Confession: I’ve always thought that Black Panther is kinda lame. To me, he has always been the poor man’s Batman. I cant help but see the character as Marvel’s attempt at having their own version of DC’s Dark Knight only, more culturally relevant and, well, “Marvelized”. Not convinced? Then consider the following:
King T’Challa and Bruce Wayne were both born into wealth and privilege. Both are haunted and driven by the murder of their parents. Both are guardians of their respective kingdoms; (Gotham City/Wakanda). Both have an aversion to killing (although T’Challa crosses that line if all else fails) and use a lot of gadgets whilst engaged in fisticuffs. Both excel at pretty much everything : martial arts, business deals, acrobatics, inventing gadgets, politics and of course, being bad ass ninjas (Tell me that entire opening battle sequence doesn’t just scream BATMAN! from the second Black Panther reveals himself). Both are driven to the point of obsession and (usually) dead serious in demeanor. Though both Batman and Black Panther are exceptional combat specialists, it’s their mind for strategy that has earned them the most respect in their respective super teams (JLA/Avengers). And of course, hello….pointy ears.
So yes, poor man’s Batman.
Which is just as well because I would argue that Black Panther isn’t even the real star of the show.
To be honest, I was very apprehensive about this movie.
Black Panther is Marvels Studios’ 18th film. That number alone should make a lot of people wary. When was the last the time we saw number 18 in a series of anything and went “Yeah. This should be good”? Moreover, in the annals of comic book personas, the character of Black Panther, is strictly B class. Though his role in 2016’s Civil War was a nice little introduction, nothing I saw there could, in my opinion, warrant him getting his own stand alone origin movie.
As I write this, Black Panther has grossed over 900 million dollars making it THE highest grossing Marvel origin story of all.
Turns out humble pie can be yummy.
Lets point to the elephant in the room before starting the review though. I’m not going to discuss the cultural significance of the predominantly black cast, or the emphasis on African culture and what it means. I choose to see this as a comic book movie, i.e. a product of entertainment and nothing more. I personally cannot bring myself to view it as a political statement. Nor can I bring myself to see this as a “Black movie” (whatever the hell that means). Not to say that the themes here aren’t strong. Quite the opposite in fact. In my opinion, politicizing things takes away from the brilliance of the film. Besides, the whole story essentially takes part in a land locked nation in the heart of Africa that has deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world. What else would the populace, and by extension the cast, be if not African in appearance and manner? It is heartening to see women getting a fair shake though. The whole “femme fatale” was getting realllly long in the tooth. So yes, props to Marvel for getting that right. It was high time. Alright, on with the review.
Black Panther is a window into the world of T’Challa (played convincingly by Chadwick Boseman) and the kingdom he rules. The island nation of Wakanda is nestled deep within the continent of Africa and through a combination of geographical fortune and cosmic lottery, has manged to stay isolated from the rest of the world. It has access to the world’s sole source of Vibranium, an element that fuels its entire civilization. It powers their tech to the point that it is by far the most advanced civilization in the world. So far, so comic book-ey. What sets it apart from the standard fare of “civilization with flying cars and neon overdose” is how the director has managed to amalgamate a highly advanced civilization with the most attractive aspects of African culture. Wakanda is a harmonious clash of colors and culture. A passing glance will reveal Zulu, Mursi, Lesotho and Maasai influences among many, many others.
Even the accents used by the actors are from various places across the continent. It is refreshing and if not original in inspiration, certainly is in presentation.
It breaks the mold of your typical hi-tech warrior culture that permeates all of sci fi. The Klingons, Predators, Sith etc may come across as bad asses, but the culture aspect is always overshadowed by need to constantly be hitting something. Preferably with plasma weapons. This is not an easy balance to achieve and one that Black Panther pulls off with aplomb. So even if Wakanda has remote piloted super drones, the idea of having its colorfully dressed female general hurling a vibranium spear that cuts cars in half doesn’t break one’s suspension of disbelief. Comic book movie or not, most art directors could learn a thing or two from this work. In many ways, Ryan Coogler’s direction transcends the actual source material. As a big comic book nerd, I do not say that lightly.
From a thematic stand point, I would probably rate this as one of Marvel’s strongest offerings (Winter Soldier and the first Iron Man being the other contenders). The question of isolationism vs internationalism is an interesting one and makes for a forceful narrative. It helps that the current political climate makes it that much more relevant. But the best thing to come out of this was a compelling villain in Killmonger. This aspect of the movie does not get enough credit beyond Micheal B. Jordan’s excellent portrayal of him. It’s not often that a bad guy in a comic book movie makes me go “Dude’s got a point.” It is a limitation imposed by the very nature of comic books. Super heroes are often Gods in all but name. If a protagonist has the power to destroy cities at will, it follows that he/she will go up against someone that can level entire worlds just for fun. In that case the only “depth” one can expect from a villain is “I want to destroy everything and/or rule everyone”. Point is, it gets old real fast.
“The villain is the hero of his own story” is one the most common things good writers will point to while creating an antagonist. The fact that this adage is so frequently neglected in popular entertainment gives some credence to the complaint that Hollywood today favors style over substance. What makes Black Panther go against the grain is the fact that T’Challa and Killmonger are both wrong. Almost as much as they are right. This a rare dichotomy and one that I particularly relished.
Speaking of villains, one of my biggest disappointments in Age of Ultron was was how the character of Ulysses Klaue was essentially “wasted”. Andy Serkis got precious little screen time in that one and it left me craving more. Black Panther does address that, if only a little. Not since Ledger’s Joker has a character so reveled in the chaos he leaves in his wake. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch Serkis have so much fun. I wont elaborate lest I spoil it for the three people who haven’t seen Black Panther yet but, suffice it to say he was by far the best character in the movie for me. And for a film that has so many strong characters portrayed by amazing actors, that is saying something.
Marvel has always been exemplary with its casting and the trend continues here. Almost everyone that shows up on screen earns their time. It is fair to say that the film has more than one hero/heroine. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke and Daniel Kaluuya are all brilliant and I can’t wait to see more of them.
The action is relentless and as expected from any movie in this genre, there are some rather entertaining battle sequences. Adding to the atmosphere of action is the sound track. Though I might be in the minority that thinks it wasn’t the best. The music isn’t bad by any means, it complements the onscreen action rather well. It just failed to leave any strong impressions on me.
There is a lot to like in Black Panther but it is far from perfect. In an attempt to push the whole “Black empowerment” thing, I did get the feeling that it was trying too hard in places. When a certain character refers to one of the few white characters in the film as “colonizer” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Some of scenes seem out of place and forced. On the other hand, these missteps only stand out because the rest of the film is so good.
It is heartening to see Marvel Studios not resting on its laurels. Where as DC keeps stumbling with its offerings, even as they misuse the hell out of its MVPs, Marvel is killing it even with its bench warmers . After Ironman and The Guardians of the Galaxy, I’d have thought that Marvel would take it easy with shining the spotlight on its roster of B-listers. I’m glad to see them prove me wrong. This is a very entertaining movie but, more than that, it is an important one.
He’s still a poor man’s Batman though. 😉
FINAL SCORE 8.5/10