Hannah Long, News Editor • firstname.lastname@example.org
Inevitably, “Black Panther” is a film that’s as much about its political meaning as its cinematic meaning. The first MCU film to feature a black protagonist and largely-black cast, it’s taken on the importance of a cause, much like the feminist empowerment of “Wonder Woman.” On that level, it’s successful. It has a wonderful cast and it’s expected to dominate the box office for the third weekend in a row, according to the Los Angeles Times.
As a movie, however, its strengths are often obscured by the limitations imposed on all Marvel films.
For instance, the Marvel house style of dull color grading and chaotic fight choreography don’t do the film’s gorgeous art design or elegant warriors any justice.
Like “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s yet another story of heroism compromised and conflicted. (“Wonder Woman” is the only superhero film of late to escape the trend.)
On the other hand, the film is hardly formulaic, being less of a hero origin tale than the introduction of a nation. Wakanda is a fascinating afrofuturist utopia built on a monopoly of the metal vibranium. The nation’s isolationist policies have prevented it from intervening to stop the colonization of Africa, which disturbs T’Challa’s ex, Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo), and forms the basis for the film’s major conflict.
Chadwick Boseman is good as T’Challa, but surprisingly not a standout. Partly, that’s because of the extraordinarily strong supporting cast, but also because T’Challa is a square character whose arc largely involves responding to things other characters do or have done. Unlike Thor, his story isn’t about facing up to himself, but to his father’s mistakes. It would have been nice to see T’Challa grapple more explicitly with what it means to be a good king, instead of merely defining it as Not Killmonger (a good model for this arc would be Caesar in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a story which tackles similar themes.)
Speaking of which, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is a standout. His limited screen time is the only thing preventing him from unseating Loki as the best Marvel villain.
Some structural problems plot-wise don’t help with this. The first half of the film he’s overshadowed by Andy Serkis’s gonzo armless arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Since much of the Klaue subplot ends up not mattering much in the end, it puzzles me why the film spends so much screentime following his (admittedly entertaining) hijinks.
It’s only when Killmonger executes his coup that the story finds a focus. He’s a villain of such charisma that his quest bends the narrative around him as he handily defeats T’Challa and begins implementing his new imperialist plan. The film doesn’t and shouldn’t empathize with his aims, but the mere inclusion of a character whose politics are so challenging and whose critiques are so unapologetic is a bold step. His final words cut deep, and notably, go without challenge.
Like “Civil War,” “Black Panther” is really a story about international relations. It’s an African story, but it’s an American question. Do we intervene to prevent injustice? For Wakanda it’s an even more fraught problem, since doing so would mean changing their way of life. But ultimately, they’re Team Cap. Wakanda is here to help.