Black Panther review: The revolutionary Afro-futurist film that the world needs right now

Black Panther review: The revolutionary Afro-futurist film that the world needs right now

Black Panther review: The revolutionary Afro-futurist film that the world needs right now

Updated 14 February 2018, 19:10 AEDT

Black Panther is a vibrant, heart pounding depiction of black courage, initiative and power that has a lot to say.

Marvel's new black superhero film is an Afro-futurist Greek tragedy, a story of a fragmented dynasty and a fight for power.

It stretches from the rain slicked streets of a bustling Busan to the dreary, left-behind suburbs of Oakland, but at its centre is the mysterious African nation of Wakanda: sun drenched, mystical, high tech. Wakanda has hidden itself from the world behind an invisible force field and isolationist foreign policy, thriving thanks to its enormous reserves of a rare, powerful mineral.

But as the film opens, Wakanda is in flux, its leader recently dead and his son — Black Panther's alter ego T'Challa — struggling to assert himself as a voice of continuity. American actor Chadwick Boseman plays him with regal grace, adopting a soft South African accent, but he's never too mild mannered to fight rivals in hand-to-hand combat over the leadership.

At a ceremonial waterfall, thrilling gladiatorial bouts unfold with a shaman as referee (Forest Whitaker) and a pantheon of tribal elites watching on with trepidation.

Here, Black Panther's fiercest adversary turns out to have an American accent and hip hop swagger. He's Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a young man who grew up in California and dreams of transforming Wakanda into an interventionist world power.

But his political convictions have a dark side.

Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is the acclaimed filmmaker behind the Sundance hit Fruitvale Station and the much-lauded 2015 Rocky spinoff Creed, both of which starred Jordan.

Those films had a lot to say about the black experience, but Black Panther is on another level altogether.

It's a film attuned to current conversations about race and power, where characters practically roll their eyes when they refer to Americans, and the word 'coloniser' pops up more than once.

With white characters in the minority — Andy Serkis plays the South African nutjob Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman a CIA tagalong — black characters take centre stage.

Some of the most memorable are women — fiercely willed and independently minded like Lupita Nyong'o as T'Challa's would-be girlfriend, and Letitia Wright as the sister and gadget genius who designs the Black Panther suit.

A band of spear-wielding female warriors light up the screen too — punctuating scenes with the trademark thump thump of their weapons — a motif in a film that's frequently so percussive and rhythmic it hovers on the edge of musicality.

But they all remain secondary to the central male pair, and their very different expressions of grief, anger and ambition.

In this, Killmonger is a villain who inspires considerable sympathy, though the film stops short of validating his anger as a black man who's grown up in a racist America.

In fact, it equates it to psychopathy.

It's a curious choice. Coogler and his co-writers seem intent on contrasting his fury with the much more measured worldview of T'Challa, and it's like watching the mixed-up, angry kid wanting to fight the school captain. There's no way he's going to prevail.

Comic book creator Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby first came up with the Black Panther in 1966, the year the revolutionary group of the same name began patrolling black neighbourhoods in Oakland.

It was pure coincidence, but for a while Marvel changed the superhero's name to avoid bad publicity.

Fifty years on, it still seems scarred by the association.

Coogler's film makes an example out of Killmonger's mouthy firebrand, which is understandable given the villain's terrible plans.

But against the rest of the film's vibrant, heart-pounding depiction of black courage, initiative and power, there's something deeply sad about this character and his twisted rage. The groundwork, presumably, is laid for future films, when the Black Panther will come to understand just what made Killmonger so angry and radical.