It’s impossible to overstate the intensity of the discussion built up around Disney/Marvel’s Black Panther, technically not the first black superhero movie but certainly the first mega-budget blockbuster directed by an African-American and featuring a predominately black cast beyond just the titular hero. Two weeks after its release, a bulk of the hype and the conversation has died down, although moviegoers continue to add to its box office reign in a big way. If there’s one factor that was impossible to deny before it even came out, and that is even more clear after seeing it, it’s that the film works best as an emblem of black representation and a symbol of black agency, and as an accessible but layered exploration of the multitudes of ideals, viewpoints and experiences that exist in black communities across the world.
That a Marvel movie can serve as the vehicle for these types of loaded, emotionally intense concepts is at once absurd and yet not all that surprising. There’s no more efficient way of reaching the widest possible audience than through a big accessible Disney blockbuster, despite the fact Marvel Studios (18 movies in at this point) is not often known for its attempts to grapple with challenging social issues or engage audiences with political metaphor (usually it’s just handsome actors punching things and stopping alien laser beams). Thus, the praise for Black Panther should be leveled mainly at director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame) for taking the well-worn Marvel formula, overlaying a vivid, unique sci-fi world, and then populating it with well-realized, relatable characters and heavy, grounded themes.
The unspoken goal of science fiction has always been to present an idealized or cautionary future in order to direct our collective imagination towards an optimal society. Believers in the real-life power of art would argue that in science fiction we first see the world as we hope/dread it will be. Then, somewhere down the line, real-life advances will be mapped onto those subconscious visions. Unfortunately, the continent of Africa and the African diaspora have been largely absent from the science fiction conversation over the decades. Coogler lays bare the injustice of this exclusion by demonstrating how far just a single powerful, badass depiction of an African future worth believing can go to spark the imaginations of generations of Africans and their descendants around the globe to seek to make this vision of strength and unity a reality.
Coogler is a believer in the power of movies to inspire real change, and that he was able to weaponize the unwieldy Disney machinery to this end is magnificent. Yet for all the ground it breaks, Black Panther harbors many of the Marvel franchise’s old flaws, ultimately making it Coogler’s weakest film on a technical and narrative level. Scenes proceed in a jarring, disjointed fashion well past the film’s first 30 minutes, by which point any decent plot should have found its central focus. Marvel is known for leaning heavily into its humor, but comedy has never been Coogler’s strong suit and the jokes here often fall flat, either because of faulty timing or faulty delivery. The effects, especially when it comes to green screen sets, are wildly inconsistent and sometimes atrocious, a shame given how richly detailed the architecture and costumes are.
Where the film really excels is in its casting, which goes a long way towards bringing a very bloated laundry list of characters to life (as thin as most are on the page). Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira and Andy Serkis are some of the highlights, but Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole take care to make sure absolutely everyone gets at least one memorable moment to stand out. The list of supporting characters goes on and on: Letitia Wright (an instant fan favorite), Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, etc. One could argue that this mammoth roster is part of the reason the plot is often so unfocused, but there’s no denying the grandeur and scale that this multitude of stars brings to the screen.
The real story in terms of the characters is the main hero and villain. Chadwick Boseman’s regal stoicism as T’Challa, young king of the fictional, high-tech African nation of Wakanda, may rob him of some of the personality of his co-stars, but his composure and selflessness makes him a much needed counterpoint to some of Marvel’s other leading men, such as Robert Downey Jr.’s cocky Tony Stark or Tom Holland’s bumbling Peter Parker. More importantly, his dignified aura serves as an excellent contrast to Michael B. Jordan’s stand-out performance as the film’s central antagonist Erik Killmonger, who arrives in Wakanda from Oakland to claim the throne for himself. Jordan brings with him a brash, swaggering pathos that launches Killmonger to the top of Marvel’s pack of villains, which are usually bland, goofy or a combination of the two.
Killmonger works so well because he embodies the film’s ability to represent something real and vital for audiences, which is a radical (but increasingly common) concept for mainstream movies. Though the plot comes down to simple ideological questions — if or how Wakanda should share its secret technology with the rest of the world — there’s a real sense of pain and frustration in Jordan’s performance, and Erik’s desire to weaponize that technology. Coogler (like T’Challa) ultimately chooses to focus on overcoming generations of injustice through pride and unity rather than by indulging Killmonger’s reasonable but misguided desire to turn those injustices on the perpetrators. If this dichotomy is admittedly simplistic, the context in which it takes place is shockingly nuanced for a blockbuster, especially in how it’s used to explore the fraught relationship between Africans and the descendants of those taken from the continent long ago.
In all, I was about as let-down by the narrative elements of Black Panther as I usually am by entries in the Marvel series, and more than a little surprised by how spotty the special effects were, given the estimated $200 million budget. The original Guardians of the Galaxy contained much more convincing CG and green screen work back in 2014. It’s a real bummer that a place as conceptually bold and as lived-in as Wakanda couldn’t receive best-in-class treatment. Yet the film comes alive in its best moments thanks to a tremendous cast of lovable characters, many moments of pulpy action (such as two waterfall brawls that recall Coogler’s Creed), a badass blend of science fiction/fantasy concepts, and its ability to speak to human history and experience like no Marvel film and very few blockbusters before it.
Score: 3.5 out of 5