25 February 2018
As a film, Black Panther is not that great. It’s a decent superhero movie that fits snuggly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both in terms of lore and quality. It doesn’t hit the heights of last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming but doesn’t exactly sink as far as Thor: The Dark World. Black Panther is just another entertaining superhero movie from a studio that knows how to make them. So what’s the problem?
I don’t usually get hung up on other people’s opinions when it comes to entertainment. You’re allowed to praise what you think is praiseworthy and more often than not, art is subjective. However, when it comes to this film in particular, I have the feeling that it’s being praised for the wrong reasons, reasons that are external to the movie’s actual merit.
In the weeks leading up to its release, Black Panther wasn’t so much a superhero movie as it was a cultural event. The film was hyped with an unbridled sense of enthusiasm that would usually be reserved for Avengers films. Expectations continued to climb as reviews came out and nothing but good things were said. The first bad review on Rotten Tomatoes was immediately jumped on and made fun of.
For a brief moment, Black Panther seemed like it was going to live up to the hype. For many people it did. To me, it was an average Marvel effort that suffered heavily from a generic plot and a cast of characters that never quite gelled together. Perhaps the biggest let-down was its wasted potential.
As far as comic books go, Black Panther is one of the more awesome concepts to come out of the superhero world. He is essentially a crimefighter and world leader all rolled into one character, able to change society in both a heroic and political sense. The fact that T’Challa is the king of a nation gives him by far the most power and therefore responsibility of all the cinematic heroes we’ve seen.
This aspect of the character is barely explored in the film. One of the first things T’Challa does after being crowned king is go to Korea for a mission, which takes up a good chunk of the movie.
Even when the film does spend time in Wakanda, we never get a good look at the kingdom T’Challa is fighting so desperately to protect. We’re never given a reason to care for it, and when Killmonger shows up, he tritely sets his sights on the entire world.
The hero’s home is ultimately just another background to many interior sets and a few repeated outdoor locales. Seeing as place is such an important aspect of this character, the lack of connection to Wakanda is especially disappointing. Even Sakaar, the dumpster planet from Thor: Ragnarok, felt like it had more personality.
T’Challa himself never takes on the responsibility of king that had been set up in his Civil War origin. Throughout the film, he is always in conflict over the throne rather than the duties that come with it.
It is as if the first 10 minutes of Thor, him being coronated, were stretched out to fit the entire movie’s plot.
T’Challa begins the film fighting for the throne with his fists and ends the film fighting for the throne with his fists. A bit of character development would’ve gone a long way in showing how T’Challa eventually earnes his birthright.
On that note, the protagonist doesn’t have an arc—or flaws. His biggest failure was being defeated by the villain, but when he comes back, the audience isn’t clued in to any extra skill or wisdom that would allow him not to lose again. He didn’t learn the value of humility. He didn’t gain the courage to self-sacrifice. He won because the script said so.
Despite its boring hero, Black Panther does succeed in giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its best villains. Killmonger is set up well and his motivations are relatable yet twisted enough to warrant the title of villain.
However, his ‘evil plan’ ultimately feels too foolish to be threatening. Killmonger effectively wants to arm black men and women all around the world with the means to take over. We’re not given any idea who he’s specifically sending weapons to, but we’re supposed to assume they’re disenfranchised enough to want to violently enslave all other races.
There are also more obvious issues with the film, like the lacklustre action, unfunny jokes, and dragging scenes.
The costumes and design are great but the CGI is incredibly dodgy. The soundtrack is one of Marvel’s best but is used in strange places and doesn’t fit the movie well.
Now that we’ve gotten that all out of the way, what about the ‘political’ aspect of the movie?
Despite Black Panther being Marvel’s most thematically ambitious film, the messages it tries to communicate feel awfully jumbled. It seems to call for the end of isolationism yet shows us a nation that has thrived for years off of its neutrality and withdrawal from world politics.
The villain is supposed to be the result of Wakanda’s isolationism, but in the wider context of the narrative, he’s actually the fault of one dumb decision. This also warps the film’s moral about foreign aid; it isn’t about helping others as much as it is about preventing an angry terrorist from invading your home—maybe there is a hint of reality in that.
The film doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Its questions are marred by lapses in internal logic. But this political and cultural climate has co-opted Black Panther to be a part of something it wasn’t made to be.
No, Marvel Studios won’t give 25% of its Black Panther profits to black communities just because they made a movie about and starring black people. They didn’t see this as a big political statement and neither should you. There are many other films made by and starring black people that deserve the cultural position that has for some reason been given to a fanciful superhero flick. This goes for the other side too, the people who are deconstructing the movie as some kind of middle finger to Western civilisation—shut up.
Black Panther is a decent movie, but we’ve made it an overrated one.