REVIEW: ‘Black Panther’ is a carefully wrought political film…plus superheroes

 Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in  Black Panther , directed by Ryan Coogler.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler.

I’ll admit, seeing a blockbuster on opening weekend may not be for everybody. You’ve got to deal with an extra-busy venue, and maybe a more vocal crowd than you’d expect. But the experience affords something that’s hard to get elsewhere: a true sense of what a big, conversation-driving movie means to people. When you’re at a screening with several hundred ardent fans, it gives you a better sense of a movie’s reception than any online comment thread.

This is especially true of the new Marvel film Black Panther, which hammered home a message even as I climbed the escalator towards the multiplex: the noticeably greater numbers of people of colour filing into and out of Black Panther screenings. Some of them even wore clothes with the bright patterns from Basotho blankets, to celebrate the vision of Africa put forward by the movie. The message of this demographic was clear: representation matters. For the people turning out for these sold out shows, it was clearly important to be there on opening weekend, whereas with another superhero film, they might have waited a few weeks for a less packed screening, or waited until it showed up on Netflix.

It turns out that this shouldn’t be a surprise. The form of representation offered by Ryan Coogler’s new film is a powerful one. Even though the Black Panther character isn’t the first black superhero to lead his own film, Marvel’s latest outing makes some new and important strides in how it handles race in this genre. Most visibly, it puts a comparatively huge cast of black actors in all the central roles, something that is still rare in films of this size. And narratively, the status of black and African people - including the competing ideas on how to improve it - is deeply woven into the story. It doesn’t feel painted-on, as socio-political issues too often are in superhero films (even in the Marvel universe – I’m looking at you, The Winter Soldier).

The social observations in Coogler’s film are authentic and nuanced because they are intrinsic to the characters. At the centre is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the prince of the African nation of Wakanda, who is the presumptive heir to the throne after the assassination of his father depicted in 2015’s Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa returns to his homeland to assume his new role, which means continuing to grapple with Wakanda’s place in the world. Does he share the country’s fabulous mineral wealth and technological mastery with other nations? Or is the traditional protectionism of Wakandan politics the only way to preserve their way of life?

 Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia and Letitia Wright as Shuri.

Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia and Letitia Wright as Shuri.

By framing Wakanda in this way, the movie probes where the United States (and by extension, all Western countries) really stand on their interventions and aid missions abroad. Wakanda’s problems are eerily familiar: characters speak about whether to lend aid to war-torn neighbours, whether to welcome refugees, and most importantly: whether to wage war on others to right perceived wrongs.

This is where the film’s main villain comes in: Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is an American with Wakandan roots, who grew up witnessing the abuse of black people, and wishing for the means to stop it. His mind twisted by hatred and abandonment, he believes the only way to rebalance the scales is to take over the throne of Wakanda from T’Challa and use the country’s military might to establish a new world order. If you’d like to dig deeper, I highly recommend Film Crit Hulk’s excellent piece from this weekend, which dives deeper into the provenance of the movie and how it mirrors the differing ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

But what of the rest of the movie? For all its progressivism and impactful storytelling, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, and so it doesn’t shake the studio’s formula entirely. Not all of T’Challa’s struggles make sense (it’s not clear why Killmonger is such a better fighter, for example). Certain plot points feel more forced by the screenwriters than they should be; at one point, an army of reinforcements arrives at a battle out of nowhere, because the script required a last-minute turning of the tide.

And then there’s the action scenes, which other critics have also highlighted for being a lot muddier than one would hope for such a carefully made film. Several key fight scenes, including the two trials by combat and the big brawl between the tribes at the climax, are choppy and incoherent. It’s impossible to tell who has the advantage at any point during the confrontations, let alone what kind of tactics are being used.

 Shuri and Nakia team up with Ramana (Angela Bassett) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).

Shuri and Nakia team up with Ramana (Angela Bassett) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).

And it’s not necessarily Coogler’s fault, since the studio-beloved technique of previsualization likely had a lot to do with these scenes. Compared to the crisp, visceral action in Coogler’s Creed, many of Black Panther’s setpieces have that bland, assembly-line quality we know all too well. Which is a shame, since the fight in the South Korean casino in this film is a noticeable outlier, treating the viewer to some impressively fluid, long-take sequences.

What really fascinates me about Black Panther – and on the DC side, Wonder Woman – is what kind of milestone these films will be 10 or 20 years in the future. Will the long-prophesied “death” of superhero films make them fade from view, as the Western did for a while? Or will the success of Coogler’s film – both financially and culturally – truly prompt a change in how big tentpole movies are made? Ideally, we’ll see the Black Panther model repeat itself for minorities of all kinds, not to exclude the characters we’ve already enjoyed, but to flood the multiplexes with more variety and more resonance for the people who might otherwise stay home. If it gets us more crowds like the ones at the opening weekend of Black Panther, it might be exactly what theatre owners need.

Black Panther gets three and a half stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • The best character in this movie was Letitia Wright’s Shuri, by a wide margin. I sort of want her and Ned from Spider-Man: Homecoming to have a spin-off Netflix show.
  • Was anyone else confused by the shifting motivations of W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya)? I couldn’t figure out why his character continued to support Killmonger.
  • Why did Killmonger bother with going to South Korea with Klaue? If he intended to kill Klaue the whole time to get welcomed into Wakanda, why didn’t he do it after the heist in London?