A lot has already been said about Black Panther: that it is the blackest blockbuster ever made; that it’s coming at a perfect time in the sociopolitical climate, if even a bit overdue; now that the film has released to critics, it’s been called many times over, “the best Marvel film to date.” This movie has created quite a discussion, online and otherwise—perhaps even more so than most Marvel films.
Black Panther’s “blackness” and significance to minority audiences—which has been, arguably, the most dominant subject of conversation—is not something I can speak much to, though I will say that I think it’s important to tell stories about all kinds of people, and it makes me smile to think that a black boy or girl might look up at the screen this time and immediately see him- or herself in any number of the faces on the screen.
What I can talk about is how Black Panther works as a movie; that is, as a storytelling experience, a work of art, and a piece of entertainment. Following T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film sees its hero returning home in the wake of his father’s death in Vienna, Austria, as seen in Captain America: Civil War. (Yeah, see that one first, so you don’t have to be the one asking questions in the theatre for the first half-hour of the movie. See all the other movies before you see Civil War, so you don’t have to be the one Googling all your questions while you try to watch it.)
The most beautiful thing about Black Panther, which becomes immediately apparent in the opening minutes of the film, is how well it immerses you in the world T’Challa lives in. This isn’t a difficult task for most Marvel movies, given that most of them take place either in an American city that differs very little from its real-life counterpart, or in space where things can be as crazy and out-there as the directors and writers want them to be. But with Wakanda, there is a very unique dichotomy at work. The country is not only the most technologically advanced nation in the world, strapped to the teeth with all kinds of near-alien sci-fi tech, but it is also steeped in ancient traditions and social structures very similar to those of other, real-life African cultures. To boot, it’s all hidden; no one on Earth knows how wealthy they are, or how advanced their tech is, because they cloak themselves in a synthesized rain forest and masquerade as a third-world country. From early on in the film, we’re treated to a visual and conceptual feast that showcases the variety of naturally and technologically gorgeous locations, as well as dialogue-based descriptions of the political structures in place and the various tribes that make up the Wakandan people. It’s a fully developed fictional world that feels perhaps more detailed and thought-out than any setting previously seen in the MCU.
The other most notable strength in the film’s storytelling is its vibrant and multidimensional cast of characters. This is something that more of Marvel’s films get right, but not always on this scale. There are maybe a dozen or more “main characters” in Black Panther that undergo some sort of emotional journey or clear obstacle they must personally overcome—and this isn’t even an Avengers movie. From T’Challa’s ball-busting, tech-wiz little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), to the despicable but undeniably captivating secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to even some of the leaders of other tribes, like M’Baku (Winston Duke) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), every character has a distinct personality and desire that makes them intriguing in all of their scenes.
But it’s main antagonist Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) who really anchors the stellar cast of characters. You’ve probably heard all kinds of praise being tossed around, like that Jordan “steals every scene,” or that he’s given the “best comic book villain performance since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight,” which is everyone’s go-to compliment these days, when trying to give props to a well-done character role. Personally, I don’t necessarily think that the former is true, and I think the latter misses what really makes the character of Eric Stevens compelling. No slight to Jordan, who did a phenomenal job, but I think the strength in his character is largely in director Ryan Coogler’s handling of the character, both in the script and behind the camera. Stevens is simply a really good character, and frankly, I could see almost anyone else in this cast playing him, and he’d still be a really good character. Stevens is an American ex-spec-ops soldier who’s got a major, major bone to pick with the world. He sees how the world has treated “his people” (those with darker skin), and he’s understandably pissed. His frustrations with T’Challa and Wakanda, which directly relate to a very spoiler-y piece of information regarding Wakanda’s past, have resulted in an angry, power-hungry man with a “burn it all and start over, my way” kind of m.o. He’s a rightfully pained and angry person, and it’s easy to sympathize, giving him perhaps the MCU’s most realistic and believable villain motives. When he begins to shake the foundations of T’Challa’s worldview, you have to wonder how exactly T’Challa will reconcile Stevens’ assertions.
The sheer richness of the world and characters being crafted had me thinking, for probably the first half of the film, “If it keeps this up, it will be the best Marvel movie, for sure.” Unfortunately, it did not quite keep that up. The second act turning point—the “everything is going wrong” moment in the story—is pretty flimsy. Without hitting upon any spoilers, it hinges on very obviously flawed logic from the main character that, while somewhat believable given the tradition-steeped culture Wakanda has adhered to, makes you as the viewer ask, “Why in all hell would you actually consider that at a time like this?” It was incredibly frustrating to see the narrative come screeching to a halt like that. It’s not entirely a movie-breaking flaw in and of itself, but sadly, after that point, it’s simply not as good of a movie. Occasionally lazy dialogue becomes slightly less occasional, the action sequences go from brief yet unique in that signature Marvel way to pretty bland and lackluster by the finale. It’s not “bad,” just sort of unengaging in this “we’ve seen this before” way; the quality and use of the CGI seems to weaken toward the end as well. By the end of the movie, I wasn’t nearly in love with it like I was for the first half.
It probably sounds, at this point, like I’m saying the second half is bad. I’m not. The vast majority of the movie is at the very least “pretty good,” if not “really good” or even sometimes “great.” It’s mainly a slight drop-off in overall quality and originality, marked by that lazy turning point that really took a lot of the power out of it for me.
In the end, even with a distinct change between the first and second half, the things Black Panther does right make it stand firmly in the upper tier of the MCU (and of superhero movies in general). Perhaps the greatest factor contributing to that is the fact that, unlike most, Black Pantheractually has something to say, and more importantly, it says it well (mostly). It really commits to its opinions on black people’s place in the world, as well as topics like foreign aid and Western/white power. Action, spectacle, and characters’ journeys are thus elevated, bolstered by strong themes with emotionally engaging characters who really believe what they’re saying and what they’re fighting for; Killmonger especially. It’s something not often seen, at least to this degree, in the genre, and it begins to bridge that gap between movies we consider entertainment, and those we consider art. (You know, those ones that nobody sees, that get nominated for Oscars—or don’t).
So amidst all the very important discussions surrounding Black Panther, racial and political, I hope one subject isn’t overlooked; that Black Panther succeeds largely because it’s a superhero blockbuster with a heart and purpose. Not every action movie needs to be politically charged or effectively make a comment on the current social climate, as Black Panther does (and does very well), but I think any piece of storytelling—any piece of art—gains emotional power and cultural relevance by speaking to our own experiences; it’s called “the human condition.” It’s a term thrown around by snobby art analysts, but I think, if nothing else, Black Panther is proof that big-budget franchise films could benefit from more of it.
So where will this fit in my “MCU Retrospective” series? Well, given that I’ve seen every other MCU movie more than once, it’s only fair that I watch Black Panther again before I judge it alongside the others. Therefore, I’m not going to place Black Panther into my ranking until I get to that point in the MCU release chronology; that being immediately after Thor: Ragnarok. So, after I revisit Ragnarok in April, I’ll be sure to give a brief write-up about where I’m placing Black Panther, and why.
As for the rest of the “Retrospective” series, we’ll pick back up with release order in about a week and a half, and I’ll revisit Thor: The Dark World on Sunday, Feb. 25. Keep your eyes on The Film Yap’s Facebook page!