Review: Black Panther

I don’t usually see Marvel movies anymore–at least, not right away. I can’t be bothered to go to the theaters for most superhero films anymore. There seems to be a general attitude that we have all adjusted to this glut of comic book-based feature films, that where we once worried about superhero fatigue we now know that this is a valid movement and not just a fad. But I have superhero fatigue. I’m exhausted with these movies. They so often seem like transparent money-making, brand-building vehicles. They seldom take risks; they seldom really have anything to say. And I’m especially exhausted with Marvel movies, each one so bubblegum, so formulaic, a smooth, soft, numbing spectacle at the time to be quickly forgotten in a background of more and more battle scenes and sarcastic quips.

Spider-Man: Homecoming had positive reviews, and people were glad to see a superhero film that didn’t begin with yet another origin story. Having now seen, what, five?, Spider-Man films, I did not see this movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out, and the reviews were fine, and I was told that this was funny but more of a character piece, and if I liked space opera (which I do), I should see it. I did not see it. Then Thor: Ragnarok came out, and the reviews seemed even more positive, and friends told me it was hilarious and weird, and I liked the actors, and I certainly liked Taika Waititi for his involvement with Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows. But I haven’t liked any of the Thor movies so far, and somehow this was a third Marvel movie for 2017 alone, assuming that I hadn’t lost track of still others, on top of the TV shows, and I was just over it. So I did not see this, either.

I was similarly prepared to simply skip over Black Panther. But the reviews for this film were shockingly good, and I heard over and over that this film was something truly fresh and unique for a Marvel movie, not dependent on the bloated interconnections throughout the rest of the franchise. And one friend in particular insisted that I should see it. So I’ve finally seen it, and my opinion should surprise no one: like most people, I thought it was great. Not just a good superhero film, but a good film. It even got me excited about Marvel movies again, at least a little (maybe I’ll track down Ragnarok sooner rather than later, though I could care less about the upcoming Avengers sequel).

I don’t know where to start in talking about this film, and I also feel that there is little that I could say that would add to the discussion. Yet I feel compelled to say something. [In saying something, I managed to also discuss a few spoilers, so keep that in mind.]

The direction and cinematography were fantastic. The writing, by director Ryan Coogler in addition to Joe Robert Cole, is so good. The music and sound design throughout is a real treat (one of my favorite moments in the film was the hop-in of a popping up-tempo song over a chase scene after secondary villain Ulysses Klaue demands something to the effect of, “What do you think this is, a funeral? Put some music on!”). I loved virtually every performance, and while I hated Killmonger the same way I hate any good villain, I could sympathize with him, and I could understand why he was the way he was, and I could even see the logic behind what he did.

I’m just joining a string of other voices in saying that Michael B. Jordan’s villain is probably the best in a superhero movie since Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ian McKellen’s Magneto, with a plausible and emotional motivation that puts him more in line with the latter character. What I hadn’t heard anything about, actually, is Andy Serkis’s return as Ulysses Klaue–he plays the character with such gleeful, chaotic abandon, such a delight for mischief and mayhem, that he seems the truer successor to the Joker. Serkis is always great as a villain, and this seems to be the year for Serkis’s over-the-top villains meeting untimely (but rewarding) ends mid-film. But it’s not just the villains; Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa has layers of emotion behind a regal coolness, and his chemistry with Lupita Nyong’o’s (badass, hyper-competent, graceful) Nakia fills out relatively understated dialogue between them; Letitia Wright’s Shuri is charming and fun and brilliant and goofy, a sisterly Q to Boseman’s Wakandan James Bond; Daniel Kaluuya and Danai Gurira are fantastic supporting actors who demonstrate how love and bravery and loyalty can lead to some pretty bad decisions, and how redemption is always possible.

As to that last line–this movie could probably be summed up as: good intentions lead to bad decisions. And those bad decisions can have disastrous consequences. Killmonger, to loosely paraphrase T’Challa, was not born a monster but made one–and by the actions of those who believed they were doing what was right and necessary. On a broader scale, Wakanda’s rightful concern that they would be facing constant war and opposition if they were public about their resources seems legitimate, especially in light of the history of European colonial ventures in Africa (it was interesting to learn of parallels between Wakanda’s mineral wealth and that of Congo).

Issues of race and post-colonialism, and of ongoing oppression, are near-constant in the background of the beautiful Afro-futurist imagery and pulse-pounding fight sequences. This was perhaps the first Marvel movie that actually engaged seriously with real issues of significance (yeah yeah, Iron Man had something superficial to say about the military-industrial complex, and Civil War had something to say about patriotism, sort of, in a really broad way). These issues were not just in the background, not just as subtext, but dealt with explicitly and honestly. Even Killmonger’s final scene (which, in its effort to address the fact that the hero lets the villain die when he could save him, offers some explanatory dialogue that had me thinking of Luke and Vader at the end) powerfully hammers home that messaging. This was far more than just another superhero movie.

In the real world, of course, there is no super-rich, super-secret African country that could stand up to oppressors and offer aid to the oppressed around the world. But it’s hard to ignore how Wakanda’s situation can be applied toward isolationist rhetoric here in America. As someone who favors open borders, refugee relief, and foreign aid while opposing military intervention abroad, I found Wakanda’s solution by the end of the film to be a particularly artful and responsible one. How cool that it took the appeal of Killmonger’s extreme messaging to shift T’Challa and Wakanda to a less isolationist route–talk about a complex narrative.

Speaking of complexity, I expect plenty of writing to come out of the fascinating culture of Wakanda, the varied real-world inspirations it draws from, and the great political intrigue emerging from the path to the throne.

Lastly: I won’t say I have “complaints” with the film, but there were a few weaknesses that I perceived.

First and foremost, while this movie was refreshing, it still drew from the old Marvel formula. Big battles? Check. Sarcastic quips? Check. Hero loses his powers or has to fight someone with an equivalent set of powers? Actually both apply here. Fairly low stakes because Marvel still doesn’t really kill off anyone but mentors and villains? Check for this too. Black Panther has done the best with these elements since the first Iron Man. And I admit that if I make the formula vague enough, I’m basically just describing the plot beats for any blockbuster film. But it’s something that I think is worth noting: it does a lot of cool things, and it uses the bones of the Marvel formula very well. But it does not dispense with those bones.

Second, while I actually thought the movie would take risks with some characters, and so the stakes felt high at first, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that all the primary and supporting characters (except for the old people) had plot armor. Even Martin Freeman’s character, who seemed set up to die in a moment of heroic sacrifice for the greater good, survives!

Third, I thought that Freeman was very good in his Agent Coulson-alike role, but he seemed largely unnecessary to the larger plot. The movie gave him something to do at the end, but his removal wouldn’t have felt like a major loss. It was a little awkward, like someone felt that an all-black cast of heroes simply could not draw a white audience, so better insert the White Friend Character…

And finally, while not actually a criticism of the movie or of Forest Whitaker, I could not help but hear all of royal adviser Zuri’s lines as though spoken by Saw. This is truly not a comment on Whitaker’s talent or range–Rogue One was just so good and memorable to me that I’m going to have that imprinted on every Whitaker role now.

I’ve said what I wanted to say about the film. I don’t have a radical opinion, and I don’t think anything of what I said really counts as a hot take. But I liked the movie–maybe I loved it–and I wanted to share my thoughts.

P.S. I didn’t really know where else to say this, but the first moment where I thought, “I could love this film,” was the first sequence from the ’90s, where the sighting of a Wakandan aircraft matches perfectly with popular UFO sightings from the era.

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