Black Panther Attempts to Break the Marvel Mold, with Mixed Results

Christopher Maher: Well, Sam, here we are again, back at another Marvel release despite swearing off the series forever after the disappointing Thor: Ragnarok. Thankfully I don’t think we’re going to end up dragging this one quite as much as that one. It is, unfortunately, still a Marvel movie so it exhibits a lot of the weaknesses we’ve come to expect, but its strengths are real and genuine.

Black Panther focuses on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he takes control of the secretly advanced country Wakanda following his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War. Trouble brews abroad as arms dealers Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) threaten to expose Wakanda to the world. Aided by his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the head of the royal guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa dons the Black Panther suit and attempts to stop them.

All in all, I had a pretty great time watching this movie, and I think a huge part of that is due to the names listed in the previous paragraph. Marvel movies generally pull pretty fantastic talent, but I’d say Black Panther might be the best yet. Was there a single weak link? I didn’t even list all the talent above: Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker… the list goes on and on.

Sam Russell: I don’t think there was a weak link. Even bit players like Winston Duke as M’Baku (the leader of the Wakanda’s Mountain Tribe) are a joy to watch. The stand outs for me were Andy Serkis and Michael B Jordan. Serkis’ scenery chewing is delightful and Jordan brings us one of the most nuanced and relatable Marvel villains to date. Marvel has a well-documented villain problem, and Black Panther breaks with that tradition.

CM: As I mentioned after the film I spent a good five minutes during Black Panther trying to remember who the hell the villain of Thor was, so, yes, I would say Marvel has finally upped it’s villains. Klaue and Killmonger honestly offer two good outs: Klaue is massively cartoonish and fun, which works really well, and Killmonger actually stands for something, is conflicted, and complicated, which works as well. If Marvel uses either of them as a model moving forward they’ll be better off than they have been in the past.

SR: This film breaks a few other of Marvel’s bad habits. For one, I thought the production design was spectacular. The costumes and makeup inspired by African tribes and cultures (broken down in this fascinating twitter thread) are a visual feast. A portion of this film was spent globe-trotting, James Bond style, but I wish they had kept more of action in Wakanda, because it’s beautiful. We see inside their hi-tech, afrofuturist palaces, laboratories, and mines, but we don’t spend much time exploring the city itself. I suppose “I wanted more” is a good complaint to have.

CM: As far as visuals go this movie has actually grown on me significantly in the last twenty-four hours. It’s a good looking movie. While a few scenes do take place in generic MCU settings (labs…) overall it’s got more exciting costumes, higher contrast lighting, more colors in the scenery, etc. The only film I think is even moderately comparable in the original Guardians of the Galaxy. And while I agree we didn’t get to see enough of Wakanda’s capital city (does it have a name? If so I missed it) the movie does a good job of exploring Wakanda in general: we get to see the mines, Shuri’s lab, but also the snow-filled mountains of the the Mountain Tribe, as well as the more provincial looking villages of W’Kabi’s (Kaluuya) Border Tribe. Beyond geographical exploration the movie takes a great plunge into politics, making them both accessible but not watering them down. T’Challa is going to be King and a King is forced to decide what their nation will stand for: Nakia, W’Kabi, M’Baku and Killmonger all have different visions for Wakanda they propose to T’Challa, and the movie never waters things down so much that any of those views, including Killmonger’s, are totally dismissed. That’s impressive.

SR: This is true. The film acknowledges colonialism, and the harm it’s done to the continent surrounding Wakanda. It’s interesting that Coogler uses Wakanda, this afrofuturist fantasy of black power, to discuss privilege. T’Challa is a King who’s MO is to keep his country, it’s wealth, it’s resources, it’s knowledge, safe from the rest of the world. While his intention is to protect his people, he’s withholding these things that could help those suffering beyond Wakanda’s borders. T’Challa’s royalty is in stark contrast with Killmonger, who has lived his life under white supremacy in America. While much of the movie is spent trying to track down magic rocks, it does a surprisingly good job at addressing these themes of privilege and the responsibility of those who have it to share it when possible.

CM: And that’s why Killmonger ends up being such an intriguing figure, and such a great villain – T’Challa is originally isolationist, because that’s what Wakanda has traditionally been, but there are other characters besides Killmonger – heroes like Nakia and Shuri – who align with Killmonger’s intention if not his methods. And we’re shown why Killmonger comes at things the way he does.

Before we wrap things up I feel like I have to, unfortunately, get around to some of the negatives. It is shocking, shocking to me that Marvel has such a horrible handle on fight scenes and choreography, but of all the trends Black Panther rose above, the fights still felt… well, pretty boring. The car chase I thought was… okay, and the final fight was more kinetic than a lot of things that preceded it (though it was again our heroes versus a large force, at least this time the force wasn’t all faceless CGI aliens or energy tentacles or whatever). Why, why can Marvel not find someone who knows how to do action sequences if they’re so insistent on being action movies?

SR: You and I have talked about how Marvel movies aren’t really “action films,” but rather “brands.” We don’t go to these movies to see action scenes, we go to see characters that we recognize. The visual effects were pretty undercooked, looking like the rubbery animation you see in video game cutscenes. Black Panther’s abilities were not really put to good use. It’s the same kind of generic punch-kick-jump moves we’ve seen over and over again. Marvel is never good at making its heroes abilities unique to them.

The lame action is a bummer, but ultimately didn’t ruin the experience for me. I loved these characters, the world building, and the themes. This movie did what the last several Marvel movies have failed to do for me: Make me excited for the next Marvel movie. It looks like the Wakandans are going to play a large role in Avengers: Infinity War, and while I previously didn’t give a shit about that movie I am now looking forward to it.

I give Black Panther 8 magic flowers out 10 magic asteroid rocks.

CM: I give Black Panther 8 terrible CGI war rhinos out of 10 hilarious arm cannons.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • CM: While the fights are still bad, this movie is genuinely funny, which is another thing Marvel often tries and fails. Shuri in particular is an incredibly endearing character and I look forward to seeing her and Letitia Wright in more movies, Marvel and otherwise, moving forward.
  • SR: We saw this in a packed theater, and the children in the audience were eating this flick up. I’m not usually a fan of chattering kids in movie theaters, but “gee whiz!” reactions were truly adorable and at times hilarious. Favorite overheard line, “Mama, why does that spaceship look like a laser gun?”

 

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4 thoughts on “Black Panther Attempts to Break the Marvel Mold, with Mixed Results

  1. My cousin absolutely adores this movie. Once again, this is a film I have yet to see -_- I’m so busy with work. Entertainment only comes to me in the form of blog reading and gossip spoilers nowadays…

    Like

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