To be honest, it’s hard for me to work up any strong feelings for Black Panther one way or the other. I’ve just become a bit numb to the superhero movie train, with trailers for upcoming releases like Venom and Ant-Man and the Wasp eliciting nothing more than a “huh” from me. Blame this on over-inundation or the slowly declining quality of these movies, but one thing is clear: Black Panther wasn’t as kickass as I wanted it to be.
First, let me get the cultural, societal perspective out of the way. To me, themes matter in a movie, but they aren’t the most important piece by a long-shot. Consider an essay about deforestation. That essay may involve days of research and really bring an enlightened opinion to an important topic, but if the person writing it isn’t a good writer, that impact is significantly lessened. To me, the same is true in movies. I might be interested in the story a movie is attempting to tell, but if the writing, acting, directing, scoring, etc are bad, I’m probably going to think of it as a bad movie. Lofty ambitions or hot-button topics might make something an important movie, but they don’t make it a good one.
Just like with Wonder Woman, I applaud the “powers that be” for finally getting their acts together and giving us some damn leading superheroes that aren’t 30-year old white dudes. It’s frankly refreshing to have that kind of representation, and I imagine people of different racial backgrounds appreciate it even more. The same is true of entrusting this to a black director and writing team — relatively unproven ones at that. To be honest, I think the writing does fall flat at times and certain parts of the film could use a defter directorial hand, but we’ll get to that. At a core level, I’m glad people of different genders and races are being given a chance.
Black Panther most definitely has a political agenda, and I can’t sit here and say that I disagree with any of the points. It’s tough because I just don’t have the historical frame of reference in dealing with things that many black people have dealt with over the years. I don’t get it, and that’s part of the point. I’ll just say that Black Panther makes its statements in a way that doesn’t detract from it as a blockbuster movie, which I appreciate. But, like I said, this is a review of Black Panther as a movie, not as a political statement.
From an audio-visual perspective, Black Panther succeeds in delivering the cool vibes of the trailers. The combination of tribal and technological works amazingly well, and it’s a joy to hear the more traditional African music paired with modern hip-hop. And that’s coming from someone that doesn’t really enjoy hip-hop. The more traditional “movie” music I found less successful, however. There were a few emotional moments that felt improperly scored. In general, though, I really dig the music of Black Panther.
All of the costuming and set designs are fantastic. Wakanda feels like a real place, despite the obvious fiction of a magical metal coming down from space and allowing unlimited technological advancement. Admittedly, some of the techy designs and concepts are a bit dumb. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, is the resident scientist, and some of her inventions are laughably ridiculous. What’s worse, much of the technology seems invented by a screenwriter trying to solve a scripting problem, instead of by an actual scientist. There’s a new deus ex machina introduced about every 15 minutes. Someone comes across a problem, Shuri lets them know about a piece of technology that can solve the problem, they use it, the problem goes away, and said technology is never mentioned or used again. It’s pretty lazy writing. There was also one scene where a piece of technology is introduced, a bad joke about it is said, and then that’s it. The technology is NEVER EVEN USED FOR ANYTHING. Come on, that’s the kind of shit that shouldn’t make it through editing.
I also found the humor in Black Panther to fall flat more often than not. Again, some of this may be culturally motivated where I lack the proper frame of reference, but this is my critical take and the jokes didn’t work for me. There’s a great moment involving a car chase and a steering wheel, but that’s about it. Other times, I’d hear audience members laugh where I couldn’t recognize a joke having even taken place.
The story is mostly interesting, thankfully. T’Challa goes through quite an arc, and avoids falling completely into the Captain America trap of being so good a person that he’s a bit boring. I’m excited to see more of him. Lupita Nyong’o is also fantastic as Nakia, though she isn’t given as much to do as I’d have liked. I found T’Challa’s bodyguard, Okoye, to be guilty of most of the bad jokes, but she’s certainly a badass and gets some of the more fun fight sequences.
To me, the standout performance is Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. The true nature of his identity is pretty obvious from the jump, but the movie takes too long in revealing this. Frankly, there’s too much setup in Black Panther overall. Not that many things actually happen in the movie, so there seems to be a lot of filler. Narratively, I’m trying to even think of what I’d call the A storyline, and I can’t be sure. Killmonger has his goal, but he only reaches it two-thirds of the way through and then a rushed climax takes place. Until that point, Black Panther and crew are trying to get their vibranium back and track down Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue. The story is kind of a jumbled mess, with events just sort of leading one to the next without much connecting them or there being some larger arc. But, back to Killmonger.
He creates this great dichotomy between the old and the new, with him representing the “inner city” life compared to Wakanda’s more regal African nature. He uses different vernacular than anyone else in the film, and it’s refreshing. His actual goals and methods are a bit absurd, and he has this misplaced anger toward Black Panther that seems kind of unjustified. Often I found characters to do things in order to justify the next plot point, rather than those things really representing the character’s goals or emotions.
The movie is also actually boring at times, which seems crazy to me considering the concept, style, and mostly interesting characters. Again, I think this comes down to poor scripting and storytelling. The best part of Black Panther is the thematic story, not the actual plot. T’Challa and the Wakandans really change their viewpoint from beginning to end, and that part of the film is well-handled.
I wanted desperately to enjoy Black Panther. I was very hyped for it going in, hoping that it would nail the vibe promised by the trailers. While it mostly does deliver the audio-visual treat, the other elements of the film are derivative, lesser versions of the Marvel blockbusters that have come before it. Style can only get you so far. I’m definitely interested in seeing a sequel, though I wonder if the directing/writing team can improve on the areas that didn’t work in this one. I hope they do.
Having recently seen Get Out, it’s hard to ignore comparisons between the two in terms of subject matter. I think both films have important things to say about black culture, modern and historical racism, and how we can better treat one another and work together to repair the sins of the past — and avoid repeating them. Those are all topics worthy of attention and discussion. The thing is, though, Get Out is also a great movie. Black Panther is not.
So, what did you think of Black Panther? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out my Marvel movie ranking!