Marvel’s latest movie, Black Panther, opens in cinemas this week. While it’s a very good movie, it’s not without its flaws. It does, however, show that Marvel can still create engaging stories that are not reliant on spectacle.
The African kingdom of Wakanda has existed sheltered from the outside world for millennia. Having been built on a large deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium, the Wakandans have learned to harvest its powers and built their entire society upon it. Said society is ruled by a king who also is the nation’s protector, known as the Black Panther. When King T’Chaka dies, it is up to his son to take up the mantle, lest he is challenged as the heir to the throne.
The Intricacies of Belief
Black Panther is very obviously not your typical superhero movie. Of course, there’s big fights where you see superhuman feats of strength and agility, but at its core, Black Panther is a small movie. There’s no world that needs to be saved. It doesn’t matter if T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman wins the day or not, for most of the planet, life will go on as it did yesterday.
It is this, that gives the movie space to breathe, to develop a sense of humour, of depth and humanity.
Black Panther also gives us – I think for the first time in any movie – something that is known as a loyal opposition. In real world politics, a loyal opposition is a political party or faction who disagrees with the current rulers and their decisions on a fundamental level, but is loyal to the nation and its people. In Black Panther, this is the Jabari Tribe, led by M’Baku (Winston Duke). The Jabari people are loyal to their king in their own way, challenging him every step of the way and disagreeing with most decisions he’s made. This has been going on for as long as Wakanda has been around. I believe that a loyal opposition is vital to the long term success of any endeavour, really, so it’s lovely to see it incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is just one of the complexities introduced in this movie that shift the focus and the lingering thoughts after the viewing experience away from the big fight scenes and the special effects. That is not to say that said action scenes are negligible. This being an action and science fiction film, the action scenes are of great importance, but they’re not vital to the plot.
In fact, if anything, the action scenes are the movie’s greatest weakness. The CGI looks very fake in some spots, be it a cliff during a ceremony or a tumble from the sky. The bluescreen effect used to hide Ulysses Klaw‘s (Andy Serkis) missing arm looked incredibly fake almost always because the shirt sleeve just did not move naturally. It looked weightless and fake. Even worse were the lighting mismatches in the later action scenes where the CGIed backgrounds had completely different light from the actors that stood in front of the green screen.
However, there are some impactful action scenes. Because of the small scope of the story, it feels like an accomplishment when T’Challa downs a war rhino. When the royal guards known as the Dora Milaje beat an opponent, it feels as if something has been achieved, even though the inverse ninja law – the more ninjas there are on screen simultaneously, the less effective they are – rears its clichéed head.
The Best Villain in the Universe
Add to all this Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, the main villain of the story. It is his character that shows, beyond a doubt, that even sinister characters can be sympathetic and funny in their own way. His irreverence is what makes the film such an enjoyable pitting of the kingly T’Challa and the upstart Killmonger.
While Klaw is a very in-your-face villain and only seems to invoke the 1980s trope of «Being evil for the sake of being evil», that plagued many cartoons of the time, Killmonger is a much more thought-out character and far from a cardboard cutout. His motivations anyone can sympathize with and his reasons are clear. Even if he upends pretty much everything and is a huge threat, he is a character viewers can sympathize with.
Killmonger also forces T’Challa to dig deep into his own past and his own worldview. Have his predecessors really made the right choice by isolating themselves from the world? Can he not do more good if his country actively interacts with the rest of the planet? And, ultimately, does his hermit kingdom have a future in a world that keeps getting smaller and smaller. Interestingly, it’s not just Killmonger who prompts these bouts of introspection, but also T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who also share their worldviews with the audience and display a surprising number of shades of grey, making Killmonger not just the polar opposite of the Black Panther, but someone who is on some kind of sliding scale but might have just slid a bit too far.
This varied approach to characters and their world views also applies to the humour. Black Panther differs greatly in the way that jokes are told. While Spider-Man was a wisecracking jackass in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Iron Man is a disrespectful brat and has a lot of situational comedy going on for him, the characters in Black Panther have an inherent sense of humour. None of the jokes are jokes that are about someone, so you’re not made to laugh at someone else’s belittlement or misery.
Instead, the characters in this movie crack wise on two levels: There’s the friendly riffing between friends and family and there’s the inherent sort of irreverence that comes with characters from radically different backgrounds. This is most notable with Killmonger who never fails to fail at etiquette.
All in all, Black Panther, despite its flaws, is a really good movie set in a believably crafted fictional nation and easily my favourite Marvel movie since the first Avengers. Go see it.