Black Panther Review: a great feat for blacks on screen but a pretty by-the-numbers comic book film

although there are no direct spoilers, I do discuss some main plot themes at length in this review, which could be considered spoiler-ish

 

Black Panther has become more than just a film, for blacks, much in the same way that Wonder Woman was, for women, in 2017. And while both of these films were very solid and brought something different to the screen (even if it was just a different demographic than we are used to) they were also flawed in their own way.

Black Panther´s main issue is that it didn’t quite know how to handle its central theme about what role black people with power should play in uplifting their brothers and sisters in society.

While Killmonger (the film’s main antagonist played by Michael B. Jordan) had a very clear view of what that role should be, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther/T’Challa’s didn’t. And despite not agreeing with Killmonger’s method’s, T’Challa’s lack of reasonable response made me side with Killmonger for the entirety of the film.

And when there were hints that King T’Challa and Killmonger were going to have a battle of philosophical wits rooted in these questions, it was all buried under unimpressive CGI, crazy family drama, and entertaining fight scenes. This made these two characters feel flat, as Killmonger came off as an adult child (despite being a very woke brother) and T’Challa unrealistically naive. In fact, the only believable and intelligent person out of the main cast seemed to be Lupita Nyong’o´s character, Nakia, who demonstrated that she had the sensibility to work outside of Wakanda towards the betterment of her own people. Too bad she was buried in the plot – but we will get to that later.

The main reason for this lack of philosophical friction is because Wakanda came off as completely disconnected from reality for no good reason. Unlike the Amazonians from Themyscira, the Wakandas are not all gifted with superpowers or living in some pseudo-Ancient Greek fantasy. They are modern, plugged in, and have free access to knowledge of the outside world. And while I completely understand that there are plenty of black people in the real world who gain fame and fortune and do not give back to their own communities, it was still just too much suspension of belief for me to accept that a black society which was so advanced could not look outside their kingdom of privilege to help those outside – do they not get Oprah in Wakanda? While the film did try to address this on a few occasions, it came off more like plot-contrivance-explanatory-dialogue than anything heartfelt.

The social questions aside, the film took a bit long to get going. There was so much exposition that three entire sequences were repeated: a battle for kingship, a crowning of a king, and a father-son afterlife meeting! When I saw the second father-son afterlife meeting coming up I actually shouted, “No!” at the screen. I had had enough of that in Man of Steel.

If 25% of what had come before the midway point of the film was cut, I don’t think I would have felt that I had missed anything – especially since a lot of it was extremely anti-climatic. Do I really need to see a scene where someone challenges that newly crowned T’Challa for the title if I know the challenger is going to lose? Of course, I don’t … unless, of course, I am not really working this scene for the drama but for a setup that I need later …

Which leads me to my next point.

Although Black Panther is certainly a triumph for blacks on the big screen (and behind the scenes), it played out like a by-the-numbers comic book/action film: There was a bad guy who was clearly not everything he said he was. There was a big win by this bad guy. There was a hero who was down who then came back up (literally) but without any learned experience along the way (!!!) bad writing there! There was a “climatic” fight scene in the very spot where an earlier character spent considerable time explaining the spot’s function. There was a character who seemed to be against helping T’Challa (for no explicable reason) who then decided to help T’Challa (for no explicable reason) in a last-minute save. There was even a car chase just when a car chase was called for. Nothing came off as extremely surprising and there were about as many interesting twists in this plot as there were interesting white people.

The standouts in this film for me were actually the women.

My favourite character was played by Danai Gurira. She absolutely shined in every scene she was in as the ferocious Okoye, one the King’s personal security guards. Every time she showed up on the screen I perked up. She added strength and comic value to the film.

Second is Letitia Wrights, Shuri. She started off a bit annoying, but I eventually came to like her character a lot. Her love for her country was truly outstanding and as the Alfred/Q of Wakanda, she shone. She also one-upped both of those characters by being able to take the fight to the street using her tech gadgets.

Last but not least I have to mention Lupita Nyong´o’s, Nakia, who sadly had very little to do in the film aside from fight. I felt as though she was extremely smart and resourceful but was hamstrung by having to play second fiddle to T’Challa, who honestly didn’t seem to know anything he was doing – and not in the amusing “Peter Parker learning how to be spiderman sort of way” – Black Panther just seemed like a bit of a dolt. I wish we could have seen more of Nakia and what she was about in the world outside Wakanda.

I will give Angela Basset an honourable mention as she also managed to hold her own in the comic book universe as Queen Ramonda, although she didn´t add much weight to the plot. That was less her fault than the writer’s inability to give her more to do than just be happy or sad for her son, T’Challa.

The male characters, unfortunately, were pretty one-dimensional and predictable in their actions and reactions (unless you have never seen a comic book movie in your life). Killmonger had the most potential, but although his motivation was clear, the reasoning for his methods wasn´t.

It´s true that he wanted to liberate blacks around the world, but why do it with so much violence, especially against other Wakandans? Killmonger is trying for Joker-level anarchy but he is much too rational for that – there is a disconnect between his mission to liberate his people and his dictatorial-psycho methods.

While the hatred for his father’s murder was an obvious burden on his psyche, I only know that because the filmmakers told me so. Where is the bridge that turns Erik into Killmonger on an internal level? As it stood, anyone could have taken Killmonger’s role of believing Wakanda could have been doing more for the rest of the world and executed his plan to do whatever was needed to change that.

There was so much going on underneath this man that the story dared not touch, though. He had multi-dimensional potential and could have provided so many backstories about setting up his black liberation army even before he had made it to Wakanda. He could have easily been like Magneto to Professor X. Instead, he was only a “potentially great” villain who managed to turn into a “procedural” villain by the climax. His final fight with Black Panther should have been his great ideological stand, but it actually blurred his motivations and methods even more in a muddle of CGI.

To finish, for those who think I am just pouring on the haterade for the hell of it, I did actually enjoy the movie despite the length. But I also yawned in a few parts and expected a bit more from others.

I am happy that the film is successful, though. I can only hope Hollywood understands that black people on the big screen do pull in money and that this opens the doors to other black writers, directors, producers etc. to create their own stories in their own ways. Black Panther is not the first big screen superhero, but he may be the biggest right now, and hopefully not the last.

Phil

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3 Responses to Black Panther Review: a great feat for blacks on screen but a pretty by-the-numbers comic book film

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