'Black Panther' (2018) Review
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 hesitantly 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 prideful to 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 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