Film review: Black Panther purrs and growls

Marvel's first blockbuster of the year is the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther, a barnstormer of a film sinks its claws into present-day racial tensions, gender inequality and western imperialism with relish, writes Damon Smith

Chadwick Boseman and Angela Bassett in Black Panther

THE lucrative Marvel Comics universe will expand exponentially in the next 12 months. Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man And The Wasp are waiting in the wings, tightly coiled with droll humour and hyperkinetic energy to discharge during the summer blockbuster months.

First out of the digitally augmented blocks is a rousing standalone adventure for the eponymous African king, who we first encountered in a snazzy vibranium-enriched bodysuit in the superhero battle royale Captain America: Civil War.

If Black Panther – directed with swagger by Ryan Coogler – is emblematic of things to come from the comic books pantheon, then roll on 2018 because this frenetically edited odyssey of self-doubt and redemption is the big cat's whiskers.

In some respects, this is identikit film-making from Marvel: prodigal sons tormented by the loss of powerful fathers, computer-generated characters trading bone-crunching blows in mid-air, a throwaway cameo for comic book maven Stan Lee and additional scenes concealed in end credits.

Genetic flaws aside, Coogler's slinky picture is barnstorming entertainment of the highest pedigree, which sinks its narrative claws into present-day racial tensions, gender inequality and western imperialism with relish.

Female characters are feisty, intelligent and refuse to sit demurely on the sidelines while engaging yet flawed male counterparts have all the fun. As one proud warrior reminds her regal lover: the choice to rule as queen rests in her hands.

A predominantly black cast festooned with Oscar winners and nominees adds lustre to a lean script co-written by Joe Robert Cole, teasing out tender romance and bruising bloodline rivalries stained with tears of regret.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to grief-stricken Wakanda – a pacifist, technologically advanced society "hidden in plain view" – following the murder of his father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), in a terrorist bombing.

Four of the African nation's five clans, including the border tribe led by T'Challa's best friend W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), support his ascension but the Jabari mountain people commanded by M'Baku (Winston Duke) loudly voice their opposition.

Fragile allegiances fracture and CIA-trained operative Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens (Michael B Jordan) chooses this moment to stage a bloody coup.

Flanked by formidable bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), T'Challa rouses his supporters including his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), spunky teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o).

Black Panther repeatedly flexes its impressive technical muscles. Pulse-quickening skirmishes above and below Wakandan ground are choreographed at a furious pace, and a car chase through the night-time streets of Busan in South Korea employs slow motion acrobatics to dizzying effect.

Coogler's film purrs sweetly during quieter, contemplative moments too as conflicted characters wrestle with moral obligations to share wealth and knowledge with less fortunate kin.

That blistering tug of war between self-preservation and philanthropy provides plentiful dramatic meat for cast to sink their teeth into, exemplified by a torsional bond between Boseman and Jordan's embittered and idealistic rivals.

"The world's going to start over and I'm going to be on top," growls Killmonger.

Black Panther comes thrillingly close to joining him at the summit.

BLACK PANTHER (12A, 134 mins) Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Romance. Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, John Kani. Director: Ryan Coogler.

Released: February 13 (UK & Ireland)

RATING: 8.5/10

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