Thoughts on Black Panther

Finally got out to see Black Panther while it was still in theaters. My reaction is definitely ‘good not great.’ It was…fine. There was a lot to like about it, though on the whole it wasn’t really that impressive to me as a film, or even compared to the rest of the Marvel universe.

First the good things; visually it’s great. After the oddly dull Ready Player One, this is more like it. The colors, the costumes, the sets, it’s all fantastic to look at. The CGI gets a little lame at times, but mostly it looks fabulous.

Character-wise, the villains are exceptional. Andy Serkis kind of steals the show at Ulysses Klaue, the eccentrically-evil arms dealer. I really wish he’d had a bigger role, though to be fair Michael B. Jordan as ‘Killmonger’ is amazing. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him before (haven’t seen Creed), though from what I had seen of clips and word of mouth I knew he’s an excellent actor, and yeah, he is riveting in this role as a guy so full of rage – and understandable rage – that it’s made him a monster. He doesn’t scream or rant, and is actually kind of understated, but you feel his all-consuming anger every frame he’s on screen.

I also really liked Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA operative introduced in Civil War (kind of odd in a film called Black Panther that the two white characters ended up among the most memorable). It’s kind of unusual to see him playing a badass, though he does get plenty of out-of-his-depth moments. I liked the sister character: she was cute and had personality, though…well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our hero, honestly, I didn’t find him as interesting in his own film as he was in Civil War. In that film, he was every inch a king; an intensely dignified, dead-serious character who knew exactly what he was after and what he was due, but who nevertheless was moved by the spectacle before him to choose justice over revenge. Here…he’s kind of just the soulful protagonist. He wants to do the right thing, and sets about trying to figure out what that is. He still had formidable dignity and he was by no means a bad character, but I wasn’t impressed by him the way I was in the previous film.

I will say, though, that I really liked a scene where he has a vision of his father, which seems to be going for the tired ‘I’m not ready to be king’ route, but turns into something more personal and more interesting instead.

As for the plot, again, it wasn’t all that interesting, partly because it seemed to kind of veer about some: first it’s him claiming the throne, then him going after Klaue, then him fighting Killmonger. These things ultimately tie together, but it could have used a lot of streamlining to feel less choppy.

Speaking of streamlining, we have a few too many characters, especially since the majority are pretty dull. For instance, we have T’Challa’s sister, girlfriend, and his female general (sidekick? Bodyguard?). That is at least one too many badass female warriors (more on that subject later): for instance, why were the girlfriend and the general necessary to the film? Neither has a very distinct personality or role to play in the story: could they not have been combined? Or if that’s not possible, then could the sister have been made into the girlfriend instead (that would have given the latter a personality)? You see my point: we have several characters who kind of blend together and clutter up the story. Merging one or two together would have made for stronger characters and a more efficient film.

And there are some plot holes, including a major one involving the villain’s backstory. There’s also a bit at the end that is really stupid. Granted, it’s in the service of a nice moment, but if you want that moment then stage the final battle differently, because as is it’s ridiculous.

By the way, granting that Wakanda has spies all over the world, why is one of the most important agents running low-level crimes in the LA slums? How does that benefit them? Why would he even be in that environment? Wouldn’t he be stationed in the government, or in business, or somewhere that might be remotely relevant to Wakandan interests?

I could talk about the politics involved, but I don’t think it really matters that much; the film is obviously pandering to a certain audience, but it wasn’t too bad, and, really, I wasn’t invested enough for it to make much of an impact.

One thing I will say, and this goes back to the point about the characters, is this: Wakanda looks great, but it never felt quite convincing to me. The idea seems to be an extremely traditional society, with a hereditary monarch, trial by combat, ancestor worship and so on blended with sci-fi technology. That’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Apart from their form of government, the characters basically act like modern Westerners. That kind of makes sense for the sister, because she’s established as being rebellious and we can buy that she’s imitating western culture, but what about all the rest? Part of the problem is they’re so bland, but they just talk and act like any other Marvel film characters.

In particular, the fact that all the women in this society are warriors and scientists feels false to me. Wouldn’t a society like this, with royalty and nobility and all the rest have firm gender roles? And, more to the point, wouldn’t that be more interesting than what we got? To have strong, marked female characters in a notably different cultural milieu? It’s not even that I think it’s a bad choice: it’s just boring (I really wish Hollywood would realize that we’ve long since reached the point where it’s less imaginative to have an action girl than would be not to). We have seen badass female warriors and scientists before, they don’t do anything fresh with the idea, and it feels out of place with the world they are presenting.

I thought the first Thor movie did this sort of thing a lot better. Granted, Asgard had amazon warriors too (or at least one), but the important point is that Asgardians, as a rule, acted like people from a different culture, while the Wakandans by and large don’t, except in very specific ways. Consider the famous scene where Thor smashes the coffee cup, then politely acquiesces when told that’s not how we do things around here. That, to me, feels like how that kind of character would act. Then here we have a scene where the king of Wakanda and his girlfriend just walk about in the marketplace and nobody seems to care. Also, the back-and-forth about who would be king worked better in that film because Loki was directly involved from the beginning and we could see how he was manipulating things to his advantage. In this one…well, when you think about it, Killmonger could have enacted his plan at basically any time, which begs the question of why much of the first half of the film was even necessary.

It’s even worse because there’s an opening scene with T’Challa’s father that does capture a starkly different cultural feel, where he meets one of his agents and the man immediately kneels and snaps at his friend to do the same before begging permission to allow the friend to stay in the room. That was a really good scene, and set a tone for how different this culture is that is kind of forgotten for most of the rest of the film, with only sporadic exceptions.

Speaking of the beginning, the opening exposition giving the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther is one the worst I’ve seen, at least for this kind of movie. It’s framed as young T’Challa asking his father to tell him a story, but there is not the slightest effort to write in a way suitable for the device. It sounds like he’s just reading off of the Wikipedia page. Visually it’s great, but from a writing perspective it’s terrible.

That’s kind of the film as a whole to an extent: it looks fantastic, but apart from the visuals it lacks imagination. It’s not a bad film by any means, and the good elements are really good (again, Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and makes for a great villain), but as a whole, it’s just kind of serviceable.

 

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