This will be a relatively short review, as from the perspective of a white British man there’s not an awful lot to comment on. This is a Marvel origin story, in the vein of Ant Man and Doctor Strange, it brings to light a character that has seen little screen time and attention in the past, and while we have met T’Challa before and know the basics of the Black Panther (at least from the MCU perspective) he’s still a relative unknown compared to the likes of Spidey and Iron Man.
Still, from someone with little investiture in African and African-American culture there was a lot to enjoy, remark upon and unpack. I am calling a Minor Spoiler warning but*… well I’ll get to that in a little while.
This film stands further from the MCU than any before it. There’s a definite sense that Black Panther wants to plant a flag in the series and proclaim “I am different” and it achieves it.
The film opens with narration, discussing the nature of Wakanda, its technological advancements and spiritual history, a lot of which I have to say could easily have been shown rather than told, after all they discuss the vibranium constantly, and the ritual that connects the mortal king to the mighty Panther goddess Bast is a critical component of the story, well composed, and didn’t need explaining before the film really began. The time could have been better spent throughout the film, although I honestly couldn’t point to any one component that was short changed.
However, despite bludgeoning us over the head with an excess of information there’s a very different dynamic with Black Panther compared to any other hero. To take my previous examples, Scott Lang has lost everything and risks his life to prevent a dangerous weapon falling into evil hands to get his family back, and Strange has lost everything and risks his life because he has found a new purpose. Here we have a hero with a nation resting on his shoulders, and is forced to risk his life because people are depending on him, he has a personal connection – not to a single person whose respect he must regain – but to a nation who adore him already.
It’s most notable in the climactic fight scene* when the rival tribe joins the fight to restore the king whose rule they have long disputed and challenged. The Jabari leader M’Baku – the Man-Ape and one of the Panther’s oldest foes ultimately rallies behind their king in the name of Wakanda, despite generations of mistrust. The nation’s dynamic is highlighted by the general of their royal guard, Okoye, and T’Challa’s love interest and spy, Nakia, disagreeing on how to deal with a regime change and where to place one’s loyalty, in king or country.
There is a lot more politics and national identity than there is superhoeroism in this film, and it works. You’re not going to get a radically different experience from every other Marvel film, but you are going to see a refreshingly different element brought to the formula.
Responsibility And Accountability
Black Panther is unashamedly marketed towards the African and Afro-American market along with black cultures around the world, that’s a fact. Call it pro-active demographic exploitation, or long overdue demographic representation, Disney are still making bank, and they’re doing so on the back of some substantial research into African culture, and respectful handling of some intense socio-political issues. I’m not going to go too deep into it, because frankly I don’t understand a fraction of it, but the writers and director managed to slip in another, very different political debate.
The subject of vibranium’s potency and the incredibly technologies is analogous of the nuclear arms race. Wakanda is a fictional nation for sure, because it’s the only nation to ever behave responsibly with a super-weapon in its back pocket, and the core conflict is centred on that need to act responsibly and to keep weapons away from those who would misuse them, effectively the weapons exist to protect themselves. In Killmonger we have that misguided use of weapons, the idea that violence can fix the problems of the world by changing the balance of power.
But there is the other side of the equation, the side that makes Erik Stevens more than just Killmonger. He could never be a relatable villain, he’s guided entirely by rage and injustice, personal and global, but he’s blinded by it all and too willing to commit atrocities in it’s name, but he is far from wrong about his mission to bring advanced technology to the rest of the world in an effort to heal those injustices. He’s focuses on the weapons, but with its other advancements there are so many other ways in which Wakanda could end suffering globally, and that is the message I took away from Black Panther. Responsiblity, and accountability.
This is part of what makes Killmonger a superb villain. There were times when I found him a little cliche, but his every action was rational, even burning the grove of rare super-plants* made sense when given the context of a military agent who was trained to unseat regimes and sew chaos. If a hero is only as good as his villain, then the combination of Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue makes Black Panther great on their own. And while I’m talking villains, Klaue is superb, no notes, nothing to particularly remark upon, his every moment on screen is a joy to behold.
Ok, so a few ups and downs to cover.
Shortly after the unnecessary narration we get a scene with the previous Black Panther, King T’Chaka, a scene which seems quite out of place to begin with, although it lays down a few pieces of groundwork on the subject of duplicity, espionage, and loyalty, underlining a few key conflicts, but still it all feels incredibly at-odds with the rest of the film. If you feel the same when you go and watch the film then have faith because it’s all woven together rather expertly by the end. Still it does mean the film gets off to a rocky start which sets a bad tone going forward.
The film ends with Chadwick Boseman being asked a question, smirking, and cutting to black… TWICE! It’s not cool to do that once Boseman! And ok, maybe I shouldn’t be yelling at the screen “Don’t cut to black! Don’t cut to black!” the first time, but when it does it again in the mid-credit scene it’s enough to make me wish I’d bought popcorn just so I could throw it at the screen. Maybe it was the director who decided it, maybe the writers actually stooped that low, perhaps a producer somewhere in the Disney executive bullpen said “Hey, you know what would be cool?”, either way, it’s Chadwick Boseman whose face I want to fill with intravenous fire-ants for that dumb smirk.
Oh and Kudos to Black Panther for creating the first kid-genius who is not insufferable, and giving her and T’Challa a believable brother/sister relationship made her one of the best parts of the film. In truth all members of the cast deliver excellently on their roles, and there is a strong family feel to the film that has been sorely missing from every Fantastic Four attempt made in the last twenty years.
I cannot sincerely hold Black Panther up as the best Cinematic Universe film, in fact there are some pretty hefty flaws, cliched chunks of dialogue, and logical failings that I would argue it doesn’t quite make the halfway mark (although I’m working on that list to make sure) but as a film it’s superb, and as a superhero film it brings something fresh to the scene, adding politics without going full “Attack of the Clones”. As a fourth major directoral role for Ryan Coogler I hope it leads to more great opportunities in the future.
Infinity War is ten weeks away!
*Ok, so this is a rather all encompassing footnote, hence the multiple asterisks throughout. There are a lot of plot points in Black Panther that are so predictable that you could practically copy and paste scenes from The Last Jedi without badly editing on the faces of the characters in Black Panther, and you’d still be able to say “Yeah, called it”. It should be noted that there are a couple of very cool plot beats that I did not see coming until it was too late, and they were magnificent, I have not spoiled those for you.