Movie Review: Black Panther (Spoiler Free)
Black Panther is an excellent movie that gets dragged down by an over-reliance on CGI at the end. As such, it’s just very, very good.
Wakanda’s Vibranium is the uber-metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has a cousin that they never talk about (probably because it resides in a zip code firmly fixed in the X-men Universe) called anti-metal. If most Marvel movies build up to a crescendo, Black Panther is the anti-crescendo. This movie comes out of the gates with strength, style, heart, and wonder; it then ends as a samey CGI on CGI slugfest. It’s a shame, because when Black Panther is in the groove, it has some royal swagger.
Black Panther (2018)
Following the death of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) heads back to Wakanda for his coronation. While there is joy to be found in reuniting with his mother (Angela Bassett) and former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), heavy is the head that wears the crown. Adding to that weight is the emergence of Erik Killmonger, a vengeful victim of Wakanda’s isolationist policies.
Regal, Majestic, Sumptuous… I Could Go on for Days
The trailers promised that Black Panther would be a visual tour de force. Did they deliver?
This Movie makes the scenic vistas of the Lion King look like a backwater tourist trap, and the science fiction splendour of Blade Runner look like a SyFy channel movie.
But above the scenic beauty are the people of Wakanda. They exude grace, pride, tradition and modernity in every outfit; every tatoo, lip plate or piece of jewelry tells the tale of a people living at the Zenith of humanity.
The Price of Peace
This opulence and stability come at the cost of strict isolationism, a theme that drives the plot of Black Panther. Wakanda rarely interacts with the outside world, it’s technology and riches a closely guarded secret. Some citizens, such as Nakia, believe that Wakanda is duty bound to use their gifts for the betterment of all; Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) sees it in even starker terms. Killmonger desires Wakanda’s military might to right all the wrongs imposed on Africans and the African diaspora. He also wants to repay all the indignities Africans have suffered with blood and fear.
The real political, social, and cultural baggage that Black Panther is willing to shoulder make it a compelling narrative. Erik Killmonger is the deepest, most profoundly human villain Marvel has ever trotted out; he’s also easily their best to date. That director Ryan Coogler (Creed) is willing to carve out an entire section in the middle of a 2+ hour film to make Killmonger relatable was bold, but it pays off. It finally gives the good guys a worthy foil, and by having that mirror we can see our protagonists more clearly. And we get better good guys out of the deal, so win win. Did I say good guys? I meant bad-ass girls.
Boseman is fantastic as T’Challa/Black Panther. But forget about him, this movie belongs to the women. The female protagonists in Black Panther are so damn good. Everything T’Challa does they do without god-given superpowers. Lupita Nyong’o is magnetic; she is fierce and proud, but deep and contemplative when it comes to her nation’s responsibility to it’s people and the human race. Letitia Wright plays Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister. She’s a genius, a rebellious fireball, and a breath of fresh (and funny) air. Angela Bassett might as well get ready for a Cleopatra movie, because after her performance here, I’m sure that script is firing out of typewriter as we speak. And then… there’s Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) as Okoye.
This woman sucks all the air out of every room she enters. She steals every scene. SHE THROWS A SPEAR THROUGH A CAR. Okoye has physicality, grace, and an oppressive demeanour, all of which serve her well as the head of Wakanda’s elite Dora Milaje. She also has depth, and gives us yet another wrinkle to the overarching themes in Black Panther. She’s torn between duty to the Throne and duty to the man who sits upon it, and she must wrestle with whether that duty is to the benefit of Wakanda, it’s people, and the world. Danai Gurira handles all this with an ease that is awesome. I can’t wait to see her in Infinity War.
There’s Always a Catch
Black Panther sets up a lush, living, breathing world with deep characters both good and bad. The music is strong and evocative, punctuated by a Kendrick Lamar Soundtrack. A woman throws a spear through a car. This movie should be perfect. But it isn’t, unfortunately.
The ending was a bit of a let-down. After all those complex themes get picked up, they get dropped off in a fairly pat, good vs. evil, “let’s not royally piss off white people” ending. It felt a little to safe; I smell a Disney money-maker mandate.
Also, like Wakanda, the film gets too reliant on fancy technology. After some stunning practical fights, and some decently blended practical/CGI action pieces, we get two CGI rock’em sock’em robots dueling at the end. No spoilers, but the fight was a revolution. A Matrix Revolution, if you catch my drift. Since we already had a wonderful T’Challa/Killmonger showdown done with all practical effects at the halfway mark, this really killed what had been a royal buzz.
Last Added, First Tasted
This was a little bon mot given to me by a Chef in Culinary School. I don’t know how true it is, but I trot it out every once in awhile. It seems appropriate here. The first half of this movie had me over the moon; the next 40% was thoughtful and moving. The last fight was a fart in a rose garden. Since it was my final experience with Black Panther, it had me walking out of the theater with a “That was pretty good” vibe, instead of the rictus of ectasy I would have had if they had finished as strong as they started.
It kind of reminded me of Wonder Woman: great movie knocked down a peg by a lame ending. Black Panther, much like Wonder Woman, is definitely deserving of your time and cash. It is a theater spectacle. It also has a message, if a muted one. I’m glad I saw this, especially since I know what my next movie assignment is (get ready!). You will be too.
Take a walk around Wakanda, it’s a rare oppurtunity.