Black Panther is one of the worst Marvel films to date, placing somewhere around Iron Man 2 and the first Thor film. The Black Panther lacks any significant flaws, the action lacks tension, and the fictional world of Wakanda begs so many questions to a point of distraction. Black Panther is not unwatchable, but it feels perfunctory and is missing the emotional hooks and big set pieces that are expected of a film representing the Marvel pedigree.
After the death of his father and former King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned the new King. One of his first tasks is to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and bring him back to Wakanda to answer for his crimes from 30-years-ago. T’Challa’s mission puts him on a parallel path with CIA operative, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and on a collision course with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who is a deadly mercenary with mysterious ties to Wakanda.
I knew nothing about Black Panther going in, but I had expected a standard beat’em up, with some car chases thrown in for good measure. Instead, Black Panther delivers an amalgam of other film properties, like James Bond, Iron Man, and perhaps even a little bit of Coming to America. It’s engrossing, albeit incredible, to watch characters go from dueling with wooden weapons on top of a waterfall to flying around in futuristic aircraft with cloaking technology. There’s also a simple and striking beauty to many parts of the film. To my eye, the Black Panther suit is up there with the Iron Man suit for the best actualized comic book outfit. And the vibrant colors of the Wakanda landscape and garb is a visual delight that shows how the filmmakers tried to create more than a movie; they were creating art. It just wasn’t enough to raise the film out of mediocrity.
There are a lot of reasons why Black Panther doesn’t work, but one of the biggest is that it’s not really an origin story. Typically, an origin story will show the character before they became the super hero everyone knows them to be. Or, like in Thor, the protagonist loses his or her power to essentially recreate their origin. These films typically show a lot of trying, failing, learning, and trying again until they become the hero audiences see inside them. None of this present in Black Panther. When audiences meet him, he already has his super powers and his suit. At no point is he without them for any meaningful amount of time. So, while the film does a lot of heavy lifting to explain the world of Wakanda and its culture, history, and society because audiences haven’t seen it before, the story itself belongs in a second part of a series – not the first. And without a proper origin story, audiences not already familiar with the character will feel unfulfilled.
Another issue is that there is a severe lack of tension throughout the film, which is essential for an action movie. While franchise characters can’t die (for obvious reasons), the film should still make those characters work for their survival. A proper action film makes it known to the audience that the hero is vulnerable and that the villain will exploit that vulnerability. Being able to overcome those unfair circumstances is a large component of what makes heroes heroes. Unfortunately, Black Panther is missing all of this as well. His suit is seemingly impervious, blocking bullets from machinegun fire at close range. So, when he’s attacked by swords later on, the danger doesn’t feel real. Even if audiences assume the swords are made out of the same material as his suit, the film doesn’t give any visual evidence that T’Challa is taking damage or that he fears for his life.
Of all the Marvel films, Black Panther has the biggest challenge of making its comic book world fit in a contemporary reality. Thor gets away with it because it’s basically an alien planet. But Wakanda is on Earth, and its citizens are aware of other cultures on the planet. So, it’s jarring to see a highly advanced civilization like Wakanda, with its maglev trains and spinal-cord-repairing technology, still wielding spears and choosing leaders via personal combat. On that point, apparently it doesn’t matter if you are a brilliant military tactician, a gifted philosopher, or even a good person of moral character. As long as you’re the toughest guy in the room (and of noble blood), you get to be King! That kind of primitive thinking flies in the face of the intelligence the culture obviously maintains.
Personally, I wish the film had been longer and T’Challa given more of a character journey so that I could understand who he is and his history. Regrettably, I have to fill in the blanks, like his relationship with romantic interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). She’s T’Challa’s ex, but why did they break up? Who left whom? How long ago was it? Also, T’Challa gets especially upset late in the film over a child being mistreated, but is there a special reason for this or is this general protectiveness of children? How does this morality fit with T’Challa almost killing a kid early in the film? I would have loved for these elements to be explored. It would have added dimensions to an otherwise constantly sincere and flat character.
By far, the highlight of the film is Michael B. Jordan. He’s dynamic, fearsome, intelligent, and radiates charisma. If there’s an origin story to be found in Black Panther, then it’s here with Jordan’s Killmonger. We see his personal loss and emotionally understand why he became what he became. He has a clear plan and takes meaningful steps toward his goal throughout the film. It’s just a shame that the story interrupts him so early, because it would have been exciting to see the stakes raised higher.
Finally, the real-world politics in and around the film are inescapable, which is ironic since we used to watch movies to escape the real world. Nevertheless, the politics in the film are surprising. Wakanda is a homogeneous society composed of 100% Africans, which is at odds with the idea that diversity is our strength. Even more surprising is that characters specifically talk about accepting refugees, with one character arguing convincingly against the idea because refugees bring their problems with them. It’s also important to point out that the entire country is walled off from the rest of the world by a hologram. So, what is the film actually saying, intentionally or otherwise?
Then there’s the politics outside of the film. There seems to be a general fear of criticizing this film, because critics know that they’ll be labeled racist for having done so. At the time of this writing, Black Panther is sitting at an incredible 98% Critics Score on Rotten Tomatoes. I wonder how many positive reviews are based on skin color. I also wonder how many people understand that writing positive reviews based on skin color is racist.
Before my screening, a black guy sitting next to me asked me if I was excited to see the film. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and I try to be as neutral going in as possible. I told him I wasn’t excited.
Surprised, he asked, “But what about the historical significance?”
I fumbled through some reply, but all I could think was, “Man, I just want to be entertained.”