Challa and his cousin, Killmonger, that Coogler grounds his narrative in questions surrounding the distribution of Black resources and power, though his development of a truly great cinematic villain lies in more than just his motivations. Michael B. Jordan swaggers into every scene in a blaze of fury, pain, and confidence, naturally drawing followers to Killmonger’s cause with compelling ease, but as we discover in his background as a U.S. Navy Seal, he is also a master strategist, patient and cunning in his manipulations. As he takes power, Coogler’s camera quite literally turns Wakanda on its head, beautifully silhouetting him against a scorching fire before following him into the throne room with a daunting, upside-down tracking shot.

One of the greatest villains and performances in the MCU – Eric Killmonger is wounded, vengeful, and an intimidating force of vengeance.
Coogler spiralling the camera upside down in this tracking shot into the throne room as Killmonger takes power, tying his style to the narrative.

Binding T’challa and Killmonger together though is a shared love of their people, as we see their own respective devotions and sorrows rise to the surface during their brief pilgrimages to the ancestral plane. For T’Challa, an open, African prairie lit by a vibrant aurora of blue and purple lights becomes the setting where his insecurities of ascending to the throne emerge, mixing practical sets and a computerised backdrop to create a stunningly ethereal set piece. That vibrant night sky appears once again when Killmonger enters the plane, shedding a cool, gentle light over the scene, though in his vision the grasslands are swapped out for his childhood apartment, inciting a vengeful, trauma-driven anger rather than a gracious acceptance of his father’s death.

A blend of practical set design and digital effects to create the gorgeous Ancestral Plane, glowing with blues and violets from the aurora.
It’s not quite John Ford, but the blocking of this composition is certainly in that lineage of Western staging – the low angle, the staggered bodies, the mountainous backdrop.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger’s vulnerability manifests as violence, driving a vicious anger through Coogler’s tactile, thrillingly choreographed fight scenes. The blinding exception to this is the final clash between hero and villain, unfolding right after an epic battle fully earned by the political divisions sown throughout the film. The decision to set these inky black, digitally rendered characters against a dark environment is poorly conceived to begin with, but there is also an artificial weightlessness to their movements, sadly typical of a lot of modern CGI action scenes.

This is ultimately a lone blemish on a film which otherwise excels in its visuals though, as Coogler relishes building intricate set pieces based around unique architectural designs, such as M’baku’s throne room of hanging wood and panoramic mountain views, or the Korean casino that looks straight out of a David Fincher film. It is in the latter that Coogler stages one of Black Panther’s greatest scenes, hanging round, yellow bulbs from the ceiling to shed a dim glow over the red and gold room, and then kicking it up a notch with a camera that flies across its levels in a single, long take, smoothly shifting its focus between the smaller skirmishes inside the larger battle. Adding significantly to these scenes is the pounding score from Ludwig Göransson, often mixing African drums, flutes, and chants with more contemporary orchestral music, and thereby creating a sound that matches the Afro-futuristic designs of Coogler’s mise-en-scene.

Lighting in the Korean casino like a Fincher film, but the casino from Skyfall is another comparison that comes to mind. The long takes in the action that unfolds only continues to take the scene to another level.

Black Panther may not break the mould of its genre like The Dark Knight, but there are still lessons to be learnt here with the adaptation of classic superhero conventions into abundantly rich, thoughtfully drawn settings, offering new, specific depths to familiar archetypes. There is a great deal of pride written into its characters, but with that comes a pain that feels deeply personal to Coogler, sensitively explored through dramatically stylised environments and conflicts. That it carries the distinctive artistic mark of a director with clear adoration of its source material, cultural context, and above all, cinematic potential, fundamentally makes for a Marvel movie that stands among the studio’s finest, and certainly its most visually adventurous.

Black Panther is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

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