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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Black Panther, Review: Pantherium Vibranium Compendium

Black Panther, Review: Pantherium Vibranium Compendium

You first heard the name in 2010’s Iron Man 2. It was mentioned in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Wakanda became an entity to reckon with in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, with Chadwick Boseman making his debut as Black Panther. So, do not confuse this outing with The Black Panther (1921) or The Black Panther (1977). On hand is no less than the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And hey, it is no triviality that Marvel icon Captain America’s shield is made of Vibranium, found only in Wakanda.

Centuries ago, five African tribes went to war over a meteorite of the alien metal, Vibranium, that crashed on their land. A warrior ingested a "heart-shaped herb” that was affected due to mutation by the metal, and gained superhuman abilities. He became the first "Black Panther", and united the tribes to form the nation of Wakanda, though the Jabari tribe chose not to follow the Black Panther's rule, choosing to stay aloof, in the mountains. Over time, the Wakandans used the Vibranium to develop highly-advanced technology, and chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, by posing as a Third World country.

In 1992 (earlier film reference), while on an undercover assignment, Prince N'Jobu became convinced that Wakanda's isolationist policies had done more harm than good, and vowed to share its technology with people of African descent around the world, in order to help them conquer their oppressors. N'Jobu enlisted South African black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue to infiltrate Wakanda and steal a cache of vibranium. His older brother, King T'Chaka, learnt of this from another undercover agent, N'Jobu's partner Zuri, and confronted N'Jobu. When N'Jobu attacked Zuri, T'Chaka reluctantly killed him, and ordered Zuri to lie, that N'Jobu had disappeared. They left behind his American son, Erik Stevens, in order to maintain the lie.

In the present day (read 2108), following T'Chaka's death at the hands of Helmut Zemo, his son T'Challa returns to Wakanda to assume the throne. He and Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje fighting force, extract his ex-lover Nakia from an undercover assignment, so she can attend his coronation ceremony, along with his mother Ramonda, and younger sister, Shuri. At the ceremony, the Jabari Tribe's leader M'Baku challenges T'Challa for the crown, but T'Challa defeats M'Baku in ritual combat, formally becoming the new king. He allows M'Baku to live.

When Klaue resurfaces to sell a stolen Wakandan Vibranium artefact to a buyer in Busan, South Korea, T'Challa's closest friend W'Kabi—who lost his parents as a result of Klaue's actions—urges him to bring Klaue to justice. T'Challa, Okoye, and Nakia go to the underground casino where the deal is taking place, to find that the buyer is CIA agent Everett K. Ross, who takes Klaue into custody, against T'Challa's will. Klaue tells Ross that Wakanda's international image is just a front for a technologically advanced civilisation, before being broken out by Erik, now an ex-U.S. black ops soldier who goes by the name "Killmonger".

Joe Robert Cole (Amber) is the writing credit, sharing it with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), based on the Black Panther comics series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It is a tough ask when you want to spin off a black nation tribal super-power from a franchise like Captain America, and let it stand on its own. To its credit, the idea works. Next task would be to merge old tribal life-style with high-tech gadgetry, while still masquerading as a poor, third world African country. That works too. Some humour could do no harm, but how do you weave in chuckles and guffaws from tribesmen who are at each others’ throats? I will not ‘spoiler’ it by describing how Cole-Coogler formulate mass mirth out of nowhere. But to be sure, the film is over-written, with the space-craft battles, the CIA and the Cuban missile crisis of the early 60s, all interwoven, without resulting in striking patterns.

Moving on, M/s Cole and Coogler needed to get the audience to remember some 50 names that, to say the least, are difficult to pronounce, and remember the connections and relations to each other. They have failed here! O.k., but so what? Who, in the right frame of mind, expects such cerebral agility? And if it does matter so much, read it all before/during/after the viewing. The irony is not lost on anybody—a super rich African nation, a repository of the vitalium metalium Vibranium has to pretend to be a poverty-stricken country, in order to escape the evil eye of its affluent fellow, nations the ‘first world’.

For director Ryan Coogler, it is character feast, with a range that encompasses almost all types and species. In a kingdom, you have an assortment that lets your mould innumerable shapes. Combat and battle scenes are well executed, though the spaceship encounters did not match up in context. Coogler’s major success comes from the credibility he is able to impart to his characters. He cannot do much about the power, greed and jealousy elements that form the basis of the story, and he doesn’t even try and take the theme away from this matrix. Given the progress Wakanda boasts of, life seems pretty normal, as if on earth, except for some levitating trains. Could they not download some more luxury apps?

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa/Black Panther has a probing stare that sharply contrasts with his gentle affirmation every time he is asked whether he is ready to do battle. Physically, he has just the right muscle tones—no wrestler, no weakling. Michael B. Jordan as N'Jadaka / Erik (Killmonger) Stevens, the nemesis has a mystery attached to him (the son of N'Jobu and an American woman, who becomes a U.S. black-ops soldier and seeks to overthrow T'Challa), unless you have done your home-work. Looks strikingly villainish, dreadlocks added for effect.  

Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Nakia is competent, with a dash of humour that befits an ‘ex’. There is some chemistry between her and Boswick, though not of the conflagration kind. Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of intel, and proud of it; also head of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces of Wakanda who serve as T'Challa's bodyguards, battle ready at the drop of a hat, is good casting. She was highly appreciated in TV’s The Walking Dead, but Coogler cast her based on her work in Mother of George, a film that received three nominations for her acting.

Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross plays the CIA man, one of the rare white characters that can be counted on your thumbs, in a routine manner. Letitia Wright as Shuri, T'Challa's 16-year-old sister and the princess of Wakanda, who designs new technology for the country, mainly in the virtual reality domain. It’s a smart, cheeky part that Wright rightfully enjoys. Winston Duke as M'Baku, as the leader of the mountain tribe, the Jabari, and T’Challa’s challenger, who speaks a version of the Nigerian Igbo language rather than the Xhosa language spoken by other Wakandans, is a surprise packet

Angela Bassett who is cast as Ramonda, T'Challa's mother and Queen Mother of Wakanda, shows regal demeanour and takes both victory and catastrophe in her imperial stride. Forest Whitaker as Zuri is an elder statesman of Wakanda, and the keeper of the Heart-Shaped Herb, which is the source of immense strength. He looks the part. Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, white man number two, goes through the motions, using an arm cannon. Yes an ‘arm cannon’! Black Panther co-creator Stan Lee has a cameo in the film, as a patron in the South Korean casino. Surprise?

Cinematography by Rachel Morrison and Editing by Michael P. Shawver & Claudia Castello keep the 134-minute film interesting. Perhaps, just perhaps, the film works well on account of the underdog factor. Almost all black cast and the underprivileged African continent, and, in the midst of it all, the emergence of a pre-eminent black SuperPower.

Is a sequel likely? Wrong question. Black Panther was a compendium. There is much more of Vibranium down there to be left to mutation.

Rating: *** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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