Black Panther (2018)
Written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Prince T’Challa is still mourning his father’s death in the wake of Captain America: Civil War and he must be coronated the new monarch of Wakanda. After defeating his single challenger, M’Baku of the Mountain Gorilla Tribe. As his first act as the king, T’Challa decides to bring in fugitive Ulysses Klaue who is guilty of murdering multiple Wakandans and stealing their precious Vibranium. This leads our hero into crossing paths with Everett Ross again who becomes embroiled in the current drama overtaking the kingdom. Among Klaue’s ranks is an even more significant threat with deep ties to Wakanda and could be the undoing of everything T’Challa is fighting for.
Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first film in this franchise to feature a black superhero in the title role. Beyond that, the cast is all black except for two supporting characters. That is something important to point out because representation is a very relevant issue. I admit I was more excited about Finn’s presence in Star Wars than I was about this Marvel film, but I am happy that black children can see a superpowered protagonist that reflects them. These are are some external elements that make this movie of note right now.
Personally, I found Black Panther to be pretty dull. The afrofuturistic aesthetics are lovely and something I can’t say I have seen on screen in any major mainstream film. However, the character development and plotting of this picture are sorely lacking. Its most prominent misstep is that it ends up just being another middle of the road, inoffensive Marvel movie. When I look back at this franchise’s history, there are very few films I felt like I enjoyed, and pretty much none I have a strong desire to rewatch. It’s sad that this sort of studio-directed blandness has been applied to a film whose characters could be incredibly rich.
Part of this problem is that Black Panther was introduced in another movie already established, but this film is desperate to be an origin film where the protagonist has to prove himself. But, I felt T’Challa was already there by the end of Civil War. But then, as they try to make the film about T’Challa proving himself they forget to put any meat on those bones and it devolves into a slugfest to become king. There’s also an estranged love interest in the form of Nakia, a Wakandan spy. Except there was little to no screen time developing that relationship. But there’s also the mentor figure of Zuri who was his father’s right hand, but then we never get a sense of what type of mentorship is happening between these two, and they mainly have one scene of anything close to meaningful dialogue. There are so many things the movie is trying to do in its first hour that it’s hard to understand what the focus of the picture is and what sort of conflict T’Challa has internally.
If I had to pick a character that stood out to me as genuinely exciting, it would be Killmonger. I’m not saying the performance was excellent because honestly the dialogue was very weak and felt very typical superhero cliche. But the idea of Killmonger is fantastic and the views he brings with him create a lot of compelling conflict with our main character. But like everything else in the picture it devolves into the same old good guy/bad guy punching. This was one of my complaints about Thor: Ragnarok. While that film is meandering and being weird, it is so much fun. When it decides it needs to have a big final punching fight, it becomes annoying as hell. Ant-Man is another entry that is probably the worst Marvel picture and ends up being so mundane and dull.
I was very excited to see some worldbuilding though because Wakanda is a vibrant setting to develop. But what we see of Wakanda is mostly the council/throne room and Zuri’s lab. I wanted to see snippets of a day in the life of Wakanda. What was happening at the street level? What sort of factions exists in the city that might be opposed to rule by the monarchy for so many years? I would assume not everyone is onboard with this, and it is sort of hinted at with W’Kabi and his dissatisfaction with Klaue not being captured. I almost would have loved the entire film to be set within Wakanda and telling the story of this newly coronated king having to deal with all the internal problems any ruler has to. You have five tribes that have to have conflicting agendas and the king has to balance that out. Killmonger could smuggle himself into Wakanda like he still did and begin sowing seeds of dissent eventually using a coup to overthrow T’Challa. Then we have an interesting conflict about class that adds to the questions about colonialism the film already has going on.
On the other hand, the movie sometimes wants to be akin to James Bond and Mission Impossible with Zuri cast as Q and the mission to South Korea. Great. Make it a globetrotting high tech superhero espionage movie. I have always liked when Marvel tries to reframe its films as a superhero genre mashup. Winter Soldier was like a 1970s spy movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a high school comedy. Black Panther could be the James Bond of the Marvel Universe. Awesome! Love it! But then the movie brings us back to the underdeveloped Wakanda. I would love to have seen both of these movies, but not a film that seems undecided about what it wants to be.
I left the film once again not interested in re-watching a Marvel movie but interested in seeking out other work by the filmmakers and actors. I already knew of Danai Gurira from the beautiful 2007 independent film The Visitor, about a man who returns home from a trip to find an immigrant couple living in his apartment and the friendship that develops between them all. A great film you should check out. I shamefully have to say I have never seen a Ryan Coogler movie before now. I wasn’t drawn to Creed because I’ve actually never seen a single Rocky movie, at least all the way through. I am very interested to see Fruitvale Station though, the subject matter appeals to me, and I really want to see if Michael B. Jordan can carry the movie. I’ve only ever seen him in Chronicle, and Fan4stic Four and those are terrible movies. I believe he’s not though and I want to see what he can do. I can’t say looking at Chadwick Boseman’s IMDB page that I’m interested in the work he has done. They just aren’t movies and television shows that appeal to me. I hope he gets some work beyond the MCU in the future because I would love to see what he can do.
I’m happy kids get Black Panther, and that’s what it is about. I always get irked when I see adults fawning over any superhero movie. When I saw Logan got a screenplay nom at the Oscars, I rolled my eyes. And this is as a lifelong comic book reader. Most of the time these are very thematically blunt and that works when you are trying to communicate to an audience of young children who can’t cognitively parse more nuanced fare. I’m honestly not looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War because I anticipate it will be loud, obnoxious, overpopulated, and convoluted. I’ve even found myself growing tired of the praise The Dark Knight gets because in the end, it is way too on the nose with the themes and philosophies presented. It’s also why I get pissed when Zack Snyder makes Superman so incredibly dark that it becomes inappropriate for children. That is a definite plus for Black Panther, it’s a movie that keeps things bright and presents a hero that kids can look up to.