[This review contains spoilers.]
Announced in October 2014, there was so much hype around Black Panther before its release that the film had a lot to live up to. The brilliant cast and attention to detail when it came to representation could would have made it so much more painful had the film been let down by poor execution.
But, luckily, that isn’t the case. The film isn’t faultless – no film is – but it’s easily in the top handful of Marvel movies and puts a lot of superhero flicks to shame.
The cast is also as phenomenal as expected. There is an incredible wealth of talent in this film that is near unrivalled.
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa is excellent. He has the vulnerability of a young man suffering loss and thrust into a new and sudden seat of responsibility. Simultaneously, he has the powerful bearing of a king. He nails every interaction, from challenging his foes to addressing his guard to teasing his little sister.
Without exception, the performances in the film are intense and believable. You understand every the motivation of every character throughout the story. Even the most awful villains work to their own clear logic that you can follow.
The representation of women is fantastic in this Black Panther. The female character are as well-written and diverse and interesting as the men in the film. The Dora Milaje, Wakandan special forces who act as bodyguards to T’Challa as the rest of the royal family, consists entirely of women. Princess Shuri of Wakanda, T’Challa’s teenaged sister, played by Letitia Wright, is a brilliant scientist, who designs all of the weapons and gadgets – including the Black Panther supersuit – used in the film.
This pushed Black Panther head and shoulders above every other film in the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe. Simply by giving more than one or two female characters agency and a personality, outside of being a love interest or a damsel in distress or a secretary, this movie stands out as being uniquely fair to women.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film tackles racial issues head on, even acknowledging the smallest of micro-aggressions from diplomats who see Wakanda as nothing but a “nation of farmers”.
The conflict is driven by the appearance of T’Challa’s cousin, N’Jadaka, played by Michael B. Jordan, who was born in America while his father was working there as a spy. When his father was killed, N’Jadaka was left there to live, alone and in poverty. Feeling abandoned by his people, his violent return to Wakanda and attempt to claim the throne for himself brings nothing but chaos.
N’Jadaka’s experience as a young black boy growing up in poor America gives him a back story that a lot of people can relate to and understand. It frames him as someone who had no one to guide him and no one to teach him the way of the world. Shaped instead by American bravado and pride in warfare, N’Jadaka was moulded into the kind of person who solves his problems with death and violence.
His motivation makes sense and explains how young men in America become radicalised within their own homes. In particular, it sheds a light on why there is a disproportionate amount of trouble within black communities. It exposes the way that people who are forgotten about by their countries become a part of the problem those countries are trying to ignore.
N’Jadaka is a character you can sympathise with, while at the same time feeling sickened by his behaviour and his choices.
For a film with a lot of fight scenes, there is a clear message that violence is not the answer ingrained into the Wakandan culture. This is nice to see in a superhero film aimed at children.
The fights that do happen are often only conducted reluctantly on the part of the Wakandans, or as part of a ritual. Even then, there is a touching scene when T’Challa could easily kill a rival who has challenged him specifically to a fight to the death, and he begs the rival to concede so that he doesn’t have to.
These fights are stunningly choreographed. It’s easy to keep track of them, even when they get a little chaotic, and they look amazing.
Generally, the whole film does look great. The landscapes of cities and savannahs alike are breath taking. The costumes are wonderfully designed, from the super-suits to the armour of every tribe’s warriors to the tactical outfits worn by Klaue’s goons.
There is so much to love about this film. But it isn’t perfect.
Vibranium is at the very centre of every plot point – and the movie refuses to let you forget it. People talk about vibranium so much that it overwhelms some really interesting subplots that don’t get enough screen time.
It doesn’t help that vibranium seems to be able to do, well, everything. It’s very convenient at times that vibranium just so happens to make excellent weapons and armour and it heals people and is integral to every piece of Wakandan technology. It’s just too diverse a thing to feel like a material that might actually exist.
Admittedly, this is a problem within the comics used as source material for Black Panther. However, creative liberties have been taken before in the MCU to make thing a bit more realistic. It shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to define clearly what vibranium actually does.
There were definitely aspects of the plot that could’ve been clearer. For instance, the raging battle Wakandan tribes at the climax of the film is halted when W’Kabi, head of security for the Border Tribe, played by Daniel Kaluuya, comes blade to blade with his lover, Okoye, head of Dora Milaje, portrayed by Danai Gurira.
Before this moment, there is one reference to the fact that they are a couple, when Okoye address W’Kabi as “my love”, very early on in the film. Given that this piece of information is crucial to restoring peace to Wakanda, it could definitely have been better seeded.
It didn’t even need to be especially explicit. If the two had had more screen time together, it could have been coded through very minor displays of affection. Even passing comments around their existing conversations about official Wakandan business could’ve helped.
This isn’t the only aspect of the plot that could’ve been better built. For the entirety of the first act, the film acts as if the only threat to Wakanda is the black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis.
T’Challa leaves his throne days in his reign to hunt down Klaue. He gets embroiled in the affairs of the US government because of it, dragging Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross into the film, and argue with W’Kabi, one of his closest advisors. Klaue is built up to be a uniquely dangerous threat to Wakanda and its people and its resources. And then he is killed half way through the film. He has no part in the second act and a completely new threat steps in and takes over.
The twist was definitely unexpected and intriguing, but again it could have been better seeded in the earlier scenes. Up until he shoots Klaue, N’Jadaka (known before that point as Erik) appears to be a sidekick to a threat. He’s an informant and a bodyguard, but nothing about his character is a real clue to his actual identity.
This is a particular shame because Andy Serkis does such a good performance as Klaue. He is crude and violent and darkly funny. But he is too big an actor to push into a side role, so his part overshadowed what should have been the main plot of the film.
Despite a genuinely gripping performance, Serkis feels like the wrong casting choice. Either Klaue should have been the primary antagonist the entire way through the film, or he shouldn’t have taken up so much screen time in the beginning. The plot could have easily trimmed some unnecessary moments from the first act without losing anything that made Klaue relevant as a character. Instead, it could’ve devoted that time to developing N’Jadaka more.
The fact that Klaue has a bionic hand even means that this could have been an excellent opportunity for an actor who is actually missing an arm.
Black Panther is not a perfect film. But it is brilliant and stands out from the ever growing crowd of superhero movies in pretty much every respect. It does so much more than a lot of other films – in the MCU, in the superhero genre, and in general – to engage with a contemporary audience. It has a compelling story, a beautiful setting and a wealth of interesting characters played by some of finest actors working today.
Between Logan, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, it seems like Marvel is pushing the superhero genre to evolve beyond its tropes and into a new era of powerful and captivating movies.