After a stellar introduction in Civil War, Chadwick Boseman gets his time in the spotlight as T'Challa, the king of the secretive country of Wakanda, and the legendary Black Panther. But his solo outing is a character downgrade from his brief but compelling turn in the Captain America movie.
|Maybe I'm just tired of Marvel movies. I mean, I am tired of Marvel movies. But I don't think that's the only problem here.|
I guess the Russo Brothers are to blame. They did too good a job giving T'Challa an outstanding arc, and developing him into a king worthy of his throne. And where do you go from there? Well the movie backtracks a bit, deciding that he's not officially king yet, and the way Wakanda works is basically any Wakandan can challenge his kingship. They do battle, and the winner gets to be king. (Yes, Wakanda is meant to be an advanced civilization hundreds of years ahead of the rest of the world, and yes, whoever is physically strongest gets to be king.)
So T'Challa is challenged, and he wins. Alright, he's king. Then suddenly it's a James Bond movie and T'Challa's upbeat and charming sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is Q, the tech girl. She outfits the confirmed Black Panther, and he goes out with his love interest Nakia (the incredibly gorgeous Lupita Nyong'o) and his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) to capture Klaue (Andy Serkis) who just popped up on their radar. But Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) is also there and also wants Klaue. After a pretty cool chase scene T'Challa gets him, but instead of blowing the joint with the prize, he hands Klaue over to Ross, and inevitably, he escapes.
|Obviously this is from the 007 portion of the film.|
Then the real bad guy Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) starts his play, and the movie transitions into the plot of The Lion King. Erik is a citizen of Wakanda, the son of T'Challa's uncle, who was killed by T'Challa's father when he turned bad and tried to kill Forest Whitaker. They left Erik behind to grow up American, so now he wants revenge and to be king to prevent other children from having to grow up as he did. He's also stronger than T'Challa. So he challenges, T'Challa accepts because that's what's done -- though he knows who he is and what his intentions are -- and he loses the fight, and gets thrown over a cliff to his apparent death.
Everyone's devastated but they can't do anything about it -- Killmonger is now king fair and square, and no one does anything about it because this is an advanced civilization, and the tradition of kingship revered and respected. Nah, forget that. The Queen Mother (Angela Bassett), Nakia, Shuri, and Ross steal a magic flower that gives the Black Panther powers, and take it to the guy who challenged T'Challa at the beginning of the movie, hoping that he will use the power to overthrow their rightful king. But surprise! T'Challa is there! Some fishermen pulled him out of the river, and he's in a coma but alive. They give him the flower, he gets his power back, they go do battle, he defeats Erik, the end.
|Thus Erik is decidedly more compelling than T'Challa. So good for him, but I kinda wanted the film's hero to be compelling too, or else why would we care if he wins?|
Cool, so -- what's the problem with this? Look at all the choices T'Challa makes. He accepts all challenges to his throne; to save face he doesn't keep Klaue for himself; he's unconscious for the entire portion of his "exile," and then he's saved by other characters. His character isn't changed when he fights Killmonger the second time, but somehow he still beats him. Basically, he's a doormat, and spends the whole movie being upstaged by more interesting characters. He does skirt round the issue of whether Wakanda should share their technology with the rest of the world, and finally decides that they should, but I was never convinced of his belief in the argument against it. So that message comes across, but it doesn't do much for the character.
Now, I don't have anything against a movie plotting itself after The Lion King. I like The Lion King. The problem I have is that the plot plays out in a way that diminishes the lead character instead of highlighting him as it should. I keep thinking that only if we had followed him over that cliff and if he had been forced to survive, empower himself, and return, all on his own volition, then he would have been so much more compelling. Also, other characters blame him for mistakes that are debatably not his fault, but if he ever blames himself for anything, we never get to know. He never has an inner struggle with himself. This method of character development is extremely ineffective and lazy to me.
|SIIIIMBAAA. REMEMBER WHO YOU AAARE.|
Practically all the other characters are more compelling than T'Challa, which is as amazing as it is sad, but I'm just going to talk about Erik. See, we feel for him because he was abandoned to a hard life, but he did still murder... well, at least one person. And he wasn't a very nice king. But he's sympathetic, so when he's dying and T'Challa has the technology to save him, he declares that he wants to die, and T'Challa lets him. In order for T'Challa to show strength in that scene he would have saved him no matter what he wanted, but he made an understandable choice because it was compassionate and we feel for Erik. But as a result, the scene -- the movie's most powerfully effective -- serves Erik, not T'Challa. Scene by scene, throughout the film, T'Challa always comes out the least developed, least characterized character.
It seems like the worst criticism you can possibly give this movie is that it's an average Marvel movie, but unfortunately, that's what it is. Wakanda is a visually unusual place with a neat culture, and there are some great design elements, but that's just frosting; something with which every Marvel film differs. The cake underneath is still the same Marvel-flavored production-line vanilla. The CGI is passable if you don't look too close. Action sequences are typical with one or two memorable moments each. Black Panther lacks any distinct fighting style, and doesn't even run fast in the entire movie. Again, Civil War set the bar too high with action sequences that required an amount of effort this film wasn't willing to put in.
|Fight scenes in water are automatically cool. Better choreography and filming could have made it amazing.|
The dialogue is uninspired. Brought back from the dead, all T'Challa can think to say is "Can I have a blanket?" There are a few solid jokes and I especially liked Shuri's sharp, lighthearted bantering attitude. But, there are at least two dramatic/powerful moments that are ruined by inserting mood-killing dumb jokes. Worst was when a rhino licks Okoye's face. That isn't even funny, and it killed the coolness of that moment for her. Whoever decided that that these moments of bathos should be the Marvel standard of hilarious needs to wake up and smell the audience disengaging from the scene. It works as in-the-moment entertainment every time, but keeps any kind of emotion from having staying power beyond five seconds.
Black Panther has its entertaining times as it strolls along in a predictable direction. It gets its themes across with admirable subtlety, and boasts a memorable and talented cast. It goes through the motions of ups and downs with fight scenes in the correct places, drama in the correct places, jokes in the "correct" places. It's got cool tech that's convenient to the plot, and world-building that does a fantastic job distracting from a surprisingly lackluster style. There's nothing really wrong with it, except that it's not at all exceptional, as it claims to be. It's average. This is exactly what Marvel is now; well-manufactured, generic entertainment.
|I really don't hate this film at all. I'm just bored of Marvel's movie-by-committee shenanigans.|
Sometimes I wonder if I'm crazy or heartless, when I don't love well-loved movies like this, but then I watch a film that does engage me, and the quality difference is clear. For whoever this movie does work for, I say good on you; relish it. As for me, I'm not disappointed, and I'm not impressed. I was hoping T'Challa's previously established character of quiet, powerful authority and sleek fighting techniques could be recreated for his solo rein, but the result falls short. Just another competently entertaining superhero blockbuster, Black Panther fits in perfectly with its Marvel peers, exploring another new corner of the broad universe; but has left me about as indifferent as a hunk of Vibranium.