OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
“Black Panther” stars Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa, who rules a fictional central African country called Wakanda. To the naked eye, Wakanda resembles a tiny, desolate third world country. However, a centuries old secret has hidden the country’s greatness. Operating behind an invisibility shield, Wakanda is a small, but bustling kingdom far superior in technological advancements than any country in the world. The key to their power is an abundance of a rare metal called vibranium. The metal has extraordinary powers, working as a self-sufficient power source as well having super-strength on par with Wolverine’s adamantium in the “X-Men” series. Vibranium allows Wakanda to thrive independently, while concealing itself from the outside world, for it is the power source for the shield. Perhaps the coolest aspect of vibranium is its ability to turn the King of Wakanda into “The Black Panther”. In a sacred ritual, the chosen king ingests a vibranium-laced flower, and emerges from an ancestral dream trip with superior physical strength and coordination.
By all means, Wakanda has it all, but a controversial political debate threatens to tear the country apart. This debate revolves around the living conditions of other black people around the world. In many cases, including in America, blacks are struggling. Wakanda could do more to help, but would taking action sacrifice the all-important isolationist shroud that has preserved their prosperity? The film, directed by Ryan Coogler, has entertaining subplots: including one in which T’Challa travels to Busan, South Korea to hunt down a professional arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Before embarking on this mission, he visits the Wakandan technology lab, headed by his quip-ready little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). The James Bond-like sequence is perhaps the comic high point of the film.
Without revealing the intricacies of the main plot, it must be noted that Michael B. Jordan plays the villain, an American/Wakandan named Erik “Killmonger”. As T’Challa learns some disturbing secrets about his family heritage, and struggles to address the question of globalism for Wakanda, Killmonger shows up to offer a clear alternative to the old Wakandan ways. His character, while certainly hateful and villainous, it not necessarily wrong in his intentions. An evil individual can be an effective ruler. That idea is the potent aspect of “Black Panther”. As T’Challa’s late-father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), tells him, “You are a good man. And it is hard for a good man to be king.” Indeed, it is a relevant topic in America today. Few Marvel films deal with such lofty ideas.
However, despite several positives, “Black Panther” feels too much like a typical Marvel movie. The headlines from the past few weeks have been championing the film as a “masterpiece” and a “game-changer”. However, that simply isn’t true based on its filmic qualities. Strip away the contextual details of the film and it boils down to: hero must confront doomsday-esque villain while learning something about himself. This same storyline can be found in a bunch of Marvel movies, most recently in “Thor: Ragnarok”. Marvel consistently employs talented directors, but their best qualities never truly shine through. There is a definitive Marvel branding that tamps down anything really unique.
“Logan” was Marvel’s most admirable attempt at breaking from the formula. It didn't work, but it could in the future. It would be interesting if Marvel could apply the “10 Cloverfield Lane” approach to one of their subjects. Say, a movie about the Black Panther that begins frantically in media res, that involves a narrowly scoped mission with more details and directional finesse. Ryan Coogler would be more than capable of creating such a sequel! As with “Black Panther”, for some reason it seems Marvel insists upon rigidly structured adventure stories that spend so much time on background that little is left over for true character development.
Thus, even though “Black Panther” does not represent a major break from other Marvel flicks; it cannot be denied that it is a uniquely exciting film because of its influence in America and especially the black community. I have a feeling that playgrounds across the U.S. will be stages for portrayals of King T’Challa for weeks to come. For the first time, black kids have a mainstream superhero to look up to: one who actually shares their heritage. That is phenomenal, and worth celebrating! However, it would be bad criticism to elevate the film simply based on cultural implications. Great films can be enhanced because of external factors such as an important time period, or social movement, or political cause, etc. However, those films should also be able to stand on their own, regardless of context.
“Black Panther” is a truly solid film, and I would easily recommend it based on entertainment value alone. I have seen too many Marvel films that were so dull and uninspiring, so suffocatingly average, that I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to write about them either positively or negatively. That is the worst kind of movie. Anchored by a charming cast led by Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, and Danai Gurira, “Black Panther” is better than average. However, it must expand beyond the Marvel “bumper rails” in order to be a truly great franchise.