Film Review: Black Panther

The Harbinger (Prairie Village, Kansas)

The hype behind “Black Panther” was unreal. It had more presale tickets sold than “The Avengers,” and the media was there to build it up each and every day until its release. An ABC World News Tonight journalist asked the cast, “What type of movie is this? Is it a black movie? Is it a superhero movie?” The cast answered the best they could to a stupid question like that. Danai Gurira, who played Okoye, said that she thinks those terms are “limiting” and we need to take the term “black movie” and “crack it open.” I agree with Gurira, and I personally hate the term “black movie.” The journalist never really defined what he meant; did he think “Black Panther” was going to be a blaxploitation film? (Blaxploitation is a subgenre that was invented and popular during the 1970s. Most blaxploitation movies are action movies with predominantly black casts and feature a black protagonist. Some movies weren’t action, like “Blacula,” which I have no idea what the point was of that. Ironically, the only blaxploitation movie I’ve ever seen is “Jackie Brown,” which was a Quentin Tarantino movie made in the 90s as a nod to the subgenre.) Or maybe he thought that a movie with a predominantly African American cast needs to have its own subgenre? I don’t really know what it means, that’s mainly why I don’t like the term. Don’t put movies with predominantly black actors in a box. I suppose that’s an essay for another day, but no matter what innate ways people categorize this movie, or how people hyped it out of existence, I still went into “Black Panther” with the same expectation I have for all of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films: I was expecting a superhero movie. And that is what I got. I didn’t get a life-changing experience, I didn’t see the greatest Marvel superhero movie of all time, I just got an interesting and entertaining superhero movie. It is certainly a good movie, but it has plenty of issues and I will address them.

To be fair, saying I had no expectations other than that “Black Panther” was just a superhero movie is not entirely true. There was too much hype for me not to expect something more. I’m also a fan of the director, Ryan Coogler, who made the “Rocky” reboot/sequel, and “Creed,” which is a phenomenally written, shot, edited and directed movie and it is leagues better than it has any right to be. Expecting greatness from Ryan Coogler did deliver on some levels. The cinematography in “Black Panther” is gorgeous. There’s an excellent use of colors in the film, something that is infamously lacking in the MCU. For example, in “Captain America: Civil War,” (a far more exciting and unique superhero film, I might add) the color pallet is very gray, and most of the time it fits, because it’s a fairly dark movie, but at times it looks way too drab for the scene. It was refreshing to see a Marvel movie with a good color pallet.

Killmonger, played by the incomparable Michael B. Jordan, has been gaining a lot of popularity for having the most complex motivations of any of the MCU villains. I think that’s a fair statement. I don’t want to spoil his motivations, because they were one of the only interesting things in the film. Michael B. Jordan was the lead in Coogler’s first two films: “Fruitvale Station” and the previously mentioned “Creed.” He is an incredible actor, and I was not let down by him in this film, nor was I with most of the actors and actresses. I do not think that Killmonger is one of the greatest antagonists in all of cinema, but he was very good as the character.

Speaking of acting, I was impressed with almost everybody in the movie. A lot of these actors are fairly accomplished already, but the attention this film has created has proved very healthy for their careers. Those who I wasn’t impressed with mainly had something to do with what they had to read off the script, not how they presented it to the camera. Most noticeably, there’s the return of Andy Serkis’ character, Klaw. First off, Serkis is a brilliant actor. No matter if he is playing an entirely computer-generated character, or not, he has proved himself to be an amazing actor time and time again. Rewind to 2015, when Klaw was introduced in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In that movie, it’s established how he is someone who doesn’t take things seriously and cracks quite a few jokes from time to time. However, he’s a successful underground businessman and scavenger and knows how to get things done. Klaw isn’t even remotely a genius character, but I liked him in “Age of Ultron.” He was better than Aaron Taylor Johnson as Quicksilver, who had one of the worst Russian accents I’ve heard in the cinema. (“Age of Ultron” isn’t a great movie, in case you didn’t pick up on that.) Then, after not appearing in an MCU movie for three years, they proceed to figuratively molest Klaw with the “Black Panther” screenplay. He is turned into a loud, brash and overbearing psychopath who makes one funny joke in one of the first scenes then proceeds to annoy the hell out of me until his ultimate exit about halfway through.

Similar to Klaw, T’challa’s sister, Shuri, also had some jokes that made my skin crawl. Their jokes consisted of some references from the early 2010’s that haven’t aged well. For example, when a fight breaks out in an underground casino, Klaw sets off some sort of explosive and money flies everywhere. He looks at an associate and says, “Look! I made it rain!” Oh, I get it. It’s that thing you do when you fling a bunch of money at a stripper. Hilarious and original.

Right before that scene, Shuri makes a joke referencing the melody-lacking song, “Whip My Hair,” by Willow Smith. Believe it or not, the joke was not thought out or funny. Finally, the worst offender was when she looked at her brother’s new sandals and said “WHAT’RE THOSE?” How out of touch do you have to be to write something like that and think it’s funny? But, believe it or not, a lot of people in the theater I was in laughed out loud at that. If this standard of comedy in a movie is actually adequate to you, then I feel bad for you. Demand more from your movies. Not all of the humor is bad, of course. A lot of it is really witty and legitimately amusing. During the car chase sequence, the car that was being driven by Nakia (played by the lovely and talented Lupita Nyong’o), and Klaw destroys it with some technological weapon he stole from the Wakandans. Okoye leaps off the car and lands at the bottom of the street. The camera pans down, and since their armor is so strong, Nakia is sliding down the road, still in the driver’s seat with the steering wheel. If only they had taken the time to craft every joke at the same time and thought as the ones that genuinely made me laugh.

In addition, a lot of the special effects are very poor. I have a feeling that some things were a lot better sounding on paper than how they turned out in the finished product. For example, there was this device that the royalty of Wakanda uses to communicate through a hologram. The hologram isn’t of the person’s entire body, it’s just the person’s bust (from the bottom of the shoulders up) and it is super awkward. I laughed every time I saw it, it just looked so ridiculous. Then, during the final fight, all these computer-generated rhinos in armor bust out of a crashed ship and it was painfully bad. It looked terrible, and I didn’t understand their purpose. I don’t know why the rhinos or the hologram busts were approved; they were deplorable.

The thing with “Black Panther” is it’s not a movie I can just rip to shreds, but I can’t sing its praises either; it doesn’t deserve either. The movie is okay. It’s the formulaic superhero movie, but with some extra layers thrown on. The costume design is beautiful and authentic looking to actual African tribes, the cinematography is good, and the villain had a lot of very interesting motivations. But none of it was so mind-bendingly phenomenal that it never really made it feel like this was a special movie experience. There were good moments of tension, but take a look at the plot structure and don’t tell me you haven’t seen this before: Hero gains powers, hero enjoys his powers and uses them for good, hero confronts villain, hero loses powers, villain now has more power than hero, hero must learn things about himself and gain real strength before he can face the villain again, hero confronts villain for the 2nd time, hero defeats villain and is triumphant. That’s the entire plot structure. It’s very simple, and really not that extraordinary. In fact, T’Challa doesn’t even have a growing period after his defeat. He’s in a coma the whole time and they give him the same thing he’s been taking to gain/regain his powers the whole movie. There’s no lesson learned. Those low points in action/adventure movies are supposed to be really insightful and deep. For example, the training scenes in “The Empire Strikes Back” with Yoda and Luke Skywalker are interesting because they offer something to the story, and more importantly, things that Luke will carry on with him throughout this movie, the next, and into the new sequel trilogy. If T’Challa learned anything, I sure don’t remember what it was. I wasn’t expecting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay here, but come on. They’ve been doing action/adventure movies better than this for decades.

I can’t say that I don’t understand the cultural influence this film is having right now. I get why it is so important. There haven’t been a lot of African American superheroes portrayed on the silver screen, or at least ones that haven’t had their own singular film to get deep into who they are and what they do. We certainly need more of them to have their own films. As the media has shown us, “Black Panther” has been great for black children to have a superhero that they can identify with racially. Kind-hearted celebrities like Serena Williams would buy out an entire theatre for classes of black kids. I think for that reason, “Black Panther” is wonderful. But I am a film critic, and I rate movies by what I saw it did well and how much I enjoyed it, not by what influence it is having on other people. There were some very exciting and very well done action scenes, good acting, good set design and great cinematography. Which is all fine, but as I’ve said, the story and script wasn’t anything to write home about. My final judgment is that “Black Panther” is overrated and overhyped. This is not one of the best superhero movies ever made. Not even remotely close. This movie isn’t even comparable to a masterpiece like “The Dark Knight.” I was waiting to be blown away like everyone said I would be. I never was.

6 out of 10

Featured Image: Forbes

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