Movie Review - Black Panther
Black Panther is everything you could hope it would be. And, like Wonder Woman before it, given the subject matter, there’s this societal compulsion to look at it as something more…perhaps as a watershed moment. Honestly, it’s that kind of thinking that is going to end up making my review of Black Panther to be a very complicated affair. So yes, we’re going to look at the film, but I feel that we also need to address the impact on society that film is having…which unfortunately is going to touch on something I’ve complained about before.
First, the film itself…and as I led with, it’s a really good film. There are some themes with definite social relevance, the danger of the oppressed becoming the oppressors and not something better, the debate between serving your country in dark times and trying to save it in those very same dark times via resistance, the ongoing debate between isolationism, empire and guiding force roles in the modern world…and likely others that I’m forgetting. Like any good piece of entertainment, we’re not beat over the head extensively with these themes…they are introduced and yes, they’re vital to the story, but it doesn’t force feed them into our own circumstances. If we have a mind to pick them up and play with them, we’re free to do so just as much as we are to leave them where they are and not let them interfere with the escapism and entertainment that we’re there to see. Perhaps once the film is released to home video and I can get some repeated viewings under my belt that might be something fun to do…but not now.
There’s something else about this film that I wanted to talk about and give it its own spotlight. You see, more often than not, superhero trilogies (particularly with solo heroes) tend to follow a pattern: Part 1 is the origin story, Part 2 shows us our hero without powers and Part 3 confronts out hero with a dark mirror. We see it in the first superhero trilogy, the Salkind-produced Superman I, II and III, we see it in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine and Logan, Iron Man 1, 2 and 3…I could go on. Black Panther does something amazing in that it gives us all three in one film. We see how T’Challa gets his power and how he rises to the throne. We see him lose his powers and his throne…and all that is done to him by his own dark mirror…the character of Erik Stevens A.K.A Killmonger. What makes this a major feat is that writer/director Ryan Coogler at no point makes this feel like such a dense, crammed together movie. At no point are we the audience just shuffled from plot point to plot point…it all feels like a singular story with the aforementioned character arcs that most superhero films take multiple movies to traverse wrapped and woven throughout a crafted film. Looking at this in the context of Superhero Films as a genre, we may be looking at a paradigm shift and a means for the genre to survive. Black Panther in its first film has already hit the usual story beats and as such, hopefully, a sequel can take us somewhere new.
I also wanted to take a moment to point out just how damn Bondian the film is in some aspects. We have our Q moments, we have our globetrotting…from Wakanda to the US to South Korea to Austria. I gotta admit, the Austria bit in particular can certainly be read into…as it is there that Wakanda reveals itself…the United Nations in Vienna…not the headquarters in New York. But even if you leave that particular thread alone, we’re still shown that Black Panther is a hero to the world…not just America. In some ways, it’s a refreshing thing to see. I’m dove-tailing a bit here though. Back to Bond, sure, it’s nothing new as Bond films have been with us for 50 years plus…but it’s not an approach anyone would immediately associate with T’Challa and it works so well. That’s another feather for Coogler’s cap.
One last thing. [Since you’ve forgotten it in at least two drafts of this review already. – Ed.] Enough cannot be said about the film’s antagonist, Killmonger. FINALLY, after 17 films, Marvel gives us a sympathetic, nuanced, fully fleshed out and three-dimensional opponent for our hero that isn’t Loki. Killmonger has some real issues and real reasons for going down the path that he does. I’m very hesitant to describe him as a villain, for fear of having him lumped in with Marvel’s many, many failed attemps. My other reason for refusing to call him a villain is simply because the points he makes are all valid ones…and ones we see being embraced out in the real world. I won’t go into any details, as it is very much spoiler territory, but I cannot overstate how completely refreshing it is to finally see an antagonist that is every bit the equal to the hero and one that has some meat to his side of the debate aside from “RAWR…I’m the bad guy…RAWR”.
Now, let’s talk about everything surrounding the movie. You see, in contrast to the aforementioned Wonder Woman, where women were told that she’s not the sort of role model they should have, with Black Panther we’re being told that we’re finally seeing a black superhero get his due. It seems everyone is so quick to forget Wesley Snipes’ turn as Blade in his three films. Or before that, Shaq as Steel. [Um…the less said about that one, the better. – Ed.] Ahem, right, back to Blade then…that film not only gave us a black superhero but also kick-started this entire Superhero Film renaissance that we’ve been experiencing ever since. If Blade’s not a success in 1999, do we get Raimi’s Spider-Man? Singer’s X-Men? The MCU? Well, that’s certainly a point for debate…but here’s something else to think about: how much risk is associated with releasing Black Panther…especially now? There have been 17 films prior to the release of Black Panther. The Marvel name has been well established and beloved by both critics and moviegoers alike. I posit that there was no risk whatsoever…as anyone who is hesitant about the subject material will still go due to the Marvel brand being attached. Turning to the Distinguished Competition, WB released 3 divisive films under their DC banner before giving us Wonder Woman. That’s a bit riskier.
Okay, that all sounds a bit social justice warrior-y…so let me balance the scales here. [Because you’re already filled with enough self loathing. – Ed.] The thing is that I personally tend to not like this kind of labeling…because once you lay down the race card, you invite both the good and the bad that comes with it. I prefer to judge the art on its own merit. That being said, yes, it’s certainly important that Black Panther had the biggest opening weekend for any movie not directed by a white guy…and it is fantastic that it’s on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie (in terms of North American box-office) directed by a black filmmaker. But given the context above, is this really a sign that Hollywood or movie goers are finally ‘woke’? Given the heavy brand support I mentioned above, the name-recognition of Marvel on top of the media juggernaut that is the House of Mouse, it’s hard to say. At times, to me, it almost felt like Marvel’s version of The Lion King…an African story sandwiched in amongst a whole bunch of stories about white people. But Black Panther is certainly a part of the trend in that direction with the likes of the aforementioned Wonder Woman as well as Get Out [Which you still need to watch, by the way. – Ed.], Moonlight and others. While it’s my hope that the monumental amount of money Black Panther has made upon its opening and the money it’s likely to make throughout the life of its theatrical run will give this trend a shot into hyperspace…my worry is that this trend will go the way that most trends do…because THE MAN never likes to give a brother a voice for long. [Everyone give a warm welcome to our guest writer, Black Dynamite. – Ed.]
All that being said, that little nagging in the back of my head can’t take away from Black Panther’s accomplishments. On my drive home from the film, the thought struck me “Where were the black Kryptonians?” You see, whenever we get a look at Krypton or other comic book movie ‘perfect’ civilizations, there’s an awful lot of whitey. Black Panther answers that question. Where are the black Kryptonians? Wakanda. We see an African utopia with fantastic technologies finally put to screen. And it took too long for that to happen. Fortunately, that’s not Black Panther’s only victory…as stated in the review above. It’s a great entry into the genre and for that alone it deserves every accolade it’s given. But the social hoopla around it? Maybe we should take a harder look at both this and Wonder Woman and maybe not pat ourselves on the back so much just yet. Sure, it’s progress, and progress that is long overdue…but social commentators are waving flags like the war is over. No, these two films are just one victory in the battle…with a lot more of the real work to do. So, take a moment and bask in the victory that is Black Panther, both cinematically and socially, and carry that flag of change with you beyond the 2 hour and 14 minute run time. If enough people and filmmakers (established or up and coming) take the message to heart and do end up carrying that flag? Then I’ll be right there celebrating with you.