"Black Panther" Fights Uphill Battle Against The Marvel Machine

The Walt Disney Company, which owns Marvel Studios, has come a long way of late in ameliorating its own profoundly racist history. Their African-set “Queen Of Katwe” may have tanked at the box office in the fall of 2016, but Mira Nair’s film was and remains a sparkling ode to real-life Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutasi; one that showed the studio was finally serious about diversity in its feature films. Superb animated fare centered on characters of color (“Moana” and “Coco”) quickly followed.

Marvel’s “Black Panther” is another important step in that process, the first big-budget superhero pic to feature a mostly black cast. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed”), the movie (and its enormous box office success) is a triumph of progress and representation, a full-toned tsk-tsk to the surfeit of Hollywood executives that spent decades confining black casts to relatively low-budget comedies and melodramas. The best moments of “Black Panther” are unsurprisingly as winning as the best of any Disney tentpole, elegantly fusing Afrofuturistic comic book imagery to sharp social commentary.

But it’s no panacea for the Marvel Cinematic Universe doldrums. It shares the same frustrating flaws as many of its brethren; perfunctory action beats interrupt compelling familial drama while dismal special effects further deflate those same sequences. Intriguing supporting characters are lost in the mix.

Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther (aka T’Challa, king of the high-tech African nation of Wakanda) was the best part of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” his weighty introduction to the silver screen rising above the pic’s din of excess. It’s a shame that his first solo film falls victim to the same kind of slipshod storytelling, overloaded with characters and setpieces at the price of screen time for its lead. Save for Michael B. Jordan’s towering turn as Erik Killmonger, the piece’s de facto villain, Boseman’s T’Challa is the presence of the film and, as audiences might realize when he drops out of the film for nearly ten minutes in its homestretch, isn’t in enough of his own movie.

Jordan’s Killmonger is the only other character to not dissolve in the script’s frenzy of moving parts. An outwardly clumsy prologue set in 1992 (featuring the wonderful Sterling K. Brown as T’Challa’s uncle) eventually pays off, establishing Erik as a family outcast set on taking over Wakanda from his newly crowned cousin. For Erik, it’s about so much more than comic book tropes like money and power (the thriving Wakanda and its surplus of Vibranium is the world’s best kept secret). It’s about repute and righting perceived wrongs, no matter the cost.

Coogler’s screenplay (co-written by Joe Robert Cole) gets T’Challa and Erik’s conflict exactly right, scarcely adjudicating either one’s failings. The rest of the ensemble can only dream of such fully-realized characterization, with T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) ending up the Q to Boseman’s Bond – here and then mostly forgotten. Meanwhile, the malicious mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is the worst kind of assembly line Marvel baddie: underwritten and preposterously overperformed.

Actors with award-season pedigree like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Lupita Nyong’o are welcome presences that get precious little to do, each playing ostensibly dynamic Wakandan figures that ultimately feel estranged from T’Challa’s arc. Perhaps most intriguing of all is warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) who kicks copious amounts of ass but otherwise remains a narrative question mark.

The film’s biggest liabilities don’t belong to Coogler at all. The lousy CGI makes the utterly conventional action scenes feel even more inessential than they are, studio-mandated deviations from the story’s marrow. The way the final action setpiece pings between three distinct locations regrettably recalls “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” (Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett K. Ross is the sequence’s Jake Lloyd), delivering the same kind of uninspired rock-em-sock-em climax that no MCU filmmaker but James Gunn has avoided.

Even so, “Black Panther” is a net victory because of Boseman, Jordan, a stellar Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack, and the project’s historic dissemination of black voices and images through one of the most popular mediums of our time: big-budget superhero cinema. The pic’s shortcomings are real, but the building blocks for “Black Panther II” and beyond are firmly in place, inclusiveness finally a part of Hollywood’s biggest ongoing franchise. Better late than never.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 16, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriter: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)