–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Okay, so, if you’ve followed my blog for a while, you have an idea of my opinion of Best Picture Nominee Black Panther. And today we’re gonna go into it in full.
We open with a voice over in which T’Challa as a child asks his father for a story, which is a very sweet way of providing an opening exposition dump. The resulting narration is written as though T’Chaka were reading the Wikipedia article, down to literally listing the powers that the heart shaped herb gave to the Black Panther. They came up with one of the most charming methods for providing exposition, and the execution is one of the flattest, laziest ones I’ve ever heard, albeit illustrated with some rather cool visuals of dust figures.
That pretty much sums up the film right there. But let’s get back on track.
In 1992, in Oakland, California, a couple of men are planning a crime when King T’Chaka of Wakanda walks in, identifies one of the men as his brothers, assigned as a spy in Oakland, and whom he accuses of helping Ulysses Klaue to steal Vibranium. It turns out the other man was also a Wakandan spy sent to keep tabs on the prince, and T’Chaka orders him to return to Wakanda for justice. Cut to present day and T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa is now the Black Panther and about to be crowned king following the events of Civil War. First, though, he needs to swing by Nigeria to pick up his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, from her espionage mission spying on what appear to be human traffickers. Back in Wakanda, he has his coronation, which includes ritual trial by combat with the hulking M’Baku of the renegade gorilla tribe. After winning the battle, T’Challa sets to work tracking down Klaue, who has managed to evade Wakandan justice for thirty years, and who is now working with an ex-Black Ops officer name Eric Killmonger, who turns out to have a massive grudge against Wakanda.
Oh, boy, where to start with Black Panther?
I suppose I should say up front that I really like the idea of Wakanda; the secret technological wonderland hidden deep in the African jungle, jealously guarding their treasure and mistrusting all outsiders. And, as I said in the Civil War review, I really like Black Panther as a character.
I suppose we should start there, with the whole setting and premise of Wakanda, as portrayed in this film.
There are so many holes in the entire concept that it’s hard to list them all; according to the opening narration, Wakanda was formed back in the Stone Age, or at least very early on in human history. Did they really have the borders established that early? Why those specific borders? If the Wakandans were advancing far faster than any other people, how is it possible that they wouldn’t expand and swallow up the surrounding peoples (and how did a Stone Age tribe figure out vibranium in the first place)? Actually, forget that; how is it possible the surrounding peoples could have one, been ignorant of them, and two, not try to join in with them?
How the heck has Wakanda remained a secret for all this time, even granting they got their holographic dome up early on in their history? The idea is that the rest of the world believes Wakanda to be an impoverished nation of shepherds and farmers, a misconception that the Wakandans deliberately encourage by having some of the population live in primitive conditions farming…we’ll get to that. Anyway, the point is, Wakanda presents itself as a backwards, primitive nation. Okay, feigning weakness and poverty is actually a really bad way to keep invaders out: what would happen if Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, or one of the other surrounding nations decided to start taking Wakandan land? Heck, what happened during the colonial days?
The problem, you see, is that the moment anyone tries to invade, the secret is out, because that’s when the Wakandans break out the ultra-high tech weaponry to defend themselves, revealing that they, in fact, have that kind of tech. So, this secret can only last as long as no one thinks to actually go there. Are we supposed to believe that Wakanda has survived all this time without a single war with the outside world? Or not even that: no aid workers ever tried to get in? No traders? No foreign ambassadors? We know the Wakandan king has diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, and that they’re in fact a member nation of the UN: how is it possible that no one has ever figure out their secret yet? That’s not even considering the question of whether any Wakandans have ever left their country and told anyone about them…actually, we know that’s a live possibility, since they have spies all over the world (in places like the Oakland ghetto. On that subject, what could possibly be happening there that would have any effect on a country in East Africa?).
You might think I’m making too big a deal out of this, but the trouble is that this is a fairly big part of the plot; the secret nature of Wakanda’s technology and vibranium deposits is a major point of contention in the film, with the danger being that if anyone outside knew about them, they could lose their way of life, while Everett Ross, the CIA Agent from Civil War, is convinced that Wakanda is a primitive nation of farmers and shepherds…even after he’s seen their king running around in ultra-advanced body armor. But it’s all-but inconceivable that a secret like that could have remained hidden under these circumstances. All the more so since the fact that vibranium – the most valuable substance on Earth – comes out of Wakanda is more or less public knowledge. They try to get around this by saying that T’Chaka told the world that Klaue stole all their vibranium, but are we supposed to believe that whole world just bought that, or even took it for granted that an impoverished, backward nation would have the resources to be able to say that for sure? No one even came looking for more, even though it made Captain America’s shield and they’ve been led to believe this country is effectively helpless?
So, the very premise of the film falls completely apart the moment you apply any thought to it. They would have been better off saying that the state of Wakanda’s technology was known to the world, but they kept an extremely tight watch on their borders and absolutely no one was allowed in, so that no one knew exactly what the nature of their technology was and the question wasn’t so much one of secrecy, but enforcement (and if they’d made the country smaller and more inaccessible than it seems to be).
Then there’s the issue of how the film conceives Black Panther’s powers and his suit. His powers come from the heart shaped herb, which is a plant blended with vibranium (vibranium is basically magic in this film) that gives BP his superpowers, while his panther suit renders him effectively immune to damage. Now, as conceived in this film, they have a whole garden of these herbs, and the suit is apparently so easy to make that T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, whips up two versions of her new prototype just so that he can have style options (the new version can spawn on the body at will and absorbs and fires kinetic energy, and I don’t have time to complain about that).
So why on Earth are these things only given to T’Challa? Why would they not give the powers to all their agents, or all their soldiers, or at least to the king’s body guards? Why wouldn’t they make vibranium suits for everyone in the army?
Basically, this means there is absolutely nothing special about Black Panther’s powers; nothing about them that actually links them to T’Challa beyond the fact that they’re apparently only for the king or the designated Black Panther. But the fact that they are apparently so readily available (the powers can even be easily removed with another dose of plant juice, so they could just give the powers to their agents before a mission and then take them away once the mission was over) means that quite literally anyone or everyone in the country could be the Black Panther: T’Challa could be fielding a whole unit or a whole army of Black Panthers, and we’re never given the slightest reason why he doesn’t. It’s as if Asgard could churn out Mjolnirs on an assembly line, but Thor was still the only one who got one.
At one point, Shuri reveals that she smuggled the one Black Panther necklace-suit out of the lab. Why didn’t she grab the other one, which is roughly the same size and was sitting right next to it (and which the villain takes later)? When they suit up for the final battle, why doesn’t anyone put on the old Black Panther suit that T’Challa wore in Civil War, and which apparently is just sitting is storage for all we know?
You can’t have the source of the hero’s powers being this plentiful and this easily available. And, again, it would have been so simple a problem to solve; just have it so that the heart-shaped herb only grows somewhere inaccessible, which the king has to find as part of his coronation ritual. Likewise, just have it so that the Black Panther suit is an heirloom where they can’t make more of it.
The filmmakers don’t appear to have given any thought to this premise; it’s as if they were just dumping elements of the Black Panther comics and backstory into the script as it occurred to them without bothering to ask how any of this worked.
And all of that is just dealing with the set-up. We haven’t even gotten to the story yet (and I haven’t even covered everything either. This script is really, really bad).
Actually, as long as we’re talking about Black Panther’s powers, there’s another problem. Between his superpowers and his vibranium, energy-absorbing suit, Black Panther is effectively unstoppable. But whenever T’Challa doesn’t have these advantages, he’s…kind of useless. He barely wins his fight with M’Baku, then loses to Killmonger later on (which we’ll get to). Nor is T’Challa shown to have any of the scientific knowledge, inventive genius, and raw cunning, or even the charisma and leadership qualities that he’s supposed to have, and which were shown in Civil War. Which means that our hero effectively has two settings: ‘god’ and ‘pathetic.’ He’s either completely unstoppable, or struggles to accomplish anything at all and has to be bailed out by his friends.
Compounding this, when he pursues Klaue and his men in South Korea, he does so backed up by his high tech gadgets and Amazonian agents riding in a vibranium car (even the glass is vibranium, which I guess is an option), while Klaue and his men just have rifles and a single sonic energy weapon. Black Panther so clearly outclasses his foes here that the film visibly struggles to try to create any kind of tension at all, to the point of having T’Challa inexplicably choose not to spawn his suit right away just so that Klaue can actually get out of the casino and they can have their car chase. Bullets have been flying for a good minute or so, and if Klaue hadn’t run out of ammo at the exact right moment, T’Challa would have been dead right then and there, but for some reason he doesn’t turn his suit on until he gets outside. Once he has it on, he becomes completely invincible and Klaue’s capture is only a matter of time, which means this chase has absolutely zero tension or stakes to it.
Again, why not just establish that Klaue’s arm can disrupt his suit, so that Black Panther can at least be in danger and have to show courage and cunning to bring him down? They later establish that sonic emitters can mess with vibranium, so it would have fit even with what they already have, but no; Black Panther eats a point-blank shot from it and barely flinches.
Klaue in general is an utter waste; the intimidation and force of personality he had in Age of Ultron – the guy who could render two powerful meta-humans speechless just by talking and who had the guts to demand payment from an eight-foot killer robot – is completely gone, leaving him basically just a giggling lunatic and causing us to wonder how this guy managed to evade the most advanced nation on Earth for thirty years, especially since they apparently pick him up the moment he commits a minor museum heist. Not to mention that he ultimately plays no purpose whatsoever in the story except to eat up the first hour or so. But we’ll get to that.
(Speaking of that museum heist, why is no one around except the few guards when they called in an medical emergency over the PA system? Shouldn’t the room be crowded with gawkers, museum personnel, and anyone with a medical degree? Also why are there no alarms on the display cases?)
Before we get to some of big plot holes – and they’re doozies – let’s tackle a few smaller points. The opening action sequence features Black Panther ambushing a convoy of what appear to be human traffickers in Nigeria. Not because he cares about the captured women, however, but because he wants to invite his ex-girlfriend to his coronation and she’s on an undercover mission as one of the captives. So, he ruins her mission just because he wants her at his coronation? Not exactly inspiring leadership there (they also just leave the women to make their way home on foot, I guess. Hopefully it’s not too far and they won’t encounter any other hostile groups along the way). The action sequence is extremely hard to see, however, as the night setting, BP’s black suit, and the muzzle flashes (not to mention the dubious CG work) make for a confusing blend.
I suppose I should tackle the supporting cast here, which is probably the dullest ensemble in the entire MCU. We have Zuri, the old priest/sage, who was one of the guys in the opening sequence and…that’s about it. There’s the queen mother, whose personality is that she’s the queen mother. Then there’s W’Kabi, T’Challa’s friend from the border tribe who lost his parents to Kluae and is dating / married to Okoye, T’Challa’s bodyguard / general, who is bald and a badass warrior woman. And finally there’s Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, who is a badass warrior woman and is not bald. That is her entire character. Oh, and she’s ‘stubborn’ and wants to help people outside Wakanda. It would be an exaggeration to say that these traits are established by having a single scene of her saying, “I want to help the people outside Wakanda and I am stubborn,” but not nearly as much as you’d think.
Nakia is easily the worst love-interest in the franchise (which, again, is a shame because I like her actress). Not only does she barely have a personality, but what personality she does have is almost identical to Okoye, with whom she shares most of her screen time. Also, the fact that she is T’Challa’s ‘ex’ (because that sounds like a common social concept in an isolated, highly-traditional African nation) has zero impact on the story. What their history is, why they broke up, and indeed whether they even have broken up is a complete mystery. As far as they interact at all, they just act as if they still were a couple…which isn’t saying much since, again, she has no personality to speak of. The single mildly entertaining or charming moment between them comes at the very end, when T’Challa kisses her and shrugs, “can’t blame me; I almost died.” Though since there’s no chemistry and less development to their relationship, it doesn’t amount to much beyond being charming line.
Then there’s M’Baku, who does sort of have a bit of personality. Or rather, he has two; being a scowling, imposing jerk in the first half, and a boisterous, good-hearted grouch in the second. The latter is at least somewhat entertaining, though his motivations for refusing the throne when they offer it to him are…mysterious to say the least (he’s already paid whatever debt he might have to T’Challa by saving him and giving him medical attention. Besides, at this point he probably would make a better king than T’Challa).
Everett Ross as the token white guy is at least a step up from most of the rest of the cast (which is kind of ironic if you want to go there). He actually gets to be heroic at several points, which is more than I can say for our hero (but we’ll get to that), and though he doesn’t show nearly as much interest in Wakanda and its secrets as he probably ought to, he is at least good company, thanks largely to the ever charming Martin Freeman.
Last of all is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who is by far the best character in the film. She’s thoroughly charming, gushing over her tech and toys, teasing her brother, and generally acting like she’s the one person on screen who is really invested in the story. I love the bit where she remote-drives a car during the Korea chase and has some genuinely hilarious reactions (Though, that said, I do have to wonder: why is a teenage girl apparently in charge of all technological development in Wakanda? How does that make any sense? Shouldn’t she be an apprentice or something at this age, and there be an older, mentor character overseeing the lab?).
Okay, enough positivity; let’s talk about the villain.
There’s been a lot of praise for Killmonger, and I will say that Michael B. Jordan does give a very strong performance in the role, as far as it goes. However, as a character, there’s really not much there. At the end of the day, he’s just an angry psychopath. Take any gangbanger from Oakland or Watts or Harlem, actually give him the skills he already thinks he has, and you pretty much have Killmonger.
There’s nothing complex or sympathetic about him apart from the fact that he lost his father at a young age, and except for his vision quest where he meets his father (a good scene, by the way), he is always hostile, swaggering, and belligerent, and that’s the sum total of his character. He complains that the world “took everything I love,” yet earlier in the film he shot his own girlfriend in cold-blood without turning a hair. Never once does he do anything positive, or charming, or decent or conflicted in the whole film (unless you count crying and asking to see the sunset after he loses). He has no honor like Vulture, he has no complex motivations like Zemo, he has no grandiose personality like Ego, and he has no subtlety like Yellowjacket. He’s essentially just Ronan with a slightly more fleshed-out backstory. He’s intimidating and scary, but only in the sense that he’s the kind of guy you’d profile the heck out of if you saw him walking down the street, not in the sense that you’re wondering what he might do next or are disturbed to find yourself sympathizing with him.
That’s not to mention the absurdities of his evil scheme. His plan is just to distribute high-tech weapons to Black people all over the world and let them rise up against their oppressors, explicitly calling for killing children, which shows both his one-note psychotic nature and extremely limited understanding (even granting the film’s socio-political point-of-view, how many of those two billion people who “look like me” does he expect to just turn on their neighbors and start shooting once they get their hands on high-tech weaponry? Also, how many of them are in Africa and under the rule of…other people who “look like me”? But we’ll come back to that point). Is handing out sonic spears to gangbangers really going to pose an existential threat to the Avengers, for instance? His plan is laughably simplistic and impractical, which I suppose fits with his character, but doesn’t exactly place him among the greats of the MCU.
Though his evil plan first requires him to ascend to the throne of Wakanda, which…good lord, this has to be one of the stupidest set-ups in the whole MCU. Which means it’s time to talk about the plot some more.
So, Killmonger’s foolproof plan is to first get involved with Klaue, then kill him to curry favor in Wakanda, then announce his identity as son of T’Chaka’s brother (we’ll talk about the backstory later. Remember, Best Picture nominee here), challenge T’Challa, and so take the throne.
If he gets turned away at the border, his plan fails. If T’Challa refuses his challenge, the plan fails. If T’Challa ever bothers to mention the fact that he saw Killmonger rescuing Klaue from his clutches, the plan fails. If T’Challa beats him in combat, well, he dies. And if the Wakanda council, army, and citizenry prove more loyal to their millennia-old traditions, principles, and way of life (or, you know, ordinary human decency) than to the obvious psychopath who has been in the country for a matter of hours, then his whole brilliant plan fails.
You know, I get the impression that Killmonger isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I can buy that this sounded like a good idea to him, but the fact that all that actually works is idiotic.
By the way, you read that right; T’Challa could have ended Killmonger’s entire plot at any time if he had just bothered to mention that he had Klaue in captivity until Killmonger blew out the wall and grabbed him. But he doesn’t, even when Killmonger has already revealed his identity and is demanding the throne. He has no reason in the world not to, but apparently it doesn’t occur to him. Also, it means that springing Klaue was actually a liability for Killmonger, especially since given that he had the ring, the tattoo, and so on, he probably didn’t need Klaue’s body to get an audience. But assuming he did, why would he wait so long before killing him? Why go through the whole rigamarole with the museum heist (when I first saw the film I thought the vibranium they were stealing would turn out to be important. It doesn’t)? Why not just shoot him in the ambulance when he has his back turned? If, for some reason, he had to wait until after breaking him out of the CIA office, why did he bother to untie him and go to the airfield?
In short, almost the entire first half of this film is pure filler that you could cut without affecting the course of the story at all.
But it gets worse; just how does Killmonger get the support of the council, military, etc. when, again, he just showed up this morning to this isolated, xenophobic nation, especially when his first act as king is to destroy the monarchy? No really; his first move it to order all the heart shaped herbs to be burned, and he threatens to murder the defenseless old lady if she doesn’t. How is it even possible that this wouldn’t instantly lose him all support, assuming he had any to begin with? (By the way, the justification for this is that disrupting continuity is what the black ops are trained to do to destabilized a country. Why does he want to destabilize the country he just took over and intends to lead in world conquest?) Why is seemingly everyone in Wakanda so willing to follow this guy who arrived in the country for the first time, took the crown, and ordered them to break all their traditions to start a world-wide conflict – again, explicitly vowing to kill children – all in the space of, at most, a day? Is it really all because he won the fight and therefore no one thinks to question him?
That would mean that Wakanda – the most civilized and advanced nation in the world – has a more primitive form of government than an actual tribal monarchy.
Also, how does Killmonger beat T’Challa in the ritual combat? T’Challa has presumably been training with these weapons his whole life, while Killmonger has probably never used them before. You can’t just pick up a new weapon for the first time and beat someone whose trained with it his whole life, I don’t care how many CIA kills you have. And why does T’Challa actually hold back while fighting him? He knows this man is extremely dangerous, a certified psychopath, and has a blood feud against his family. Killmonger just gave a big speech about how killing him is his life’s ambition, yet T’Challa pauses mid-fight to give him a chance to yield.
That’s the weird thing; the film acts as if Killmonger’s been established as a sympathetic, complex, tragic figure with a deep connection with our hero. Once they meet, T’Challa treats him like some kind of life-long friend whose well-being he’s thoroughly invested in, not as a dangerously unstable monster who entered his life a day ago.
(By the way, all of this was done much better and more intelligently in the film Aquaman, where the evil king had to spend most of the film building up enough political support to start his war on the surface, including staging false-flag attacks, where winning a duel was not enough to establish you as an unquestionable king because they remembered you also need the support of the people, and where the seasoned veteran in his own element handily defeats the scrappy, inexperienced outsider in ritual combat. Yes, Aquaman is a much smarter film than Black Panther: what does that tell you?)
Which brings us, at long last, to our hero.
So, we talked about the problem with Black Panther’s powers being way beyond almost all the threats he faces (and when he goes up again Killmonger in his own Panther suit, they can’t actually hurt each other so they end up just kind of…bumping one another back and forth until their god-modes get turned off), and that T’Challa himself is basically useless without his powers and suit. In fact, when he loses them following the fight with Killmonger, he ends up in a coma until his friends just give him the power back. He doesn’t have to learn or do anything to get it back; it’s just given to him by his friends. Again, we’re never shown his science smarts or inventive skills, he never does anything particularly clever or tactically brilliant in battle, and the film’s main plot basically comes about because he makes a series of utterly terrible decisions for no apparent reason.
But perhaps worst of all is the fact that his personality has changed. The hyper-focused, sophisticated badass on display in Civil War has been replaced by a cheery, soulful, thoroughly generic hero who freezes when he sees his ex-girlfriend and can’t respond when teased about it, gets trolled by his sister, and lets his friend talk trash about him to his face without even attempting to defend himself. Where’s the dignity? Where’s the nobility and regal bearing that he had in the last film? I would think he ought to be intimidating as heck even to his own people, a guy you do not mess around with unless you have an extremely close relationship. Instead, he’s just blandly sunny and good-natured.
There are a few exceptions and flashes of the more interesting character he ought to be coming to the surface, as in his first vision quest meeting his father (which is a really good scene, by the way: the imagery is gorgeous and their exchange is perfect), and possibly in some of his scenes negotiating with Ross. And I do like that he lets Killmonger see the sunset before he dies (though dragging him all the way down the train tracks and up the elevator with a spear in his heart is incredibly stupid, and if they wanted the moment they should have staged the battle differently).
Basically, Black Panther has been thoroughly neutered in his own film; a riveting, awesome character has been turned into a rather pathetic and boring figure. What a waste! It’s worse than the disappointment with Spider-Man: Homecoming because there are at least other classic Spider-Man adaptations out there. But this was Black Panther’s big chance to show himself as a classic character, an all time great, and they completely blew it by stripping him of almost all his personality and everything that made him so impressive in the first place.
Oh, boy, I still haven’t covered everything. Killmonger’s backstory is as idiotic as his evil scheme: his father was radicalized by the horrors he saw in Oakland and so helped Klaue steal vibranium so he could give weapons to Black people so they could rise up. T’Chaka discovered this with a young Zuri’s help and demanded he return to stand trial. The prince drew a gun on Zuri, so T’Chaka killed him and they left his body and child behind to cover up the incident.
Why would the prince try to shoot Zuri in that situation? Why would he do it when the Black Panther is in the room? Why would T’Chaka kill him when he could easily have disarmed him? Most importantly, why would they cover it up? He betrayed their nation and was stealing technology to sell to criminals. That’s a good reason to execute someone. He tried to murder an innocent man and the king killed him to stop him. That’s also a perfectly justified reason for killing him. My guess would be that they were ashamed it was the king’s brother that betrayed Wakanda, but they never play it that way; they talk about it as though the killing of the brother were the crime. Not to mention that if, as the story went, the brother just ‘disappeared,’ wouldn’t that raise many, many more questions and cause people to want to go looking for him, especially given the level of Wakandan technology? Finally, why would they leave the child behind? Just bring him back, say his father was killed on a mission, and raise him in Wakanda. He wouldn’t know how his father died; he was outside at the time. Not only would that have made more sense, but it would have made for a much stronger story if T’Challa and Killmonger had grown up together and actually had some kind of relationship, and it would have corrected about a dozen plot holes right there.
What else? W’Kabi farms rhinos. Do I have to explain how stupid farming rhinos is? I like that the film features an actual African language (Xhosa), but why do the characters randomly switch back and forth between Xhosa and English? Shouldn’t they be either speaking the one or the other? When Ross gets shot and they take him to Wakanda for treatment it’s a big argument about letting him in on the secret: why not just keep him sedated until he’s healed and then drop him off somewhere? Or even just throw a blindfold on him? (By the way, his spinal injury is healed with, you guessed it, vibranium. Because like friendship before it, vibranium is magic).
And though many of the visuals are very nice, the Wakandan city is kind of ugly; the skyscrapers have thatched roofs (who thought that one up?), the marketplace is crowded and dusty, and the palace looks like an industrial plant. The arena where the ritual combat takes place is a ledge in a waterfall, which is both completely impractical (how do the spectators get up on those ledges?) and kind of inappropriate for the site of a ritual. Shouldn’t it be before the palace or on some kind of sacred ground or something? Speaking of which, we get absolutely no information on the Wakandan religion beyond a five-second reference to ‘the panther goddess, Basthe’ in the opening voice over and M’Baku shouting “where is your god now?” during their fight. Considering how richly designed the costumes are, they pretty much put no effort into describing or exploring Wakandan culture (and what we do get is pretty inconsistent).
Oh, and I really don’t like that the story basically turns on T’Challa rejecting his deceased father and deciding that he wasn’t the great man he thought he was and that it’s up to him to correct his mistakes. Their relationship was so affecting in Civil War, and even in the early parts of this film that trying to rip the rug out from under it just feels wrong, even apart from the fact that the whole concept of T’Chaka’s ‘crime’ makes no sense at all. Thanks film; we had an actually positive father-son relationship in a mainstream film, and you threw it away for the sake of your moronic plot.
And there’s something else as well. As it happens, one of my issues with this film is what you might call a political one, so feel free to skip this section if you’re only interested in the storytelling aspect, though the issue might not be the one you think.
It’s this: according to Civil War, Wakanda is situated between Uganda and Kenya. As noted, a goodly amount of the film is dedicated to talking about issues Black people face in western nations. So, when they’re discussing “people who look like me” suffering in the US, there are “people who look like them” being enslaved and murdered right across their border who barely rate an allusion. The opening takes place in 1992: if the same guy driven to tears by ‘over policing’ on the other side of the globe were to take a two-hour flight from his front door, he’d find children being butchered with machetes in Rwanda.
Do you see the issue? It isn’t that they’re talking about the issues Black people face in the US, it’s that this is probably the worst possible setting in which to do so. It would be rather like making a film discussing the evils of the Japanese interment program and setting it in 1940s Shanghai. In the ‘uplifting’ final scene where T’Challa goes to open an outreach headquarters in Oakland, he literally had to fly over some of the poorest and most desperate nations on the planet to get there (I have an image of the assembled African leaders listening to T’Challa’s press conference and greeting the news that he’s starting his aid program in California with a collective, “Are you kidding me!?”).
This is really my main ‘political’ issue with the film: that despite the bulk of it being set in Africa, the story essentially ignores Africa as a real place altogether. There is a lot of vague talk about ‘people suffering,’ and the one context-free scene in Nigeria, but other than that, the entire continent of Africa outside of Wakanda might as well not even exist.
By the way, on the subject of Black issues, we don’t actually see any in this film. They mention them, but we never once see a Black character being mistreated or abused (apart from the women in Nigeria…who were captured by other Africans). The worst social conditions we’re actually shown is some kids using an old crate for a basketball hoop. Compare this with Bright, another racially-conscience fantasy film, which actually took the time to show orcs being beaten up, profiled, and discriminated against. All Black Panther does is rattle off a few talking points. I don’t want them to get bogged down in social issues, but…well, the film brings it up and makes kind of a big deal about it, so you’d think they’d at least take the time to do more than just talk about it (for instance, why stage the big car chase in South Korea rather than, say, New York? Or even Brazil? You know, somewhere they could conceivably show some of the issues they talk so much about?).
Okay, I’m cutting myself off there. I spent so much time tearing this film apart because it’s probably one of the most overrated films out there. I mean, quantifiably overrated in that it’s held up as a work of quality (again, first superhero film nominated for Best Picture), but it’s a mass of major and minor writing flaws and should never be taken as an example of quality storytelling.
I will admit, I actually enjoyed it more watching it over again for this series; the visuals are often very nice (when they’re showing great African landscapes), the costumes are often quite colorful, and the ultra-traditional milieu is cool enough to make me wish they had thought it through and made it more consistent. The sheer stupidity of the script was sometimes extreme enough to be entertaining, and the moments where the strong underlying concepts of the characters and world forced their way to the surface were appreciated (for instance, I really like the reverence the characters show to T’Chaka in the opening scene, which struck the exact right note for just one moment).
In summary, the word I would use to sum up Black Panther is ‘lazy.’ For whatever reason, the filmmakers appear to have put almost no effort into the actual story and characters of this movie. They didn’t think anything through or ask even basic questions about their own plot. The characters are almost all flat, boring, and generic, and that includes the title character. The script is rotting with plot holes, half the story is pure filler, and the entire premise of the film falls apart almost the moment you start thinking about it. It’s an utter mess of a film, one of the worst of the MCU, and a complete waste of a fantastic character.