I got to see Black Panther yesterday at a matinee screening. I was surprised to find that the theatre wasn't jam-packed full of people. I saw a surprising amount of empty seats which clearly contrasts the headlines I read on IMDb about it being the fifth biggest opening ever, huge step forward for cinema, etc. As is customary with a lot of my reviews on newer films, there are inevitably going to be some spoilers. I guess it's difficult to write about a film without actually talking about it. Anyways, After thinking about the film for a day, I thought I'd write about it.
The film takes place following the events of Captain America: Civil War. Some eleven Wakandans have been killed in a "botched" mission by some of the Avengers. Quick recap: Crossbones and a team of thugs attempted to steal a chemical weapon from a facility and their efforts were thwarted by the Avengers. Captain America doesn't notice Crossbones has a bomb vest on since he is caught off-guard by mention of Bucky/The Winter Soldier. Scarlet Witch does her best to contain the explosion but it doesn't go according to plan and a building gets caught in the blast. Wakandans were meeting in that building, they die, and we're caught up on that. Move forward to the signing of the Sokovia Accords, a bill giving the United Nations control over the Avengers and essentially acting as a "register as an enhanced or retire" document. At the UN Building in Vienna, another bomb goes off and the king of Wakanda, T'Chaka, is killed. The remainder of that movie sees his son, T'Challa, consumed by vengeance and wanting to kill Bucky/The Winter Soldier, for setting off the bomb. Spoiler: it wasn't Bucky. The real perpetrator is caught and the film ends with T'Challa accepting Bucky into Wakanda for some much-needed brain descrambling and therapy. I think that catches us up to the events of the Black Panther film.
The beginning of the film has some betrayal and backstabbing in Oakland circa 1992. T'Chaka catches one of his Wakandans giving away secrets that resulted in a theft of Vibranium (world's most valuable, strongest metal that arrived in Wakanda via an asteroid). Moving forward to present day, T'Challa is about to be king. We're introduced to Nakia (T'Challa's love interest), Okoye (the general of the Wakandan army), Shuri (T'Challa's sister), and Ramonda (T'Challa's mother). I'll step out of the plot for a moment because its absolutely worth noting here that not once in the film was there any sadness or remorse for the death of the Wakandan king except for a few supernatural moments involving a face-to-face with T'Challa and T'Chaka. There's smiles, laughter, joking, and a general feeling of excitement and happiness. Weird choice considering the violent death of the king and father. Anyways, back to it. After a relatively uneventful "challenge to the new king" ceremony, T'Challa is crowned. It is decided that his first mission is to stop the sale of some vibranium and catch the guy that stole it some thirty years before. Back to that in a moment.
Throughout the whole movie, there is an underlying theme of isolationism as Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the world. Masquerading as a third-world country and duping the other countries about how technologically advanced it really is in order to protect the vibranium, some folks are less than pleased about how Wakanda buries its head in the sand. We're given the motivation for the antagonist, we're given the internal struggle of the protagonist, and we're also given conflict between history and modernity as a result. The mission to stop the sale of vibranium and capture the guy that stole it ties in directly to this. We experience some conflict within the ranks of the Wakandan Empire as T'Challa decides to go on the mission instead of extending aid. Ruling like the kings before him becomes an issue with T'Challa and is probably the main challenge he needs to overcome in the film.
The guy that stole the vibranium some thirty years prior is involved with the main antagonist of the film. We find out Erik Killmonger is the nephew of T'Chaka and subsequently the cousin of T'Challa, the current king. The betrayal and backstabbing in 1992 was perpetrated by Erik's father, the brother of the king. In another flashback, the king kills his brother. The scene is set for why Erik is the antagonist. Revenge for the death of his father, and wanting to break Wakanda out of its isolationist past are strong motivation. Killmonger shows up in Wakanda with the body of the recently deceased guy that stole the vibranium and issues a challenge for the throne to T'Challa. The challenge is accepted and T'Challa is defeated. He's thrown off a cliff and he's found still alive. No big deal. Using some Wakandan sorcery, he's revived to full strength and is able to defeat Killmonger in a relatively subdued final battle. T'Challa is restored as the rightful king and moves Wakanda out of the isolationist past with efforts to provide outreach and aid moving forward.
I skipped over some of the plot details and instead focused on the main brunt of he film. I think it's about that isolationism along with the struggle to move out of history and into modernity. There's a few small sidetracks that occur along the way, but nothing major in my mind. So, what about final thoughts on the film? I left the theatre feeling a bit deflated. It wasn't great from a cinematic perspective. Coming in hot off the heels of Thor: Ragnorok, I was hoping Marvel would keep up the energy and excitement leading into Avengers: Infinity War. That energy and excitement just wasn't there. Was the film okay? Sure, it was decent. Told an okay story and brought Wakanda into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I guess moving forward we as an audience could see some amazing things come of this but I'm currently ambivalent to it. Maybe the payoff will be better down the road. I guess I also struggled a bit because Black Panther isn't one of the A-list comic book characters in my mind. Having a whole film with no relevance to the pre-existing universe around it was a bit tough to swallow. Completely ignoring the cultural excitement that a film starring a predominantly dark-skinned cast brings to the table, I felt Black Panther was an average entry into the MCU that might be the least enjoyable film for me in the decade that these films have been coming out. From that comic book perspective, injecting the film with more Winter Soldier (who is in Wakanda the whole time, presumably) could have tied the film in better. The characters of this film just aren't established well enough on their own in my mind.
That being said, I totally get why Marvel made the decision to give Black Panther a standalone film. In today's political and cultural landscape, it was a bold move and the right one to make. I thought it prudent to speak briefly about the cultural aspects of the film because they are worth mentioning. A mainstream film being set in Africa, starring a mainly dark-skinned cast and crew, and giving that cast African accents is a pretty monumental step forward in the world of cinema. I applaud Marvel for making such a bold step forward and I hope the 200+ million dollar opening weekend will continue to speak volumes and show that a film doesn't need to be white-washed to be successful. Now, if we can get a better film next time out, it'll only make things more exciting.