This post has mild spoilers for Black Panther. If you do not wish for certain information regarding plot points from this movie to be revealed to you, you might want to consider not reading any further.
Both thoughtfully made and thought-provoking, Black Panther is entertaining but remains bound by genre conventions (7.0/10)
The latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Black Panther, completes the introduction to T’Challa, heir to the throne of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, that began back with Captain America: Civil War. As a film, Black Panther is an excellent example of how mature, entertaining and accessible stories can be told within the MCU. With its focus on one of Marvel’s more obscure characters, Black Panther also showcases how less established backstory and in-universe lore allows directors, writers and actors to express their creativity to create a story that is fresh yet true to its origins. Without putting too fine a point on it, other franchises like Batman and Superman have less wiggle room in re-interpreting characters and storied locales like Gotham and Metropolis, without suffering fan backlash. In that regard, Black Panther both in its own right, and by way of the success of the story it tells, also highlights the limitations that established universes place from the genre of superhero movies.
Black Panther’s strength lies less in how its story unfolds than in how its story is set-up. Following the death of his father, King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa is poised to ascend to the Wakandan throne. However, he fast learns that the position comes with sacrifice and difficult decisions, leading him to question what it means to be king and his country’s place in the world. Without giving too much away, beyond this point, events follow a fairly typical arc – T’Challa is challenged, suffers a few setbacks, but ultimately triumphs with help from his friends and family. This formula is now an industry expectation – and the first of several limitations placed by the genre on director Ryan Coogler. However, he side-steps that inherent lack of tension by focusing on the thematic tension between the various characters in the movie. Black Panther touches on some complex themes – isolationism, imperialism, the nature of leadership – without becoming a ponderous slog. Indeed, the level of nuance in the film’s various opposing viewpoints – whether to open Wakanda to the international community, whether to do so with imperialistic ambitions – is rather remarkably nuanced while remaining tightly bound to the plot and characters.
The cast’s best talents thrive on this nuance; Michael B Jordan’s turn, in particular, as the vengeful Erik Killmonger is simply excellent. In his moments of vulnerability, Jordan is very convincing in portraying how justified his anger is. It makes his cause almost sympathetic, but crucially, even at his most villainous, Jordan’s Killmonger never strays into that the comically dramatic. His sights are on upending the conservative Wakandan foreign policy and sowing global chaos but his means and methods are hardly unheard of, and are perhaps troublingly familiar. Unfortunately, his counterpart, the more reserved T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, comes across as a more one-dimensional and forgettable character. There are two reasons for this; T’Challa’s righteousness and indecisiveness fail to make a strong impression on the audience – though Boseman does his best to inject some charm and humour into the character. The other reason, however, is more positive; Black Panther’s supporting cast often steals the show from the main character – occasionally in terms of on-screen action, but often in terms of sheer entertainment value. While that isn’t the worst problem to have, it does mean that there are some characters that are limited to secondary roles – Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright, who play T’Challa’s ex-lover and sister respectively, as both examples of characters that deserved meatier screen time.
The real challenges that Black Panther faces only start to become apparent as the film reaches its climax. The need for a massive, potentially world-altering threat to raise the movie’s stakes feels artificial and reeks of studio interference, as if there was a fear that audiences might not be interested in seeing a movie in such the world is not under threat. As far as comic-book adaptations go, the threat in Black Panther is far more understated and realistic than in other instances but it drags the focus of the movie’s tension from the interpersonal conflict between the Black Panther and Killmonger – as well as the conflict within T’Challa, as we see him debate what it means to be a good ruler – to something else entirely. The brief and bizarrely abrupt civil war that erupts in the movie’s end seems similarly like a dramatic overreaction to what had hitherto seemed like a mild-agreement between opposing factions within the Wakandan political class. Neither of these developments really mar the film in a meaningful way but they are glaring reminders that for all its creativity in other areas, Black Panther is still very much abiding to genre conventions.
Abiding to genre conventions however, is a forgivable sin if the film executes its other aspects competently. In this regard, especially, Black Panther shines. There is plenty of creative flair in the film and the few elements not to benefit from this creativity are still done well – all of which is more than sufficient to comfortably put Black Panther among the best films in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aside from the depth of its setting and its talented cast, the film’s greatest success is in integrating real-world conflicts into its story in an organic and thought-provoking manner. I have refrained from discussing the political analogies that the film evokes but with topics such as isolationism, refugee aide and imperialism driving the movie’s core conflict, these parallels are hard to ignore. Yet, even without that additional layer to bolster it, Black Panther is a well-written story, that has been well-executed – certainly a compelling opening offering for one of Marvel’s less famed heroes.
Like many other boys who were teens in the 00s, I had my comic-book phase. My recollection of Black Panther was hazy – I had him pegged as a Namor type character. Sometimes an ally, sometimes an antagonist, sometimes an obstacle – he seemed to me to allows be on the periphery of the stories I followed (mostly Spiderman and the X-Men), at least until Storm marries him and then he gets a bit more ‘page’ time. It came as quite a surprise to me that Black Panther would receive a full screen adaptation but I’m glad it happened.
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