There are still a lot of people out there who don’t understand the appeal of the superhero movie, or the significance of this one in particular. As part of this review, I will endeavor to lay out the significance of both, as understanding them is critical to understanding the final review. First, let me say I’ve been a fan of Marvel comics, and later on the movies, for essentially my entire life. I know more about Captain America and his various associates than is even remotely necessary for any human being. The draw to superhero characters is an easy one to explain: these heroes are a form of wish fulfillment. These characters fight the fights we can’t, and they essentially become ciphers for us to project elements of our personalities onto. Some of the most popular heroes, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man, are what I call “paragon-level” heroes. These are characters that have extraordinary abilities, in some cases godlike but are also completely and utterly morally unambiguously good. Even Batman, who routinely uses more brutal tactics, still has a fundamental goodness about him. These characters for decades have been wish fulfillment fantasies for children and amazing role models.
In the above list, and in the popularity hierarchy of comic book heroes, you might notice there are no black heroes. I’ve heard a number of people questioning why this movie is such a big deal, why it’s breaking records, and why it’s so important to the black community. After all, it’s not as if Black Panther is even remotely the first black superhero movie character, there’s Blade, Luke Cage, Storm, and the Falcon, and even Meteor Man and Hancock. As great as some of those characters are, none are A-List, paragon level heroes that any kid would really see as a great cipher and inspirational model. The Black Panther is significant because T’Challa is on that level. He is the ultimate cipher for any black kid in the country to project their wish fulfillment onto. After all, if you were a parent, who would you rather your child hang out with? Joey down the street who might be doing drugs, or T’Challa and Steve Rogers?Even the final scene in the movie shows a few kids staring reverently at T’Challa and his ship and asking “Who are you?”
It would be great if no one saw color, if everyone just got along, but that’s not real life. In real life, we gravitate toward people that look like us. It’s called unconscious bias, and we can’t help it. So even though a black kid can look at Captain America or Superman and love the character, it matters a great deal that there is one top tier hero that looks like them. T’Challa might not be a god, like Superman, but he is literally a king. He is a king that projects a regal air, that will do anything to defend his country and people. So, he’s rich, handsome, powerful, has the best tech, and on top of it all is actual royalty. This is why the Black Panther is significant. He is the first A-list hero that a black kid from anywhere can look up to that looks like him. This is why the movie almost cannot be judged on typical movie merits. A cursory glance over the reviews shows rapturous adulation from virtually all corners. In a way, most of the reviewers are reviewing the idea, rather than the movie itself. I will endeavor to review the movie on merits, but make no mistake, the context matters a great deal. Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s get to the review.
First of all, let me say that this movie should win every design award possible, and every other nominee should just concede now. Every design element in this movie is bulletproof. Wakanda and every visual element in the entire movie is an unmitigated triumph. I am a sucker for color play in movies, such as we saw in The Last Jedi or Drive, and the use of color in this movie is even more brilliant. The use of striking, bold colors to represent each tribe and class, as well as Wakanda itself are gorgeous beyond belief. The searing red of Okoye and the military juxtaposed with the royal purple of the priests makes for enchanting visuals. The design of Wakanda itself is also amazing, as you have skyscraping monoliths that still manage to retain a primal element, bullet trains that weave amongst the trees and buildings, and hyper-advanced ships built with Vibranium technology. It conveys a style that I think of as “Primal Futurism” where concrete and futuristic cityscapes are interwoven amongst trees and natural outcroppings. Even the font they use for the lettering is amazing, as it somehow manages to bear a custom Afro-Futuristic style. Every costume and outfit is ornate and colorful and boasts intricate design patterns. It is as if Wakanda has existed for centuries, and every design element reflects its legacy.
In other words, Wakanda comes alive, and it is essentially design perfection.
However, you can’t bring it to life without the people. As perfect as the design was, the casting equals the design in every way. Most of the reviews will tell you that Jordan and Serkis steal the show, as over the top villains usually do, and they certainly earn that praise. However, for my money, the real triumph was Boseman’s regal, stoic T’Challa. Any actor will tell you, it’s easier to steal the scene as an intense villain but even harder to do as an understated, thoughtful character. Boseman could not have been a better choice for this role, as he comes across as regal and thoughtful at all times, even when furious. The other high point for me was Leticia Wright, who played the sister of T’Challa, Shuri. She provided great humor and was the requisite tech genius to provide gadgets to the hero, much like Q in the James Bond franchise, who she actually references in the movie. Usually, in a movie, I can pick out one or two people I wasn't a fan of casting, but in this movie there are none. Every casting choice from General Okoye to M’Baku is done brilliantly, and I can’t think of one person that I’d change, except possibly Martin Freeman, ironically one of the only white guys, who would be easily replaceable, even though he does a decent enough job.
So far we have impeccable casting, flawless design, and an unbeatable concept. However, there are flaws. First and most notable to me was the choreography. Filmed in much the same up-close, jerky style that the Nolan Batman Trilogy used, I hated it for the same reason I hated it in Nolan’s Batman films: It’s hard to follow. Especially when filming a character with such grace and power, we should be able to appreciate the fluidity and power of his moves, and yet the camera is in so tight, and changing angles so rapidly that it becomes hard to follow, unlike Captain America: The Winter Soldier where you can feel and see every shot, and every move is meticulously designed. The other negative would be the overall synthetic feel of some of the action sequences. This was an area that Spider-man movies have been particularly guilty of failing, and Panther was no different. The difference is I expect to see overpowered heroes like Spider-Man and Superman in heavy CG. Powered humans such as Captain America and Black Panther should need far less CG. There were a lot of scenes where it was evident that CGI was gratuitously used, and the physics of the action appeared off as well. We are pretty far into nitpick territory right now though as none of that taints the enjoyment of the film.
What of the plot? In true Marvel fashion, the plot does get pretty political, as Erik Killmonger’s entire motivation is to spread vibranium throughout the world to “oppressed” people to kill the leaders and have Wakanda rule it all. It does touch on colonialism and isolationism, and in a touch of irony, Killmonger rails against colonialism, then proceeds to decide to colonize and rule everything himself in an act of ultimate revenge. In a way, the dichotomy between T’Challa and Killmonger mirror the differing voices in the black community such as the more radical factions of Du Bois and Malcolm X, versus the more unity based factions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington, as well as the radical ethnostate advocates like Farrakhan. This dip into really touchy racial and political ideas in my mind actually elevates the film to another level. It would have been easy to churn out a safe by the numbers “Heroes Journey” type of film, but instead they went all in, and actually make us think about the character’s motivations. Part of the success of Marvel movies is the real world social and political ideas they inject into their movies. Whether it’s the surveillance state and whistleblowing in the Winter Soldier, the Military industrial complex in Iron Man, or government regulation in Civil War, Marvel is able to elevate their movies beyond just a bunch of heroes and villains slugging it out, and make you think “What side would I be on?”
In the end, Black Panther resides in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, but that almost doesn’t matter. The impact it will have to kids matters more than any particular plot point or costume. In the end, T’Challa says “We are all one tribe”, but it still matters that he is at the table with the rest, and after this movie, he sits with the best of the best.
PS: The Winter Soldier is still the best Marvel movie of all time.
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Steve is the author of Forging the Iron Mind, and is the founder and CEO of Americana Prime.