Black Panther may not be the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, but its non-existent politics makes it great escapist fare.
A new king has risen and his name is T’Challa. This weekend, Black Panther will most likely rule not only Wakanda, but box offices across America. It has everything going for it: great fight scenes, likable characters, and your typical Marvel fare of cool visual effects and imaginative technologies. However, let’s address the elephant in the room, Black Panther is getting the most attention for its perceived (and I really emphasize “perceived”) social relevance—something that I think has been very much overblown by the media. The superhero film is actually thematically more in line with something from Shakespeare’s selection of plays dealing with familial feuds and secrets.
WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead
After the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to claim his rightful place as king. It isn’t long before he gets word that black market vibranium dealer Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) is in South Korea. He and his council see this as a rare chance to apprehend, if not kill, and bring a vicious enemy to justice.
But before we get to the action, our hero needs to gear up. Enter the 007-inspired scenes. Shuri (played by Leticia Wright), T’Challa’s enthusiastic, mischievous, yet genius sister channels her inner Q and gives her big brother a tour of the glorious toys he’ll be using. The eventual face-off with Klaue in South Korea furthers the likeness to a James Bond movie—everything from a fight scene in a casino to a high speed car chase with exotic vehicles.
Though Klaue has always been Black Panther’s arch-nemesis in the comics, much akin to Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the sonic-enhanced antagonist is but a secondary fiend. The main big-bad is Erik Killmonger (played by Creed (2015) actor Michael B. Jordan)—T’Challa’s cousin who has been training all his life to avenge the death of his father, N’Jobu (played by Sterling K. Brown), who was killed at the hands of T’Chaka (played by John Kani reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War). Because of this, the story becomes more of a tragedy.
Is the movie a leftist propaganda piece set out to push some hard-hitting politics? Absolutely not. Director Ryan Coogler has created a very thematically balanced and tempered movie that still focuses on the overall arching narrative in the ten-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is more about family and community than it is about an “us versus them” mentality.
For those pushing for any type of allegorical meaning dealing with race, you can say that T’Challa’s rivalry with Killmonger isn’t all that different to the disparate philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. T’Challa seeks for a way to open Wakanda’s borders without allowing its vibramium to be used and abused by those who have more nefarious goals. Killmonger, in contrast, wants to use Wakanda’s resources and technology to take over the world—making the formerly oppressed into the oppressors. That’s where the politics end. And because we’ve seen these types of characterizations before in completely apolitical films (where two powerful entities have differing views on how to use their powers), any sort of reach or fabrication of the film’s hidden messages is moot.
Black Panther, like most MCU installments, is a high quality movie that doesn’t let the action and spectacle-awe do all the heavy lifting. However, it still has its flaws. The film is over two hours long and suffers from a slight pacing issue. Much of the first act is slow with some smatterings of action set pieces. The second act speeds thing up, but it stutters at pinnacle moments when it catches some impetus. The third act moves at a brisk pace, but ends in a rather dull fashion. Where the concluding scenes of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) left you dabbing your eyes with tissues, Black Panther‘s end-of-battle sequence is a bit underwhelming.
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Nonetheless, Black Panther is a worthy installment in this decade-old super franchise. Regardless of the script’s uneven beats, there’s enough built up collateral in the MCU that fans and audiences will allow any flaws slide. Where would this rank in the overall MCU? I wouldn’t put it in my top five. But you have to remember, this film series has definitely set a high bar for comics-to-film adaptations.
Black Panther is an enjoyable film and director Ryan Coogler doesn’t use any heavy-handed politics in his narrative. People are seeing a message only because of our modern day climate of race issues. At its core, the film is a story about a son coming to terms with the sins of his father and finding his place as a leader.
Black Panther had a US release date of February 15, 2018