First, a confession:
I’m not a fan of superhero films, particularly Marvel films.
I went into Black Panther with the pretense that there would be something there, something different from Marvel films in the past that cruised by on fun dialogue, great special effects, and star-powered sublime. The praise the film has amassed since before its release isn’t completely unexpected considering the track record of Marvel’s filmography with critics, but there was something here that felt… different.
It was more than a film; it was a groundbreaking phenomenon, the likes American culture had rarely seen before. The strides Marvel, and particularly Disney, have taken to showcase as many different perspectives as possible is something that should be noted and praised.
Even so, all of the outside dialogue, with its impact upon the tangible, motivated world, shouldn’t become the catalyst with which the movie’s quality grounds itself. This review is positioned to analyze the film within its own confines, and for all that is worth.
Now, I don’t find myself unenthused with the prospect of superhero films for no reason. Marvel, in particular, has this strange sense of artificialness to its craft that I find hard to get over. To this extent, the things that happen to characters, the way they interact with one another, and the manner the plot runs forward all feels as though a studio executive is checking all the boxes off their latest edition of “How to Write Stories for Dummies.”
Difficult as it is to explain in more logical terms, it’s simply a feeling of being distrustful of the motivations of the characters onscreen and the depth with which they carry themselves.
Black Panther employs this to a large extent, particularly with the character played by Lupita Nyong’o. Her character is described as a “spy” who goes and does things that spies do. Her relation to the male lead is an ex-girlfriend, which is only noted once in passing. Why are they exes? What happened in their previous relationship? Why do they still seem to have residing feelings for one another if they’re considered “exes?” Her entire identity thus becomes the representation of a love interest for the male lead, as we know little about her aside from it.
But she is just one of many characters. Variations of complexity are instilled within focal characters, though I would argue the execution of their progression varies as wildly as the film does in allotting screentime for it.
For the first hour, aside from the opening scene and the introduction of Andy Serkis’s/Michael B Jordan’s character, I was fairly bored. Scenes came and went establishing the mood and culture of Wakanda and the structure within, yet left me little reason to care for any of it. T’Challa, the aforementioned male lead and prominent Black Panther role, is simply propped into the spotlight after a terrorist attack killed his father.
No context, no build-up, T’Challa is now the star and we must follow his plastic male-lead-antics for the next two hours.
This isn’t to say his character does not develop, though his surface personality is a far cry from the typical Marvel lead of bombastic charisma and wit. Some would say this is appropriate for his position, I would say it’s a poor excuse. When I was cheering more for Jordan’s character at the very end of the film because I thought he was infinitely more interesting as a character—considering he is the antagonist—this issue becomes very noteworthy.
Fifty minutes into the film, the score within my mind was hovering around below average, yet the film became far more engrossing when time allowed intrigue to simmer. The second half of the film feels far more important to the characters, situations, and weight of individual actions.
Themes of globalism, altruism, progressivism, etc., come into play (though I’d argue some are shoehorned), which make the more bloated second half a ton of fun. The clichés involved with the narrative structure feel less calculated with the empathy of the situation resonating.
Jordan’s character, aside from the clearly evil intent with which he’s forced into for the sake of being “the wrong,” is an interesting and pitiful character from the moment he’s introduced. T’Challa, for as bland as I find him, does receive some noteworthy development, as well. Other characters, notably Okoye, receive their “due process” by actions and words alone, which is a nice touch, considering they could be hanging around for the sake of it (Nyong’o).
Ultimately, I find Black Panther to be a mess of a film rife with political ambition. Had it continued along the path of baseless action scenes and lethargic character interaction as presented in the first half, I would’ve had more to insult than now. Fortunately, the seeds of intrigue are planted early on, which sprout into delicate specimen worthy of being appreciated.
It isn’t perfect, and I find the praise it’s receiving to be misguided, but Black Panther is an enjoyable, if not overused approach to the superhero genre, coated in a different shade.
Final Score: 6/10