Black Panther (2018), the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), takes the multibillion-dollar superhero franchise to new and unexplored locations—and I don’t just mean the fictional central African nation Wakanda. Black Panther is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who broke into the movie scene with the similarly socially-charged Fruitvale Station (2013). Coogler attempts to meld a socially-conscious narrative with the action-packed silliness of an Avengers film, and for the most part, he pulls it off quite well.
It is the presentation of these social issues that is certainly the film’s greatest strength. Its plot is carefully woven together to present the complex problems and histories surrounding race adeptly and without leaning too heavily upon generalization. At no point is the audience being hamfisted by issues either. Instead, these ideas are constructed incredibly thoughtfully, resisting opportunities to excessively villainize or victimize. Black Panther seems to primarily want to further the dialogue surrounding the issue of race by challenging common assumptions and educating those who may not understand its intricate complexities.
As a white man, there is no way for me to adequately describe the importance of this film to the those of African descent. But to hazard a guess, it must be incredibly gratifying to finally see a major blockbuster production taking this specific social climate and identity seriously and on such a large scale. Additionally, the success of the film itself speaks to its importance. At the time of writing, the film has grossed more than $900 million worldwide, ranking second in the MCU behind only the first Avengers film. A response like that not only furthers the attention these issues are demanding from the population of movie-goers, but will also hopefully ensure that companies will now focus their efforts on the production of like minded films.
However, despite its critical social importance, the film as an artistic endeavour—even one as genre-specific as a superhero film—has room for improvement. As should probably have been expected, Black Panther shares many of the common inadequacies of its preceding generations of superhero films, providing very little in the way of any kind of cinematic creativity. If the Marvel formula works for you, all the better as it is on full display here, but if not, well … this is your warning.
The film runs at least 20 minutes too long, relying on needless exposition that seems to teeter on the edge between lazy world-building and cliched backstory. What results are several scenes that are too vague to be interesting and too complicated to be thrilling. Despite this, as the scattered plot begins to weave itself together more tightly, characters become entangled in more eccentric and intriguing situations and tension finds room to build.
These tense sequences are punctuated throughout the film by a variety of classic blockbuster set pieces. Explosions, crashing vehicles, sophisticated weaponry, slow motion acrobatics—it’s got it all. However, it’s an all that is incredibly dull. These scenes are used frequently, and are so excessive and grandiose that the violence becomes banal, trite distractions from any interesting character development or plot point.
Coogler makes some questionable decisions with cinematography in this film. Commonly he chooses to have the lens float through large sets, spinning around frantically and following the violence like a spastic housefly, and resulting in a look of comparable aesthetic.
Breaking the patterns of previous Marvel films in a positive way is Black Panther’s villain, Killmonger. Typically, otherworldly forces antagonise the hero, bent on destruction for no particular reason apart from that they are simply evil—nothing more or less. Played by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger does away with such simplicity in favour of creating a character who, like many of this film’s supporting characters, is complexly motivated and even justified in his exploits. This ties into the film’s treatment of its social themes, but all the same, was a welcome shift.
While the film’s technical and creative shortcomings are lamentable, they pale in comparison to the critical importance this film carries socially. Black Panther fails to challenge what a superhero film can be, but positively redefines what a superhero film can do.comments powered by Disqus