Review of the Week–Black Panther

Hello all! Sorry this Review of the Week is coming to you a bit later than normal, but I wanted to make sure I got it to you as soon as I could, given the fact that I’m probably already late to the party on Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, Black Panther. But better late than never, as I like to say! Let’s get right into it.

Black Panther almost immediately follows the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa, also known as the costumed superhero Black Panther, is officially crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s assassination in that movie. Thousands of years ago, a meteor of pure vibranium (Marvel’s answer-all magical awesome substance) fell on the tiny African country, and since then its people have prospered and achieved scientific, cultural, and technological advancements beyond humanity’s wildest dreams–all of it, however, done in secret for fear of how the war-torn and violent outside world would react. As he takes on the mantle of leadership and encounters his first major challenges as king, however, T’Challa finds he’s getting more than he bargained for. There’s discontent in the ranks as his people and advisors are uneasy about the state of the world, and the rise of a rival for the throne nearly plunges Wakanda and the entire world into a terrifying new war.

Okay, let’s get the bad out of the way first: with this movie, Marvel had an unparalleled opportunity to add something to the superhero genre. I mean, with all the issues we’re facing here in the real world regarding race, international relations, diversity, etc., Black Panther had the chance to really stand out and blaze new ground for comic book movies. As it was, it lived up to the hype–mostly. Let’s be honest, though: were there really any surprises here? The basic plot structure was incredibly formulaic and not all that creative when you think about it. It follows the same basic tenets of all Marvel films before it, which are getting kind of tired at this point:

  1. Introduce hero, make them look properly badass.
  2. Introduce villain, who deals the hero an early defeat and takes them down a peg, thus making them more human and forcing them to learn some humility.
  3. Bring in some random side characters who don’t seem important at first, but will end up making a difference later on (looking at you, M’Baku).
  4. Have the hero finally triumph over the villain in a protracted battle, making some kind of philosophical point in the process.
  5. Cue the music.

The end.

Sorry if I’m being a little flip about this, but as I said, no real surprises here, and no shake-ups to speak of. When T’Challa went over that waterfall during the battle between him and Killmonger, did anyone seriously think he wasn’t coming back? I know, I know, he’s the star of the movie. How could he be killed off? The answer is, realistically, he couldn’t be. I know that. But still, there could at least have been some kind of sense of tension here. What if T’Challa’s family hadn’t been able to save the heart-shaped herb for him and he was forced to face Killmonger de-powered, simply relying on his wits and allies to win? Wouldn’t that have been a much more interesting story? And come on. The guy looked like he had things pretty much handled even before he took the magical steroids, and with all that tech in his suit, it was just a joke. Full-body, bullet-proof invincibility suits do tend to take the drama out of fights with random mercenaries a bit. For that matter, in spite of all of his bluster, was there ever any doubt that M’Baku would eventually come around and ride to T’Challa’s aid? Nope, not here. It’s just how these movies work. Marvel decided to stick to its guns in Black Panther and the old mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Judging by the film’s financial success, I think it was a safe bet.

Okay, enough with the griping. What did Black Panther do right? Quite a bit, really, enough to make it probably the most thought-provoking Marvel film to date, and definitely the best acted. Everyone was in top form in this movie, from Chadwick Boseman’s suave and confident leading man to Lupita Nyong’o’s fiery, feisty love interest, and Martin Freeman…well, was Martin Freeman: in other words, great. And how about Forest Whitaker, huh? All very strong characters.

But I have to say, unlike other Marvel movies, it was the villain here who stole the show. Michael B. Jordan brought so much to the table with Killmonger, who had an amazingly poignant backstory coupled with a ruthless, righteous rage that was apparent in every single scene. Talk about heavy material in this movie, too: Black Panther probably went the deepest into the darkness of any Marvel film to date. T’Challa’s father pretty much caused this whole catastrophe when he chose to kill his own brother and leave his son lost and orphaned on the streets. The sins of the father idea weighed very heavily on the characters in the movie, and T’Challa’s conflict, grief, and hurt toward the man he’s spent his formative years idolizing was felt by me, and I’m sure everyone else.

But it’s Killmonger who comes off as the most compelling character here, alternatively charming and terrifying–and I have to say, his urban slang really played well off of T’Challa’s more refined, old-fashioned way of speaking. I mean, he’s obviously a bad guy: he wants power, and is willing to do whatever it takes, including killing his own countrymen (and women) in order to get it. But then again, he wants it so that he can give other people around the world like him the power to fight back against their oppressors, and he’s very rightfully angry that Wakanda has chosen to hide away rather than help. The philosophical difference between him and T’Challa, and T’Challa’s eventually coming around at least partially to his way of thinking shows a thoughtfulness and depth that not a lot of other Marvel villains possess. The strength of most of Marvel’s movies isn’t the villains–they’re usually more set pieces than actual, fleshed-out characters. Black Panther bucked that trend and made Killmonger the franchise’s most memorable antagonist to date. And that death scene was just incredible and tear-jerking, with Killmonger choosing death over imprisonment. There was a lot of pathos in this film from all sides, and that’s a large part of what did make it strong.

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk at least a little about the elephant in the room here (or maybe the rhino): the issue of race. I think that while Ulysses Klaue might be seen as the typical stand-in for hostile white people in Black Panther (although even he had some interesting character beats with his desire to expose Wakanda’s hypocrisy), it was actually Everett Ross who I think was meant to represent the attitudes and relationship of the two races. While they may be on the same side, at least in name, the tension between T’Challa and Ross is clearly on display in this movie, with Ross never being openly disrespectful, but clearly assured of his superiority in the relationship–that is, until he finds out what’s really going on in Wakanda and it turns his world upside down. It’s very much the same in the real world a lot of the time, I think, on all sides of this and any other issue: most people don’t really want to hurt each other, but are clearly not in possession of all the facts and have never seen fit to look beyond their own preconceptions to see the true possibilities out there.

I’m not going to turn this review into a discussion of race, as I, as a white, privileged male, wouldn’t be anywhere near qualified or comfortable talking about it like an expert–or pretend that I probably don’t have my own implicit biases. The same goes for Black Panther‘s depiction of African culture through Wakanda. Myself, I thought it was all really fascinating, interesting, and tastefully done, but others might have a different opinion. All I’ll say is, from where I sat, and as someone who has spent a lot of time talking with other people and agonizing over where exactly I stand on these difficult issues, I thoroughly enjoyed it and liked that the movie poses those kinds of questions: of identity, origin, commonalities, justice, and acceptance. That’s why I think the ending, seeing T’Challa opening up mission centers around the world focused on helping communities and children, was such a good middle-ground type of answer to what Wakanda’s role in the world should be. It was a very hopeful and positive note to end the movie on, and really, I think the real world would be well served to take a page from Black Panther‘s book.

To wrap up, I did think there were a couple lose ends in the film’s narrative: first of all, whatever happened to the Jabari, anyway? I mean, they pretty much did single-handedly save the kingdom after being outcasts for centuries. Don’t they get a seat on the council, or at least some recognition or something? It would have been nice to see M’Baku and T’Challa becoming confidantes after everything that happened, at least a hint of it. Also, the relationship between T’Challa’s friend and later betrayer W’Kabi and the captain of the guard, his lover Okoye, wasn’t elaborated on much outside of a few lines. We barely even saw them together. What happened to W’Kabi after all of this? Is he in prison? How is he dealing with the fact that Okoye pretty much dumped him in front of everyone–that’s what’s happening when your loved one points a spear at you and tells you she’d kill you for your country, right? I would have liked to see some kind of fall-out from that, especially given T’Challa and W’Kabi’s friendship. You’d think forgiveness in that situation probably would be hard to come by.

My Rating: 8/10

I’ll be honest: Black Panther probably isn’t making my list of my top five favorite Marvel movies of all time. There are just other ones that I liked more and thought were more fun and inventive. That said, however, if you put this in your personal top five, I wouldn’t fault you for a second. Black Panther does push Marvel in some interesting new directions, particularly through its compelling villain and tackling such heavy themes as systemic racism and oppression around the world, as well as cultural contamination and isolationism, and does so in a sensitive, mindful, and yet powerful manner. I think Marvel should be proud of what it has accomplished here, as one of their movies has never been as timely for our current-day issues as this one is. Through T’Challa and Wakanda, we’ve seen the potential that’s there if we just reach out and take each other’s hands: if only we could make it happen in our own lives, too.

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