“It’s hard for a good man to be King.”
While terribly timely and invaluably important for modern moviegoers, not least of which are those whose African culture is finally being celebrated up on the big screen in enormous fashion, Black Panther remains a frustratingly uneven effort from Marvel studios. Despite the numerous script issues, it’s an important film because it gives the underrepresented a place to call their own, but it’s also far from a great film because the screenplay simply lacks a refined touch. You’ve never seen a big-budget superhero blockbuster populated by a cast that looks quite like Black Panther’s, and yet I’d happily bet that you’ve experienced this kind of story by now, almost to point that what appears to be surprising inevitably concedes to the realm of the predictable.
With his father dead and the Wakanda nation in need of a successor to serve as their King, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must rise to the occasion and lead his people. Posing as a third world country, Wakanda actually sits on the world’s most abundant source of the prized Vibranium, allowing them to grow light years ahead with their technology. They guard their past and disguise their truths as a means of maintaining a global order, yet like all civilizations, their peace time is met with unrest. T’Challa resists his destiny, is challenged for his spot atop the throne by outsider Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and ultimately must save the world (with the help of the powerful, more interesting women played by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright). Both Black Panther and T’Challa obviously have an abundance of emotions, and yet they never leap off the screen. It’s an empowering and worthwhile vehicle for those who seek a champion for their silenced voice, but it’s also a disappointing and turgid effort to make sympathizers of its audience. Where’s the compassion, the camaraderie, and the connection to a world that’s simultaneously bound by and free from our own restrictive oversight?
Black Panther has a lot of story packed into its 2 hours – too much, I’d argue, as many characters are either so one-dimensional or absent for so long that they go unfulfilled (especially Andy Serkis’ devilish turn as Ulysses Klaue) – and tends to favor big thematic elements over the intimacy of a fragile and flawed humanity. The movie moves with soul and purpose, thumping along with drums and native calls almost robotically, all while lacking the heart to make the events and the well-defined stakes worth the investment. Mostly though, this comic adaptation stokes a flame without adding in the proper kindling. First heaved onto the fire are over-arching metaphors, second comes garish CGI fight scenes, and lastly there’s the mindset and the motivations of the people integral to the entire story. Black Panther is a fun, occasionally exhilarating ride that often mismanages its priorities, and even worse, confuses mindless action for thoughtfully deep Shakespearean drama.
For how interesting the bad guy Killmonger pretends to be – a jaded youth and an Oakland orphan becomes determined to uproot the civilization that has cast him aside – Black Panther doesn’t know how to offer up a proper introduction to his supposed reign of villainy. He’s in all of TWO scenes in the entire first half of this epic, which then poorly utilizes flashbacks in a fruitless attempt to add weight to the past of this now monomaniacal man. Erik’s character has drive; he’s hell-bent on overthrowing the advanced establishment that unjustly left him alone in a more primitive world, a point that serves up commentary on slave trade and nationalism, and he fights the power with a reckless, street-fighting combativeness. Marvel movies typically undermine their villains by refusing to allow them to share any traits with the hero. Black Panther bucks this trend a bit, albeit too temporarily, because the script forgets to balance the abundance of good with a healthy portion of the necessary bad.
While it’s often hit or miss, not to mention that it’s a far less successful version of Hamlet compared to Disney’s 1994 animated masterpiece The Lion King, Ryan Coogler’s take on Black Panther has style to spare, illustrating its picture with formidable set designs and awards worthy costuming and beautifully captured photography. Is it the film that African-American moviegoers need? I honestly can’t comment on that point. However, in the recent history of movies, Black audience members have been forced to watch “superheroes” who are either stupid like Blankman, dumbfounded like The Meteor Man, or antiheroes in the vein of Blade or Spawn. For the first time in a long time, Black Panther shares with all of us something different entirely; a powerful man of color whose main objective is to do good, to promote peace, and to offer up a sense of hope. If only the film and its overwhelming hype lived up to such high ideals.
“Just because something works does not mean that it can’t be improved.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5