The Marvel machine manufactures another solid film with Black Panther, but whilst critics have been raving, I was left a little unfulfilled. Lately, the Marvel films have dwindled in importance from “can’t miss” to “catch on DVD later.” With that said, there was certainly plenty I enjoyed, including the majority of the characters, the setting and the score (which felt very appropriate as the backdrop to the mystical Wakanda). Something was missing, almost like the soul (yes, a pun on the absent Infinity Stone). Much like the aforementioned stone, it was hinted at, but not fully fleshed out and things were skirted over.
To expand, the introduction of the Black Panther and its history was wrapped up in a segment at the beginning that lasted a few minutes, which for me was too rushed and simplified. I had the impression they wanted to just get on with the story with minimal time spent on the “origin”, which I can understand to a certain degree, yet for me, Black Panther was never a staple of my Marvel childhood like the X-Men or Spiderman, so having a bit more history and exposition would have helped.
On that note, as Black Panther has never been at the forefront of my superhero knowledge or investment, my expectations for this film were quite tempered; I wasn’t predicting it to be as good as Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger or even Thor: Ragnarok, and it wasn’t. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For me, this film needed to establish Wakanda as a unique entity and build it almost in the same way as a character, and I think this was achieved with aplomb.
Helped with a fabulous score that felt true to the African heritage without being overbearing, Wakanda was presented in all its glory. The technology made sense, the scenery was majestic and the people felt authentic and real. This brings me on to the cast, who I thought were all incredible. The fierce women by the side of the King all played vital roles and transcend being “strong female characters.” They were simply strong characters. Their impact on the film can’t be underestimated and it’s another stride forward for women in Hollywood.
Black Panther manages to blend modern day issues, such as immigration and world aid, with ancient culture, dreamland tech, and family problems. This for me is the film’s greatest achievement, as it held a poignant relevance that isn’t necessarily explored in other titles in the Marvel Universe, whilst still feeling part of the familiar world we’ve been shown so far. Circling back to the family fall-out, I thought this was handled brilliantly and added another layer to the former King of Wakanda and helped complicate the narrative as it spawned us a villain (Killmonger) who was sympathetic. The best villains are the ones that believe they’re doing the right thing, and from a certain point of view, you could argue that giving the oppressed and underprivileged assistance to rise up is coming from a place of goodness, rather than outright evil world domination, mustache-twirling, and puppy killing.
As a side note, Ryan Coogler (director) and Michael B. Jordan (who portrayed Killmonger) continue to be an excellent pairing together. Jordan is one of the brightest stars of today, turning in outstanding performances consistently, and it’s no different here. Which is why I was so disappointed when he was killed off in the end. I had hopes he would survive and be in Infinity War, helping the good guys defend Wakanda and be part of that running shot towards the camera; Marvel often swindles us by removing characters for trailers (Spiderman in the running shot for Civil War for example), but alas it seems this time it won’t happen.
On the subject of the villain, it’s time to start delving into the problems I had with this film. Despite liking the antagonist, it still fell into the familiar Marvel trope that we’ve seen; the bad guy is just a mirror reflection of our hero. Think Ironmonger, (Iron Man), Yellowjacket (Ant-Man) and Abomination (The Incredible Hulk). If they’re not this, then they’re dull, one dimensional and not fully fleshed out (Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy). Marvel have seriously struggled to give us compelling enemies, perhaps only really succeeding with Loki, who at this point is practically an anti-hero. This is also a fear I have for Thanos, yes the trailer looks convincing, but the same dark tone was presented to us for Age of Ultron and again, this was a let down of a “big-bad”.
The standalone Marvel films are also pretty formulaic; hero starts off bright eyed and bushy tailed, adversity (suspense is never there, more on that in a moment), baby-face comeback, villain vanquished, roll credits and the two extended scenes. It’s a formula that gets results I suppose, but a change up would be welcome. Logan, for example, was drastically different from many modern day superhero films and was a real breath of fresh air because of it. Back to suspense; when T’challa was hurled off the edge of the cliff, was there anyone who honestly believed that was the end of him? Apart from the fact that he’s the main character, we’ve seen him appear in the Infinity War trailer, which happens after this film, so there’s that. Again, it’s a part of the formula and there’s never any real stakes involved. Once more, I hope Infinity War changes this and gives us some big deaths that will impact the Universe and have us as an audience guessing once more.
Another issue for me was killing off the compelling villain, Ulysses Klaue, portrayed by the legendary Andy Serkis. His character had an unstable nature, coupled with a threatening vibe that made him someone not to mess with, yet he was finished off by Killmonger in an empty airfield. A mistake certainly, as I felt this enemy had more to offer and could be a continued thorn in the side of the King, perhaps not during Infinity War, but after. Alas, this is another missed opportunity (unless everyone is revived by the Soul Gem, which would be both awful and funny at the same time).
A sense of urgency was also lacking in this film. There weren’t any real-time constraints on anything, apart from Martin Freeman’s character (who is forgettable and quite frankly, third-rate) being shot at by a plane, but honestly, if he had been killed, who would have cared? This meant that the climactic fights didn’t have any real bearing on anything, apart from seeing the women yet again kick some serious ass, some cool armored rhinos popping up and seeing T’Challa exert his power by casually blowing away many of his foes with his charged up suit, but in terms of having me on the edge of my seat? Unfortunately not.
To wrap up then, whilst I certainly enjoyed the movie and will happily heap praise on the characters, and by extension, the actors (save for Martin Freeman), there was something missing for the film to climb into the upper echelons of greatness. It, therefore, sits firmly in the “good” category for me and I am excited to see more of Wakanda, which we’ll get in the upcoming Avengers ensemble film, so that’s a bonus. The comedy was good throughout and the film certainly did its primary role of world building and giving us some depth into another main character, but it just wasn’t quite on the level of some of the other entries into its lore.