I have to admit, I don’t place “importance” on genre movies, and I’m mystified by those who do. Both Wonder Woman and Mad Max: Fury Road were described in such glowing terms when they were released, and I flat out don’t get it – especially given that both movies had major problems, and were not really that great. Both movies had strong, well portrayed female heroes, and while that’s a great thing, it’s not a strong enough attribute when so much else is weak. Now it’s the turn of Marvel Studios to capitalize on strong public sentiment, with Black Panther!
Created in 1966 by two Jewish comic creators, namely Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, The Black Panther’s first ever appearance was in a two part story, beginning in Fantastic Four #52.
If you want to read the synopsis for the entire story, start here, True Believer. It’s a pretty good story, and paved the way for numerous series featuring T’Challa, King of Wakanda, over the decades. Now, over 50 years after the character’s first appearance, he has his own solo run out in Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe, following his pivotal appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
In this first franchise entry, T’challa completes his ascension to the throne of Wakanda, then breaks with tradition to go after Ulysses Klaue to right the historical wrongs Klaue has done to Wakanda and its people. While this is happening, he finds his position as Wakanda’s ruler in jeopardy when a mysterious usurper comes along with proof of his own claim to the throne. How does T’Challa respond to this new threat – see the movie and find out!
That’s the plot in a nutshell, and for Marvel Studios it’s typical for their first movie to kickstart a franchise. Nothing really impressive about the plot, nor the fact that the climactic struggle between good and evil is simply the good guy fighting a bad version of himself. See The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man, etc etc. It’s Superhero Movie Plotting 101, and clearly Marvel are never going to break with the formula that’s positioned them as perhaps the most successful (in terms of box office) studio of all time, in the space of 10 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess – for me the formula isn’t broken, but it could do with some cosmetic work.
I found the first half of the movie not fully engaging. There’s a LOT of setup here – moreso than the usual first-in-a-series, and it comes at you with the all the purpose of a Wikipedia info dump. But it isn’t bad, nor is it really boring – and my own problems with the movie just being hard to actually see in the early scenes could be more to do with the theater I watched it at than the movie itself. The picture quality seemed more 720i than 1080p, and it bugged me. Of the story, I don’t have a lot of great things to say – there’s a big deal being made about Wakanda being the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth, and that’s cool, I can buy into the cradle of life being at the top – after all, Egypt was at one point too. I also liked that culturally, the Wakandans hadn’t abandoned their history – but at the same time I felt it to be disjointed. I didn’t really feel that this was a culture that really respected its history, just that the movie needed to have those scenes in it for surface appeal. That might be an odd thing to say when the movie does include some movie mumbo jumbo about connecting with ancestors and all that, but those were simple plot points and I felt they lacked depth. In one respect, then, Black Panther, with its made up culture and history and rituals, just seems like an updating of the old Tarzan movies with its fake tribal tropes, and the right of passage T’Challa must take to claim the throne is not only predictable, it’s also an obvious setup for the movie’s climax.
What keeps the movie alive in the first half are the performances. Chadwick Boseman as the titular hero is actually the least interesting of the major characters. There’s not really a strong way to portray someone who has to be relentlessly good, and restrained by how he’s perceived by his public. Most of the time he’s on screen without the costume, he comes across as being upright and respectable, but not much else. The limelight is stolen from him by three other characters, but mostly in how they’re portrayed. Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, is a fun presence, extremely likable, but I wasn’t really convinced that a 16 year old was THE dominant technological genius in Wakanda. Her participation as the movie’s “Q” just didn’t feel authentic to me – but I did like her. She provides the movie’s only comic relief, and it works mostly due to her performance, not so much the writing. Next up is Andy Serkis’s Klaue – I really enjoyed his performance here as an intensely charismatic psychotic, and his scenes in the first half of the movie do a lot to keep the mood from flatlining. This is a guy I wanted to see more of from his brief appearance in Civil War, and I was happy to see him again here, where he has a bigger role in the story.
But the movie is completely owned by Michael B. Jordan as the Big Bad, Killmonger. I genuinely like Jordan’s work, and I was amazed to read he’d taken this role on in the wake of the utter disaster that was Fantastic Four. I’m glad he did, though, because this performance (dumb name aside) is one of the greatest villains so far in the entire Marvel franchise. It’s the kind of raw performance you’d see in an urban drama, full of anger – but not a comic book anger, a righteous anger that comes from the history of the character. Every time he appears onscreen the movie really comes alive, especially in the scenes where he plays opposite a single character. I remember thinking that Dane DeHaan would have been my choice to reboot Spider Man following the Raimi movies, from his performance in the splendid Chronicle (which also stars Michael B. Jordan), in order to create an edgier type of superhero movie. I felt the exact same here, thinking that if Marvel had the ambition to mess with their patented formula, Jordan’s take on Killmonger would have been perfect for T’Challa – a character who would truly have an arc that would resonate with an audience, instead of Boseman’s mostly playbook hero. Jordan is worth the price of admission alone.
An honourable mention goes to The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira who plays captain of the all-female Dora Milaje, an Amazonian “king’s guard”. She doesn’t get a lot to do other than play stoic, but she has a terrific amount of screen presence – enough to make me believe she can easily make the transition from TV to big screen in a bigger role.
I started this review regarding the notion of a superhero movie being “important”, in a somewhat skeptical manner, but through the writing of it, I suddenly remembered thoughts I’ve had in the past, at no particular times. Denzel Washington aside, very few movies feature black leads, even less genre movies, and I’ve wondered what I would feel like being a black audience member with no genre leads that I could readily identify with. There have been plenty of movies featuring more “real life” depictions of black characters, but very few genre movies that deal with them as being anything other than stereotypes. Marvel Studios’ The Falcon was a decent attempt, but had no real time devoted to him with which to give him depth. With Black Panther, here is a mostly all black cast with characters portrayed positively (even Killmonger has depth, and I liked his origin story), and while the notion of a superhero movie being “important” still feels silly, I’m not the black guy sitting in the audience thinking, “Fuck yeah!”, so what do I know?
©Andrew Hope, 2018