A solid entry to the Avengers universe and enhanced by the sterling performance of Chad Boseman as Black Panther, though handicapped by mistakes made by other sci-fi franchises.
WHO SHOULD GO: Family friendly with cartoon violence, no sexual activity, a few minor profanities, but has very loud music and special effects sounds.
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It is unfortunate that there has been SO much hype leading up to the release of Black Panther. For one thing there is no way any movie could possibly live up to everyone's world wide expectations. For another it leaves no room for analysis. Before anyone gets their panties in a wad, let me go on record as saying I liked Black Panther. I have been a big fan and advocate of Chad Boseman since I saw him in Marshall and I think the Black Panther character will be an excellent addition to the Avengers franchise.
That being said let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a British actress comedian named Jennifer Saunders. She and Dawn French were staple comedians in the 1980's and by 1992 Saunders and the replacement co-star for French, Joanna Lumley, were able to parley a 14 minute1990 skit into a 6 year BBC show called Absolutely Fabulous. However, as my son has pointed out about the Roman Empire, in her victory was her downfall. By the early 2000's she had become so popular no one wanted to criticize her and her comedy had become so strident, bitter and redundant she lost the audience she had worked so hard to gain. But during this fall she had so much clout no one had the nerve to tell her she was making mistakes. So the Emperor – or the Empress in this case – continued to wear "invisible" clothes and no one dared say she was naked.
Raise your hand if anyone reading this has even heard of Jennifer Saunders. Point made. Saunders became so successful that everyone thought it prudent to keep what should have been helpful and constructive criticism to themselves.
And so, I fear, it could go with Black Panther if reviewers are not honest and thoughtful. There has been so much wildly anticipated excitement about the “first” black super hero – everyone seeming to forget collectively the awesome Idris Elba’s Heimdall from the Thor franchise – that no one wants to take an objective look at it.
Don’t get me wrong – it is a welcome addition into the superhero universe, but it isn’t perfect. While there is much to commend it, it suffers from weaknesses other similar movies have had.
I want to lead this review by saying that the plot was very good. When contemplating the premise – that Wakanda is a secret kingdom flourishing in impoverished Africa – one might reasonably wonder why the beneficent leaders did not work to improve the plight of their desperately poor and suffering countrymen over the last several hundred years. The compelling theme of Black Panther examines why clandestine African Wakanda withholds aid from other Africans while the rest of the world donates billions in food and medical supplies? FYI the pictures of suffering Africa are not from the movie but real photos.
Does one keep such high tech secrets from the rest of the world or risk exposure and possible plunder in an effort to bring aid to others? And if one DOES decide to reveal the Wakandan advancements to the outside world should it be under the flag of conquest or compassion? Do the Wakandans emerge into the rest of the universe as prideful aggressors or humble aid workers?
This is the struggle which is personified between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the rightful king successor to his father, murdered during Captain America: Civil War, who longs for peace, and his opponent/cousin Eric Killmonger (Michael Jordan) who hungers, like the Biblical Ishmael, to use these wonders to make war against the entire world.
And it would make an interesting sequel to explore the fall out from the Wakandan neighbors when it is discovered that much of the death, disease and starvation of their fellow Africans could have been ameliorated by a watching but silent Wakanda.
I think Chad Boseman is great. He is a joy to watch and can effortlessly generate chemistry with any actor he works with whether he is King of a futuristic African nation or a cortexaphan subject with powers to control energy in Fringe or Thurgood Marshall. Not bad for a fellow southerner. (Boseman is from South Carolina.) Like Michael Caine, Meryl Streep or Bruce Willis he brings a natural ease to his characters which makes him likeable and three dimensional. And yes, I know – Willis is not in the same league as Caine or Streep. Willis is a one note actor who plays the same person in every movie he is in with variations. But it’s easy to enjoy that one character and Willis does it extremely well. In addition, Willis creates that wonderfully comfortable ebb and flow with his fellow performers which Caine and Streep also manage that make it fun to watch them in whatever they are in. You don’t have to be a brilliant actor to be one who can create good chemistry with their fellow actors. And by the other side of the same coin, even some brilliant actors can not manage it – like Lawrence Olivier who was gifted but stiff…….but I digress.
I want Black Panther with Boseman to be a successful franchise. And when the dust has settled down from the novelty of this movie there needs to be some close examination of its flaws if it is to do better than the first stabs at Spiderman or Hulk.
First – if you have to do five minutes of blunt exposition just to bring your audience up to speed before the first scene of the movie, then you’re not being very clever with your story telling. This is the same weakness in Thor: The Dark World. Lengthy exposition marred the beginning of Dark World and helped relegate it to the weakest of the Thor outings and Black Panther makes the same mistake.
Second – it is about 45 minutes too long. Some of that is due to the excessive emphasis on showcasing Wakanda and the tribal costumes, dances, accessories and artifacts. One is reminded of the first Star Trek movie where there were nerdgasms over the extensively long and loving fly over of the Enterprise as well as extremely long sequences of the planet-sized V’ger. In an effort to overwhelm the audience with the splendor of both the flagshp and the opposing mechanical nemesis, the result, in 1979's Star Trek, was ultimately the opposite and did not age well, weighing that first Star Trek movie down to one of the lesser ranked installments. There is only so much build up and pay off of the same material you can sit through until, like surfing a wave which eventually crests, after a while you wonder when the ride will be over.
Similarly, there is too much dependence on the “wow” effect of Wakanda and repeated recurrences of the character-citizens commenting about how beautiful it is, how much they longed for another view of it, how much they missed it – all followed up by multiple extended views of it.
The presentation of the African color and lore and costumes, tatoos and plates in distended lips, ancient impractical traditional garb and spirit walks get to be so much that after a while it becomes at risk of being a parody of itself. It is understandable that the film makers wanted to take full effect of their first opportunity to demonstrate and showcase this new universe, but, as Donald O’Conner once said – you should always leave the audience wanting more. Instead the writers of Black Panther went at the movie like an excited child who tries to tell of an adventure in one breath as though afraid people will stop paying attention before he gets to the end.
Another problem with the length is the same flaw found in the Man of Steel – too much fighting. There are two lengthy hand to hand combat scenes, one very exciting car chase, as well as battles royale (literally) between the two princes, along with various and sundry skirmishes, an aerial combat and the final confrontation between the two opponents on a magnetic monorail. There are high tech spaceships shooting tasers and cables, power staffs, Bullet/ French Connection quality car chases, Spiderman quality leaping and jumping during the car chases, photon firing artificial arms, and – I kid you not – vibranium armoured rhinoceroses. While all super cool it was just…too…much for one movie.
The writer and director should have had the confidence in their story to not bury it under so much of what Bishop Barron refers to as “whiz bang”.
Third – there were unnecessary incongruities in the Wakandan kingdom. While their labs, travel modes and medical facilities would rival those at Star Bases, their exchange of goods took place routinely in outdoor marketplaces wound through with dusty dirty streets. This didn’t make sense.
And the uniforms of the Amazonian guardswomen were too culturally reflective of Africa to be practical. All this high tech and the best they could do was sticks with a sonic boom effect? Now to be fair the island from which Wonder Woman emerged was similar in its cultural armament impracticalities and Asgard of the Thor franchise also had an odd juxtaposition of high tech and ancient (in that case medieval) trappings. But both Wonder Woman and Asgard were alien cultures, and both based in familiar Earth mythologies, so can be given a wider range in suspension of belief and peculiar behaviors and traditions. But Africa in general and Wakanda in particular are right here on Earth so can’t get that much leeway.
Fourth – Thor, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, for example are based respectively on established: Norse myth, the Greek Amazons and the Roman god of the sea Poseidon, all of which date back thousands of years and are part of the shared cultural background noise. So when origin stories are concocted using them as foundations it is an easy bridge into that world. There is no corresponding panther myth that I could find in Africa outside of the Black Panther comics which came upon the scene only about 50 years ago in 1966. The only established mythology I could find in Africa revolved around reptiles. So unless you are a serious comic book afficiando you wouldn't have known what they were talking about in Black Panther without exposition. But the writer, instead of weaving the background into the warp and woof of the story inelegantly chose to dump the entire story on the audience's head like — well — Thor's Hammer.
All that being said Black Panther is a fun though flawed adventure. I look forward to future installments and hope the film makers will gain confidence from the warm open armed reception they have received from the wider movie going audience and do a better job with the next one. Otherwise Black Panther will not age well or inspire longevity for the franchise – and that would be a shame.