Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Big Trouble in Little Wakanda
I did not love Black Panther and I put off writing this review because I wanted to allow the film to bask in the successful spotlight that it absolutely deserves. Now that director Ryan Coogler’s superhero film crushed the box office over the four-day weekend ($235 million domestic and $404 million worldwide) and the film has had a chance to flourish in the glow of sterling reviews from across the world, it seems like the perfect time to dive into why this film wasn’t quite as impressive as most are making it out to be.
Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as Killmonger. Many were calling him the best MCU villain since Loki, the best MCU villain period, and one review even claimed Killmonger was the best on-screen comic book villain since Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. The character has legitimate beef as to why he is the way he is, which adds a ton of weight to the character. However, many seem to be overlooking that that same purpose is also a curse. An explanation is required, but it also includes some minor spoilers.
Killmonger’s birth name is N’Jadaka and he is the son of the Wakandan traitor N’Jobu (played by Sterling K. Brown), who is the brother of King T’Chaka; the original Black Panther and T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman’s) father. In 1992, N’Jobu partnered with the black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) since he believed Wakandan technology and vibranium in particular could make Wakanda the most powerful country ever rather than the poor nation that they pretend to be. Klaue’s assault on vibranium mines in Wakanda cost many their lives and N’Jobu is to stand trial, but he resists and is reluctantly killed by his own brother for the sake of their home country and people, T’Chaka leaves a young Erik Stevens behind and Erik would evolve into the vengeful Killmonger in the present day.
While Killmonger’s reasoning for vengeance is warranted, he also seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that his father was in that position based on decisions that he made willingly. T’Chaka leaving him behind is something that’s worth getting revenge for, but aiming that hatred towards his son who had nothing to do with it and based solely on the same blood pumping through his veins feels like how a loan shark attacks surviving family members when the original borrower passes away. It also seems a bit odd that no one else has ever really seemed to make a play for the throne before other than M’Baku (Winston Duke) of the Jabari, the outcast Wakandan tribe from the mountains. While the other tribes seem to agree with T’Challa’s decisions, he butts heads with nearly everyone who isn’t direct family over the course of the film. If W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) wanted bloodshed so badly, why didn’t he opt to elect a king who had the same mindset?
If anyone in the film is like Heath Ledger’s Joker, it’s Ulysses Klaue. Andy Serkis is psychotic in the role relishing in the sheer amount of chaos he causes, the way he taunts his enemies, and how he makes a strong impact despite only being a minor factor in a greater equation. Klaue is used sparingly and for good reason, but it’s easy to see why the argument is made that Andy Serkis is highly underutilized here and one of the most underrated actors working today.
What Black Panther offers its audience is different than what you’ve come to expect from a Marvel or even a superhero blockbuster. That full-on embrace of the African culture along with a nearly all African-American cast is something to boast about and be proud of. What the film stands for and what it means to people who have never fully related to superheroes in the past is something special and the film should absolutely be praised for that. But Black Panther feels like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The sheep aspect is that the story structure of the film is as formulaic as any other Marvel film. Our hero is still trying to escape his father’s shadow while a former ally becomes a deadly rival. The storyline of the main characters is incredibly similar to that of The Lion King; T’Chaka and T’Challa are Mufasa and Simba and Killmonger is Scar while the ancestral plane is awfully similar to when Simba sees Mufasa’s ghost in the night sky. Maybe this was intentional or it is something that is faithful to the comics, but the film struggles to establish a fully independent identity because of it.
The highlights of Black Panther are the initial challenge sequence where T’Challa fights M’Baku and the casino sequence that leads into the car chase with Klaue. The challenge feels unique due to not only its setting but the gathering of so many people wearing so many vivid colors; it’s a visual spectacle that cannot be forgotten. Meanwhile the hunt for Klaue juggles laugh out loud humor, jaw dropping action, and some of the best special effects in the entire film.
As a Caucasian man writing this, Black Panther wasn’t specifically meant for me. Last year, Wonder Woman spoke to the hearts of nearly every female who managed to see it. A muted voice of an oppressed civilization is finally being handed a live microphone with no restraint and the encouragement to embrace their culture while showcasing it to the world. Black Panther represents the ups and downs of being proud of your own upbringing while exploring the gray area that lays in between what’s right and wrong. I was disappointed the film didn’t speak to me the way that I had hoped, but it serves as a stepping stone for something so meaningful for so many others and you can’t downright hate a film for that. I admire what Black Panther stands for, but am underwhelmed with how it's executed and its lethargic pacing certainly didn't help matters. With a film beaming with a culture that has never been fully explained in the superhero universe and such a talented cast, it’s a shame we received a storyline that felt so familiar especially when everyone involved gave everything they had to make Black Panther as marvelous as possible.
© 2018 Chris Sawin
Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on August 26, 2019:
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saji on August 26, 2019:
Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on June 01, 2019:
Perry, I agree to a certain extent. I didn't really think the film was boring as much as it seemed to borrow from The Lion King. I don't have extensive comic book knowledge of Black Panther, so maybe that's the way the comics are. I thought the culture surrounding it, pretty much all of the Wakanda stuff, was what made it differentiate itself from anything it reminded you of. But if it wasn't for Michael B Jordan and Andy Serkis I probably wouldn't have liked the film at all.
And I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about Endgame. I loved the throwbacks to the other 21 Marvel films over the past decade and the payoffs to all the teases over the years.
perry on May 31, 2019:
The movie is simply boring, stupid, and was only done to appease black audiences. Some of the actors are my favorite, but this movie was just a waste. In the same vein, the Endgame Avenger movie was dull for the first 30 min, the end battle was stupid, just tossing all the Marvel superheroes in bit roles as they do their stunts. It was just too much and way overrated.
Andy on May 08, 2019:
Great review! I liked Black Panther but it had some flaws.
Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on January 31, 2019:
Hey, thanks! Glad to find someone out there who feels the same way. I'm in a film critics society out here and we nominated Black Panther for best film for our end of the year awards. I don't see the attraction. I fully support offering a different kind of culture for comic book and film fans alike and I mean I've seen the film a few times and even own a copy. It's the type of film where it has all of the right components to make a great film, but the formula they use to put it all together just doesn't work right.
Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks for reading and the feedback!
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on January 30, 2019:
You know, I couldn't understand why I didn't like such a successful movie as Black Panther. You articulated perfectly everything I feel. I could never get myself to finish the movie, thought I tried.
Rafsan Ifran on November 02, 2018:
Best Superhero movie made by Marvel ....we can say now this is a hero super type movie marvel ever created. Really Enjoyed the movie already watched 3 times.....and there also a secuel coming of black panther.
Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on August 09, 2018:
I don't...really understand what you're asking. Am I trying to persuade readers with my opinion of the film? Not really. Reviews are opinions of the ones that write them. All I can do as a writer is tell you or whoever reads this my thoughts on what I saw. If you find yourself interested in a film, you should see it regardless of what one review says. I guess my thought process is I'll post a review of a film, someone will then gain interest in said film regardless of what I thought of it, see it for themselves, and then come back to my review to have some sort of discussion about it either privately or publicly. Film discussion is enjoyable even if the two or more individuals have differing opinions.
AW on August 08, 2018:
To which extent do these scripts hamper different readers analytic view? That takes on as if the review did not reflect over the author's plot.
Ian Rideout from Alberta, Canada on May 24, 2018:
Nice review. I enjoyed reading it. While I did enjoy Black Panther overall, I think you raise a lot of good points. In particular how, beneath its strong representation of African culture, the story is formulaic. I do agree with you in that the movie didn't quite live up to the hype for me. I liked it, but I didn't love it.
I thought Wonder Woman was fantastic, though. I enjoyed it more than most Marvel films.