3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)
Much like death, taxes, and meetings with your in-laws, Marvel movies are, for better or worse, unavoidable. The studio’s intense marketing campaigns set the internet ablaze with fan theories, memes, and reaction videos from people who haven’t even seen the movie yet. Black Panther is the newest character in Marvel’s extensive catalog to get his own solo feature, and that has brought an onslaught of anticipation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since The Avengers back in 2012. As such, criticizing this film has been unofficially labeled as a sin against humanity by the powers that be, causing a large majority of critics to either minimize or completely ignore its flaws, something they would not do if it were another garden variety superhero flick. I’m here to set the record straight and say that, while Black Panther makes significant strides for the genre in terms of grounded political themes, stronger female characters, and a believable lead villain (whom I will not spoil), the film also has a noticeably slow start, some shockingly lackluster action sequences, and a title character who feels like a supporting player in his own movie. For those who haven’t thrown their keyboards or newspapers away in disgust, please continue below.
The story starts one week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, following T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman doing a fine job) as he protects the people of Wakanda, a technologically-advanced yet decidedly isolated African city powered by Vibranium, the strongest metal to ever exist. As his father King T’Chaka was recently assassinated, T’Challa must now take up the mantel of the Black Panther, the protector of the nation. I’m not sure why they allowed T’Challa to wear the Black Panther costume before he was officially made King, but I’ve let crazier things slide before with this Universe.
Soon after being crowned, T’Challa learns that the criminal Ulysses Klaue (An enjoyable Andy Serkis) has stolen Wakandan technology from a museum in London and plans to sell it to the highest bidder in South Korea. Knowing that people will lose their collective minds if the technology is revealed to the world, T’Challa, aided in the field by his finest warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and braniac sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) back home, ventures to stop Klaue, running into CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) along the way. Unbeknownst to all, these actions will bring a much greater threat to both Wakanda and (of course) the world.
Black Panther is one of Marvel’s more ambitious projects. Ryan Coogler (the man behind Creed), uses the story to explore some timely and thought-provoking ideas while still providing a solid standalone movie. I believe the film’s message will resonate with all audiences on some level, regardless of their race, financial background, etc. and will likely be the subject of conversation in many a global politics class in the coming weeks.
The film also differentiates itself by having battle sequences in which, and get ready for this, characters actually bleed after brutally smashing each other. I was surprised and overjoyed to see that Coogler wasn’t shying away from the fact that these are strong African warriors, not action figures. No one is going to come out of these fights unscathed, and I hope the same principle can be applied to the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (in which the biggest bad guy the heroes have ever faced is visiting Earth with a lust to conquer, and will probably have death on the mind). However, in an unprecedented and head-bangingly frustrating turn of events, Coogler seriously drops the ball whenever T’Challa is in the Black Panther suit, making the crippling decision to shoot two of those scenes at night, with insultingly low lighting. I might not have the greatest vision in the world, but a guy in a black suit fighting in the dark of night is going to be difficult to see. The first scene is in the jungle with the only light being from flashlights and machine gun fire, and the second is a car chase shot very quickly with a ton of acrobatics with only the bright buildings of South Korea as a light source. What’s more, these scenes lack the grittiness of the non-costumed battles, which caused me to mentally check out during them. However, I will throw this panther a claw and applaud the thrilling climax for being shot in the daytime and, even when Black Panther is fighting the bad guy, I can see what is happening.
While it might come up short on superheroics, it excels for creating a fleshed-out villain and strong female characters. While Marvel has often struggled to create memorable baddies, this one has understandable motivations that come from a surprisingly grounded and realistic place that ultimately made him the most interesting character, and the three primary female characters are smart, proactive, and will kick the living cheese out of anyone who challenges them. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the title character. While Boseman is doing a fine job with the role, there isn’t as much relatability in T’Challa as with Marvel’s other heroes. It feels as though the writers gave so much to the villain and main supporting characters that T’Challa somehow got shortchanged. I know that we were introduced to him in Civil War, but he just wasn’t as engaging here. Hopefully this will be remedied in Avengers: Infinity War and the sequel this will obviously receive, because Boseman deserved better than this.
Black Panther is an ambitious film with a strong villain and immensely topical themes, but its lead character doesn’t make as strong an impact as previous heroes, and the initially slow pace bogs it down. This is still a well-made and enjoyable movie, but it’s not quite the event film Marvel wanted it to be. Regardless of these issues, I still say See It, for the good outweighs the bad here.
Rated PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action Violence, And (seriously) A Brief Rude Gesture