Black Panther is Marvel’s most ambitious film to date, and while it reaches heights never seen before in the genre, it struggles under the weight of its lofty ideas and shoddy production.
So let’s address the elephant in the room.
Reviewing a film like Black Panther is difficult: The undeniable gravitas of its release is, well, undeniable, and the discourse around it is subject to extremely heightened emotions. For many, Black Panther isn’t just another comic book movie: it’s a monumental event, and with damn good reason. A film this rich in representation of people of colour, both in front of and behind the camera, achieving a level of financial success long believed to be reserved for only studios deemed palatable is an incredible achievement and deserves all of the praise it has received so far. Nothing I have to say about the quality of the film could possibly detract, nor should it, from it’s wider social and cultural impact; and for that director Ryan Coogler and his entire team should be immensely proud.
Stripping away the beauty of the movement inspired by this film, however, you’re left with the 18th entry in Marvel’s long-running pantheon of superhero flicks which have varied wildly in quality. Where does Black Panther sit among them? Well, that’s a little more complicated than I would have liked to admit.
With mixed results, Black Panther spends little time on its place within the grander scheme of the Marvel universe, let alone it’s own. Immediately picking up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which the then-king of Wakanda is killed in a terrorist strike during a UN meeting, his son, T’challa, is thrust into the role of king without adequate preparation.
Comic book adaptations have had a troubled history with origin stories and Black Panther sidesteps this entirely by relegating much of its establishing lore to a short animated sequence at the very beginning of the film. Given that the Black Panther was introduced during Civil War this isn’t entirely unforgivable. However, the potential enormity of Wakanda and the hundreds of questions it inspires are largely left unanswered, and the vibrancy of this fascinating new land is lessened by a lack of context or history. Those questions are hugely important as well, given that the monocratic contrivances needed to allow the third act to even happen are starkly out of place in a futuristic civilisation.
This lack of development runs throughout much of the film; despite its lengthy run time of 134 minutes, Black Panther struggles to find room for each of its plot threads, merely brushing up against exciting ideas in its slog toward the gaudy climax sequence that plagues every other film in its legacy. Worst still, of all the Marvel films, Black Panther has the best concepts to date: the undercurrent of racial politics, war, segregation and bloodlines is a fantastic bedrock for a film. It’s baffling then just how many ways it manages to fumble these elements, culminating in a film that on paper is a masterpiece but in practice falls almost completely flat.
The biggest issue holding Black Panther back is the uneven script and the stilted performances it produces from a cast that should have had this in the bag. The mystery and charm T’Challa exhibited in Civil War is all but stripped away from his leading role here, as Chadwick Boseman struggles to breathe life into the passively underwritten Black Panther. Wisely, Marvel has moved away from the obnoxiously witty leading man archetype but replaced it with nothing, leaving a gaping void at the center of the film; T’Challa barely feels like a character, more of a conduit for the plot to work through than a real person. Luckily for T’Challa and the audience, he is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, though even the best performances here struggle under weak characterisation.
Black Panther allows each of its players a moment or two to shine, though how ferociously they take on that moment varies. Winston Duke and Danai Gurira shine as Wakanda’s greatest critic and loyalist respectively; Duke especially brings a smoldering sexuality to his role that is just shy of show-stealing. T’Challa’s sister, the infectiously enthusiastic Shuri, is played with conviction by Letitia Wright, whose performance almost sells even a cringe-worthy meme joke. Criminally underused is Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, in a role that is woefully underdeveloped and almost wholly unnecessary. Rounding out the supporting cast are industry veterans Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Martin Freeman, all of whom are serviceable, though given the caliber of those names ‘serviceable’ isn’t exactly a glowing result.
Lupita Nyong’o’s role as T’Challa’s ex and ultimate voice of reason, Nakia, is the closest the film comes to a fully realised character, despite the unnecessary love interest angle attached to her. One of Wakanda’s many spies placed around the globe, Nakia begins to question if her people should be doing more to help the outside world, one of the better complex questions the film raises about foreign aid and refugee crises. Had the script dropped the romantic element of her character, Nyong’o perhaps could have been better served, as the scenes in which she’s allowed to be her own character have fantastic drama to them.
Micheal B. Jordan’s turn as villain Killmonger is about as uneven as the film gets, embodying both the lofty ideals Black Panther wants to be about and the cartoonish nonsense it winds up exhibiting. Jordan’s first appearance is hugely promising, too; a London art gallery robbed by a young man dressed more like the local hipster than a goon, he pauses before the getaway to steal a mask, just because he’s “feelin’ it.” It’s effortlessly cool, and paired with the accusations of theft by colonists, Killmonger breaks ground by being an interesting antagonist — if only in short bursts. He is absent for much of the film’s second act, a void filled masterfully by Andy Serkis’ Klaue, and when he does finally return his persona shifts from relatable to violent radical as he swiftly descends into a psychopath armed with a hamfisted script and a good suit to boot. Much like Nakia, Killmonger is a victim of a script unable to focus its characters; with the exception of a short ethereal sequence in the third act, Jordan is relegated to play a cartoonish big bad and his performance suffers greatly for it.
Black Panther does, however, roar to life when it shifts focus from its script to its style. There are some missteps with the blending of action and CGI, which rears its head during the early Wakanda scenes and fully cannibalises any semblance of reality by the final fight sequence, but shoddy elements aside the art direction of the film is fiercely vibrant. A lot of this is thanks to the excellent costume work by Ruth E. Carter: outfits of all sorts pop off the screen with bursts of colour and African influence. The film’s soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting also, shifting seamlessly between an original score that is occasionally brilliant and the pulsing synth-infused R’nB work of Kendrick Lamar on the film’s album. One particular sequence set in Korea showcases Black Panther‘s smooth sense of style with a meaty action set piece that transitions from a James Bond-inspired casino thriller to a balls-to-the-wall car chase that is all at once funny and thrilling.
Along with a handful of other scenes — two ritual combat sequences stand out — the Korea portion of the film only serves to highlight just how little the rest of Black Panther actively engages audiences. More often than not scenes slip by without any notable direction or cinematography; the most egregious sin here being that conversations are mostly shot reserve shot, immediately draining any dramatic character tension away.
Much like the rest of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther will undoubtedly please audiences and primarily provides a decent enough action flick. The runtime never feels lengthy, a credit to the film’s pacing, and despite some poorly implemented elements, the final product can stand proud as an achievement in pushing the envelope on how a movie of this caliber can look and feel. The biggest thorn in Black Panther‘s paw, though, is its script, and despite the insistence that comic book films are just for fun, the overt social and political messaging of this film is incredibly important. It’s a shame that these lofty ideas are somewhat diminished by a plot riddled with inconsistencies and characters that would feel more at home in a sillier movie. You can see the vision here, and it’s a beautiful one, but the film that eventuated from that vision is a far cry from the one it deserved.