There’s a lot of talent involved with Black Panther, both in front of and behind the camera. Director Ryan Coogler recently brought us Creed and Fruitvale Station, and Black Panther’s stars have been involved in projects such as Black Mirror, Get Out and 12 Years a Slave. As a result, the standout elements largely come from Black Panther’s world building and characters, while still retaining much of the typical Marvel formula. Despite some lackluster plotting and dated effects, Black Panther is still a largely engaging and consistently entertaining experience.
Even though he holds the titular role, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have quite as much screen time as expected. Much of the focus goes towards side characters, such as his sister Shuri, (Letita Wright) who steals many of the scenes she appears in. She serves as the engineer of her brothers’ gadgets and weaponry, all of which utilize vibranium, the metal which propels Wakanda to such technological greatness. The only downside to this is that it leaves T’Challa feeling completely invulnerable, greatly reducing the tension of the fight sequences. Among the rest of the cast, Michael B. Jordan is also a standout as Killmonger, one of Marvel’s best villains to date.
Where it Works, Where it Doesn’t
Black Panther has a lot to do in one movie. It has to give a backstory to its main character, introduce the audience to the world of Wakanda, develop its infrastructure and side plot about an American attempting to purchase its sought-after material, as well as develop a running conflict on whether or not Wakanda should provide resources and shelter to outsider refugees. This conflict is what drives the fight between T’Challa and Killmonger, and is handled with surprising complexity and depth. It gives Killmonger the kind of motivation that the best villains have; a reasonable position that goes too far as a result of some kind of emotionally driven personal life experience. Killmonger is a genuinely sympathetic antagonist, and his rise to power is aided by some excellent camera work and score, thanks to cinematographer Rachel Morrison, as well as an excellent soundtrack lead by Kendrick Lamar.
This whole aspect of the plot, as well as the introductions of Wakanda’s technology and culture, is where Black Panther really starts to shine and feel unique. Where it struggles is towards the beginning, where much of it feels like smaller ideas that end up not contributing a much to the actual point of the film, creating a dull first act that relies too heavily on some underwhelming action sequences.
The biggest flaw with the action is that the Black Panther suit looks weirdly bad – the effects never look quite natural, and the climactic battle looks to be about ten years out of date. This is unforgivable considering the $200 million budget and Marvel’s previous works which have all looked better than this. The only natural conclusion I can come to is that the effects budget was spent primarily on the Wakandan environment, which looks excellent.
Pacing and Flow
Coogler generally manages to keep things interesting, but the multitude of plot ideas that Panther introduces largely feel underdeveloped and scattered. At times it’s as though 2-3 films worth of concepts are crunched into one production, creating a sense of pacing that feels uneven and, at times, tedious.
A major problem with this is that our main villain is introduced early on in the film, sets up the tension for his return, and then disappears for a bulk of the runtime. When he does return, it ratchets up the tension surprisingly well and introduces a lot of interesting dynamics between himself and T’Challa. It also forces other major characters to debate their loyalties and seems to be building towards something truly grand – before devolving into the same, tired, CGI-heavy action finale we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie. Following this formula is not inherently problematic, but it’s a missed opportunity for something different considering how drastically set apart the world of Black Panther is compared to other Marvel films.
Black Panther keeps the story moving at a decent pace, even if it lacks the focus that propels other Marvel titles to the top of the pack. A satisfying villain, beautiful world building, interesting and thought-provoking dynamics and a likeable cast make Black Panther worth your time – even if it doesn’t deliver a story as unique and thought