Safe to say that Black Panther is the most hotly-anticipated superhero movie in recent years. The first film to star the eponymous superhero – also known as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who premiered in comics in ’66 and in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War – pounces onto the silver screen with credits boasting black excellence. Behind the camera, there’s Fruitvale Station/Creed director Ryan Coogler in directing and writing duties (joined in the latter by Joe Robert Cole); in front of the camera, you’ve got an impressive collection of talent: Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, Sterling K. Brown, Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead) … I could keep going. Hell, there’s even Kendrick Lamar chipping in with music ‘from and inspired by’ the soundtrack.
So, should we believe the hype?
Well, yes and no.
First of all, it’s important to remind my readers that Black Panther is a Marvel Studios movie, and thus it follows their by-now fairly rigid formula to a tee. That’s not a surprise at this point, and it’s not something I’m going to belabour lest my MCU reviews become as formulaic as their films. But as much as T’Challa’s story resembles neighbouring origin stories – as in Iron Man and Ant Man, he must face an antagonist with near-identical abilities and the film’s ending is cribbed directly from the former; like Thor in Ragnarok he must grapple with the reality of his family history while (as in pretty much every MCU film) tempering his own arrogance – it’d be a mistake to dismiss this as yet another paint-by-numbers blockbuster. Rather, Black Panther is a kind of inversion of the typical Marvel film; what works here is what doesn’t work about most of its compatriots and – sadly – vice versa.
Let me be specific. Since debuting with Iron Man – a film that grappled with the ethics of arms trading and military interventions – Marvel has paid lip-service to important political ideas … but rarely more than that. My go-to example is the (over-praised, if enjoyable) Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which snaked a spy thriller genre around drone warfare and systematic degradation of military moral authority before collapsing into a good-guys-vs-bad-guys climax. Black Panther is different because it places its politics front and centre, grappling with questions of colonialism and racism with far more depth than I’ve come to anticipate from this series.
Kicking off shortly after the events of Civil War – in which T’Challa’s father died, necessitating the Panther’s ascension to the royal throne of Wakanda – Black Panther establishes its central ethical question swiftly: as a technologically-advanced nation (a superpower of sorts – get it?), is Wakanda obligated to assist its less-fortunate neighbours? Historically, the country has always adopted a protectionist, isolationalist policy. But, as the only African nation not ravaged by colonialism and slavery, do they owe a debt to their dark-skinned brethren suffering across the globe? Should they continue to hide behind a vibranium cloak of secrecy, accept refugees or even wage war against injustice outside their borders?
Standing in for the latter option is “Killmonger” (Jordan), a former Wakandan set on challenging T’Challa for the throne and – if successful – unleashing the full military force of Wakanda on the world. While Killmonger is transparently villainous (I mean, look at his fucking name), Coogler ensures his film is equally sceptical of Wakanda’s historical aversion to international involvement. Consciously invoking the scars of colonialism and black slavery alike, it’s easy to oppose Killmonger’s oversized villainy while acknowledging that his argument is not entirely without merit. It’s very Professor X and Magneto, only drawn from African rather than Jewish history.
In additional to thoughtfully cultivating this conflict, Coogler and his team have gone out of their way to create a vivid, distinctly African fantasy of futurism. While the art design of Wakanda isn’t entirely original – as in any vaguely futuristic setting nowadays, there are lots of transparent surfaces and Apple-store-esque neon blue lighting – it draws deeply from African culture. Wakanda and its people are rendered in bright colours with brilliant imagination; it’s the rare MCU film where the scenes of characters talking are more visually splendid than their action-packed counterparts (which are often marred by oddly cheap-looking special effects).
Sophisticated ideas, original artistry – promising, right? Yet, for me, Black Panther on the whole landed as a middle-of-the-road MCU flick; not great, not bad: just another cog in the machine. While it succeeds in crafting a world we want to spend more time in and examining the world’s politics with care, it kinda fails in pulling off the entertaining superhero movie the fans are there for. Perhaps that couldn’t be avoided entirely. When asking grand questions about the legacy of racism and revolution, maybe there isn’t going to be as much space for pithy banter as we’re used to. Upon reflection, however, the area where Black Panther is lacking is … Black Panther.
The problems lie primarily in the character. His introduction in Civil War gave us little more than vengeful violence, culminating in an epiphany when he realised that revenge begets revenge or whatever. A protagonist needs more depth than that, and sadly Cole and Coogler’s screenplay fails to present a robust moral compass for T’Challa. With Killmonger representing radical revolution to liberate black suffering, T’Challa simply seems to represent an idle acceptance of the status quo. He refuses to consider waging war or accepting refugees not because of any ideological standpoint, but simply because that’s what his dad did.
Boseman could have helped this along, but he’s an unfortunately underwhelming lead. He looks the part, but he’s perhaps the least compelling actor to play an Avenger since Aaron Taylor-Johnson; he doesn’t have the charisma or charm to elevate the sometimes pedestrian dialogue he’s given. Nor does it help that he’s surrounded by an intimidatingly-talented group of actors; even the mostly-unknown Letitia Wright (playing his younger sister, a sort of Q to his Bond) outshines him. He’s especially eclipsed by Jordan, who despite being saddled with a broadly-drawn villain, finds a core of heartbreaking humanity beneath his scarred skin.
Despite the film not quite living up to its potential, it’s hard to ignore the enormity of a huge superhero film with black talent in front of and behind the camera. If representation matters, it’s hard to get bigger representation than this. While Black Panther himself is a bit of a letdown, Black Panther will resonate.