It might be difficult to talk about “Black Panther” without the political background. Still, I did my best.
The protagonist of the film is prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), an heir to the throne of a fictitious African country Wakanda. The country’s precious resource called vibranium is wanted by many sides. The young ruler must decide whether to reveal it or not to the world. At the same time, a new possible heir to the throne emerges – a man, who will use vibranium as a weapon.
“Black Panther” was arguably the biggest premiere in the U.S. of 2018. The expectations were skyrocketing and, once the critics shared their extremely favorable opinions, the film became a worldwide phenomenon.
The reason for this speeding hype train was the fact that “Black Panther” is not only gifted with an Afroamerican superhero lead. It is also set in Africa, in an imaginary country Wakanda. And it’s not just a regular country – Wakanda is one of a kind. A technological paradise of some sorts.
In a way, it is impossible to look at “Black Panther” from a “non-racial” point of view. The entire film’s premise is heavily marked with its African-culture roots, from soundtrack to costume design. The actors are proudly using their African accents, whilst the entire soundtrack resonates with folklore – both the original one as well as the street one. There is not a single space in “Black Panther”, which wouldn’t be magically milled through those roots.
One should be stated though – every film can and should be discussed as a film. Politics is not the core of filmmaking. It’s the story, the characters, the art.
Therefore, I decided to try and look at “Black Panther” just like at every other superhero movie.
“Black Panther” begins as a typical back story of any other superhero – we learn about his past. In this particular case, the story exhibits a certain moment in T’Challa’s father past. A moment that decides on the entire film.
The first half of the film is dedicated to the development of both T’Challa and Wakanda. The protagonist is a mixture of noble aristocracy with a down-to-earth decency. He is torn apart between preserving his tradition and letting the outsiders learn about Wakanda. Chadwick Boseman’s work on T’Challa is complex, from developing a very distinct accent, to the way the king walks. He is a charismatic lead, who firmly walks the viewer through the first half of the film.
Wakanda – on the other hand – feels artificial from the start. The beautiful idea of striking a balance between technology and rural roots plays the same false tune as “Warcraft: The Beginning”. The CGI is far from splendiferous, which proves that practical effects are better in action blockbusters than full CGI. Wakanda is very claustrophobic too. The here-and-there thrown shots of terrains and few streets of the capital city’s labyrinth was definitely not enough to spark the magic. It begs for a comparison with the cinematic portrayal of Narnia, which suffered from the same, hermetic constraints.
During the first hour, we also get to know T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. She could be interpreted as a puckish counterpart of K from James Bond. She’s an engineering mastermind, whose lab is filled by electronic music. Unfortunately, Shuri’s introduction is the first moment, when “Black Panther” loses its sharp claws. The scene in Shuri’s lab, when T’Challa tries on his costumes, makes an attempt at humor. Unfortunately, it falls flat, due to the script and terrible editing. As the film progresses, there is plenty more moments, when the jokes and punchlines land rather heavily. It is not “Batman And Robin” bad, but still pretty annoying.
The first half of the film is more or less the usual superhero origin. There are some highly entertaining sequences – like T’Challa’s duel with M’Baku, a hefty leader of the guerilla tribe, who challenges the heir. Apart from that, Coogler builds grounds for the main course – the antagonists.
We get to know one of them at a time. The first is a shady trader and mercenary Ulysses Klaue, played by the CGI puppet master Andy Serkis. It’s an actor, who got famous for becoming “things” on the screen and him being cast here is no mistake. Klaue, a man with a robotic gun instead of his arm (Robert Rodriguez and his “Planet Terror” comes to mind immediately) constitutes an intriguing henchman. He’s a spicy aperitif, right before the star of the night appears.
It’s not surprising that only with the introduction of Killmonger, “Black Panther” is finally set in the right direction. Michael B. Jordan is by far the most entertaining part of the film. His character – despite the rather sparingly written role – is meaty, whilst his motifs clear are to the viewer. We can’t help but take his side or at least understand him. Killmonger brings joy and swag that T’Challa’s stiff and aristocratic quandaries hardly bring. Their clash is the beating heart of “Black Panther”.
It is also worthwhile to mention the soundtrack. The music by Ludwig Göransson is both humble and intelligent in the way it interacts with the plot and film’s design. From trap and rap to African folklore sounds, the soundtrack experiments as boldly as “Django: Unchained” did few years back. It may not be a paramount composing experience, but it definitely fits the tonality of “Black Panther”.
“Black Panther” is by no means a bad film. It might be even one of the finest in the Marvel’s portfolio. We have finally witnessed a solid villain and a relatively engaging plot. Coogler didn’t handle every detail, but “Black Panther” is definitely the right direction.
Black Panther (2018)
Dir. Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B.Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and that worse hobbit guy
Hate Grade: 3.5/10