“Black Panther” has more on its mind than most of its Marvel brethren, telling a surprisingly fully-formed story of monarchical conflict driven by racial issues, and even more surprisingly not backing out and undercutting its own promise, like so many of its predecessors in the Marvel series have. Where “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Captain America: Civil War” made a mockery of their own stories by frantic reassurances of a return to a status quo at the end of their third acts, “Black Panther” wisely just doesn’t go to the limits of its premise that might necessitate such hasty backflips.
Villainous Killmonger, in a show-stealing performance by Michael B. Jordan, does suffer a few cheap writing tics to assert how rigidly the film will follow the Marvel hero formula (excessive sneering villainy at odds with his very coherent motivations, overtly villainous lines assuring his disregard for civilians and children and the like, clunky dialogue – although his last line is easily the best of the film), but for the most part, the film lets him breathe, his erasure from his nation’s and family’s history, desire for acknowledgement, and most of all, acute sense of social and racial justice given fair play.
One wishes the film spent more time actually delving into the genuinely interesting and thorny issues he raises about the ethnostate the film revolves around, all the suffering fellow black people faced in history around the world while a fellow nation ostensibly with the power to address it all never did anything (Wakandans talk a big talk about being noble warriors, but it’s telling that nearly all principal characters are either spies, saboteurs, or wear literal masks), all the implications and questions the premise of that nation – a diverse, egalitarian (well, to an extent – the contradiction of it being a monarchy is never addressed in the film) sub-Saharan African nation completely unaffected by the West’s influence, the slave trade, colonialism.
Still, that fictional nation certainly is the film’s great strength, the unfulfilled promise of examining it in greater depth going to show what a fantastic premise it is in the first place. Production designer Hannah Beachler, art director Alan Hook, set decorator Jay Hart, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, composer Ludwig Goransson, all come together to create an enthralling, fully formed Afro-futurist vision of such a fantastic place. The urban side of Wakanda is given little attention (filmed in oddly restricted angles in its two key scenes), but Wakandian vistas and cityscape shots are rendered nicely. Interiors are flatly lit though, and sometimes the CGI landscapes don’t mesh well with what’s real.
Often the visual realisation and direction of the great design by the film disappoints. A fight in the jungle at night is too blurry, dim and frenetically directed to carry across well, and some of the CGI fighting in the third act is noticeably dreadful (perhaps the confusing blocking and cutting was a blessing in disguise). Thankfully, an extended action scene in Korea is great, loosening up with action directed more in long takes, and following a car chase with enjoyable kinetics. Creative visual choices are few and far between (a rotating upside-down shot of Killmonger at the height of his power a rare highlight), but the design backing the film’s vision is strong enough to frequently transcend that.
There’s some undercooked story beats in the third act, a relationship that gets two lines across the entire film, unjustified changes of heart, Killmonger’s wishy-washy treatment as it becomes more difficult to justify heroic positioning against him, but the film retains narrative integrity in never pandering to advertise other Marvel films. Said narrative integrity only going so far as to undercook some of the film’s more interesting themes (the lies that uphold status quos in families and societies, the questions of greed and fear that drive cultural questions of who is considered an outsider, etc.) instead of invalidating them. The worst cliche the film indulges in is an eyeroll-inducing fake death.
All the while, the cast keep everything moving nicely. It was a wise choice to surround Chadwick Boseman (very, very skilled, but often asked to play a cipher) with such a colourful, charismatic supporting cast. Andy Serkis and Letitia Wright are particular highlights, both clearly having tremendous amounts of fun. They weren’t alone, as I indeed had fun watching this, though its promise exceeded its realisation. Three and a half vibranium devices, and a tribe of vegetarians.