In the follow-up to Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther sees the return of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the newly crowned king of the highly advanced–and equally isolated–African nation of Wakanda. But as T’Challa struggles with the loss of his father and his new role as a king, Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger is looking to settle a decade’s old blood feud.
CULTURAL MILESTONE, BUT…
Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther reminds me of 2017’s Wonder Woman. Because much like Wonder Woman, Black Panther is most certainly a notable cultural milestone of American cinema. But also like Wonder Woman, despite its many interesting characters, strong performances, fun set pieces, and thematic elements not usually found in these sorts of films, Black Panther is not a very good movie. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not great either.
The core issue with Black Panther as a film is that there is simply too much to see, too much do, and not enough time for any of it. This results in a movie that is almost shockingly shallow despite a host of deep character motivations, struggles, and themes. Make no mistakes, this is an action movie first and foremost. So, at best, what truly makes the movie so interesting are token gestures rather than anything of substance. At worst–and sadly, far too often–we’re told much more than we’re actually shown.
Now, the action sequences are most definitely fun and exciting to watch. And the world of Wakanda–it’s people, it’s culture–is lovingly crafted. The soundtrack is a delight to hear.
But the characters are the most interesting thing about the entire movie. T’Challa is a young man struggling with the loss of his father, the moral and ethical struggles that come with the duties of being a leader. Eric Killmonger is young man filled with hate and anger at a kingdom and world that turned its back on not just him, but so many others like him.
Even the secondary and tertiary characters are absolutely engaging, whether it’s Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri or Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, a man torn between his duty to Wakanda and a lifetime of well-founded resentment he holds against the Kings who have failed him and his family.
SO MUCH TIME, SO LITTLE TO DO…
And because the movie is so poorly structured, it fails to properly service any of its characters or their individual arcs. It takes far too long for the meat of the plot to get going. The first act is a bit overstuffed. The second act goes on for far too long, which in turn results in a third act that makes the movie feel like some strange hybrid of a three-act and fiveact structure.
And a lot of the structural issues are tied directly into the way Jordan’s Killmonger is utilized in the film. In theory, he should be Chadwick Boseman’s costar and equal. The entire plot and story revolve around a Shakespearean tale of two men with two opposing ideals of how to rule a nation and their people. Unfortunately, Jordan’s Eric shows up too late, is given too little screen time, and as a result isn’t as developed or present as he needs to be. He feels like an afterthought and a plot device more than a fully realized character even though he is absolutely integral to the film as a whole.
And that’s the movie in a nutshell. A number of beautiful ideas and images that represent something greater. But it’s a 2D world with 2D characters trying their hardest but ultimately failing to hold up the illusion that there’s any depth to be found in it.
STORE-BRAND PRODUCTION VALUE
Of course, none of this is helped any by the equally subpar cinematography, odd sound design, or how the lighting in every single day scene in an external setting is absolutely awful–overlit, unnatural, and constantly distracting. Even worse, Black Panther has some of the worst CGI and composition found in a Marvel movie, often falling to the sort of quality seen in films from the early 2000s.
And all that could have been mostly overlooked had the characters and their stories been properly handled. But that’s simply not the case here. Because while Ryan Coogler absolutely nails the tone required for the material present, his overall direction and vision for the movie falls flat. And the final result is a movie that is one of the most underwhelming viewing experiences from Marvel to date.
Black Panther is far from bad, but it is disappointing. It’s a step back when it should be a massive leap forward. In some ways, it still is a move forward. But in almost every way that matters, it falls short as a piece of filmmaking.
Of course, also like Wonder Woman, I suspect that despite numerous shortcomings that should otherwise cause negative critical feedback, Black Panther will be upheld entirely due to what it represents rather than what it really is.
That all said, Black Panther is most certainly watchable. It’s still highly enjoyable for a variety of reasons–it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s incredibly creative and rich in ideas and concepts and themes. Black Panther may be far from Marvel’s best movie, but it is still one worth CHILLING with the first chance you get.