Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Marvel has a way with formulas, and nowhere is that more evident than in Black Panther, the first "Marvel Cinematic Universe" entry with such an intriguing story that it could've stood on it's own merit without any relation to the other comic movies.
Black Panther follows the events of Captain America: Civil War by weaving together the story of King T'Chaka and his brother as well as T'Challa's assumption of both the throne and mantle of the Black Panther. After being crowned king, T'Challa embarks on a mission to capture Ulysses Klaue, a mercenary who's been evading justice for 3 decades after he killed several Wakandans in the process of stealing vibranium. With the help of the CIA's Everett Ross, a brief chase through Busan, South Korea results in Ulysses' capture, though he's eventually freed by Erik N'Jadaka "Killmonger" Stevens, the lost son of T'Chaka's brother. N'Jadaka has his own plans for Ulysses, setting them in motion to take the Wakandan throne and unleash a new era of prosperity for his motherland in his own, violent vision.
Black Panther succeeds because the characters and the culture are so full and vibrant that you never want to look away from the screen. Asgard, in comparison, is like the set of a play: you can see the beauty but it feels very frontal, like it's just the facade and not much going on underneath until it's explained for us. But the world of Wakanda feels like a culture that's explored and allowed to breathe on it's own for the audience to indulge itself in. The symbols, the rituals, the colors, the outfits, the animals, it all feels like part of a whole: Wakanda.
The characters, likewise, have stories that are complete and intriguing. Each character, from T'Challa and his ex-girlfriend Nakia to N'Jadaka and M'Baku, have fully realized stories that become evident without unnecessary exposition but through subtext and talented acting. Cleverly placed dialogue and flashbacks give us just enough backstory for us to understand what's happening. (And every now and then a character will explain everything outright but let's not hold that against them...)
Marvel has finally given us a villain that's interesting and believable. "Killmonger" will standout as one of the most gut-wrenching villains in the MCU thus-far. Erik N'Jadaka "Killmonger" Stevens' story is tragic, and it's woven so well against T'Challa's beliefs that it creates a palpable division among the audience. Do we side with the Wakandan prince who was left on his own after his father was murdered or do we side with the prince who wants to give his people the best possible life without a violent solution?
Unfortunately, Marvel and Coggler's method of storytelling is the first major failure of the film. It's been talked about at length, but here we are again: Black Panther uses the exact same formula we've seen in every single Marvel movie to date. It's predictable, cookie cutter, and a bit boring. It's a shame because the characters are so interesting and the world so vibrant that if they'd given more thought to how to tell the story they could've had a world-class film and not just a great Marvel film. Instead, what we have is a story where the hero wins at first, then he loses, then he wins in the end. Nothing about this movie feels like its up to chance, there never feels like a risk's been taken, because the method is so safe that it becomes cliche. It's one of the same problems that plagued Civil War: None of the main characters are at risk because they're too important. Maybe a side character or a background character here or there, but not one of the heroes. And that failure to feel the risk is a huge disappointment. (It's gotten to a point where it feels like even Infinity War won't take the risk... but that's irrelevant to this movie...)
If Coogler had used "Killmonger" as a more apparent foil to T'Challa, using their blatantly different upbringings and viewpoints to mirror each other then the rising action and climax would've been all the more palpable, but instead it's wasted on an superb villain who's more interested in nothing more or less than a physical fight. That in itself is letting down the incredible story with it's political relevance and mass of competing ideologies. I won't touch the politics, but for the 2 main characters to run straight in for a fist fight and never have any meaningful dialogue (except for a couple lines of motivational exposition or lines given to other characters but not each other) is not only a disservice to the story and the cultures portrayed but to the characters as well. It's wrong in almost every movie, but it's especially disappointing here. While T'Challa never gets a satisfying word in, edgewise, "Killmonger" just feels wasted, despite Michael B. Jordan's absolutely killer portrayal which is the best since (or better than) Tom Hiddleston's Loki.
Yes, "Killmonger" literally tells us that he's killed however-many people to be here today to kill T'Challa but his motivation isn't literal revenge, it's his vision of Wakanda (his motherland) taking over the world, it's rightful place as he sees it, and aiding impoverished and helpless black people everywhere, regardless of the means he'll take to get there and how many people need to die for it to happen. But he never gets to discuss that view because Coogler and Marvel would rather he bash it out instead of hash it out.
That brings us to another semi-disappointment: the action. In Civil War we see a Black Panther that is not only on equal ground with the Winter Soldier (and Captain America) but is actually able to best them. He displays his incredible speed, strength, tactical ability, and uses a lifetime of combat experience to his benefit. "Killmonger" can do the same thing, as we can assume from several mentions of his extensive time in the armed forces and especially elite and special forces, but in Black Panther we never see it. We don't see expert fighting abilities. The action scenes end up looking and feeling more like bar fights as they bash against each other for a mixed-martial arts advantage, with exceptions of dramatic slow-motion and breaks to quip back and forth with one-liners. On the other hand, it's amazing to see all of the other combatants, like the Jabari tribe and Dora Milaje fighting against "Killmonger's" supporters. It's weird, because everyone else displays great physicality, and even the ritual fights have a certain grittiness to them, but Black Panther on Black Panther doesn't have that because of the outrageous over-use of green screen. Combined, it all feels just a bit out of place.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with Wakanda except for the fact that it looks like CG. They could've told almost the same story, placed it all in Oakland, and had everything feel realistic. They could've shot on location in African valleys, deltas, and rivers. Instead, they used extensive CG in every single scene of the movie and it shows.
All of that aside, Black Panther is still in the running for the best Marvel movie. The soundtrack is absolutely killer, the best music and sound to any comic movie to date. It provides a rhythm, a heartbeat, to the entire film that is lively, upbeat, and tense at the same time. Even better, it's memorable, the first Marvel soundtrack that is. It hits all the right beats, with all the right drum lines, all the right base, and synths in all the right places to underline the action, tension, and drama in exactly the right way.
Is this movie memorable? Yes. Is the music great? Yes. How's the action? Satisfactory. How are the graphics? Computerized. How are the characters? Interesting. How's the formula? The same as every other Marvel movie.
TL;DR: I have to be absolutely honest: I loved Black Panther, but that doesn't save it from it's many faults. The action could've been absolutely, excruciatingly visceral; the story could've been utterly divisive; but it falls slightly short in almost every regard. And that doesn't even touch all of the shoehorned, uncomfortable, and out-of-date humor... but we can give that a pass. This is the most interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking, deep Marvel movie, but it also takes all of that and turns it into a predictable mess.
- Acting – 15 / 20
- Story – 18 / 20
- Cinematography – 14 / 20
- Soundtrack – 10 / 10
- Entertainment Factor – 8 / 10
- Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Comic – 8 / 10
- Other – 2 / 10