As the 10,001st review on Black Panther, I figured I’d share my take on this film. Looking at the obvious aspects that are usually mentioned, the politics and themes, I’ll also expand on why I see this movie as a mature and seldom plus for today’s oversaturated hero-movie market. Considering I’d rather have the negative points of an argument described first, I’ve done so below.
The politics of it all are always messy. Living in the US, I have long come to the realization that if any major movie that has a leading cast of African-American actors criticism of the film’s political/social stance will enter every conversation of the picture. Yes, majority of the Black Panther cast has African ancestry. No, that does not mean this movie is specifically for people with African ancestry. Yes, some characters hold certain perspectives culturally held by African-Americans and other cultural perspectives by certain Africans. No, a viewer does not need to know the history of the African diaspora to understood this film. However, knowing such history will lend a particular understanding many of African ancestry can attest. Myself included.
The cultural aspects of Black Panther are secondary to understanding what is going on with the story. Similarly, I compare this to watching The Godfather series. I love seeing those films and understanding the different characters inside of that unique storyline. This movie series delivers enough exposition on Italian for me to understand the world those characters live in without having to know any extra history. Any supplemental meaning discovered in the movie is simply gratuitous and should be judged aside from the story’s structure. Just as the Five Families refer to brown-skinned people (not their actual words, which is a lot harsher) outside of their families as “animals” whose neighborhoods they peddle drugs to, I would hope those that view Black Panther not to judge the world the characters live in rather the story into which those characters are developed.
It was excrutiating to hear/see the responses from those that claimed the movie would not be judged on its own merits, whether in support or opposed. Of course, Black Panther (named after a prominent African-American socialist party) has many cultural overtones, but that does not limit it from having a well-orchestrated story that paints superhero films in a brighter light.
Of those overtones were the several major themes truly elevating this movie passed the usual crime-fighting flick. The central themes included: individualism/isolationism versus collectivism/globalism, the African-American experience weighted with the African experience, and the wealthy/royalty contrasted with the less fortunate/commoners. Each theme was colorfully placed between two characters with reasonable agendas, something many stories have lacked in the past few years. Neither T’Challa or Killmonger were severely deficient in the values and methods they held strongest. Surely each had their downside, T’Challa not sure of ruling the nation he was now king over and wanting to isolate from the world, and Killmonger’s interest in revolt by killing millions across the globe. Rightly, those deficiencies were addressed in a mature manner and contrsated against their quite sensible reasoning for those values, instead of the usual good guy is good and bad guy is bad motif. T’Challa didn’t want to Wakanda to suffer as other nations have after entering the global community, and Killmonger wanted to end the constant inequity of people from the African diaspora and right the wrongs of their longstanding plight. It’s hard to fight against both arguments, which serves for a worthwhile conflict of ideas.
Possibly the strongest aspect of this movie, aside from the visuals, was the score. The music for so many scenes evoked intense feelings of suspense and action when necessary, something I cannot say for many other Marvel movies. When going to see superhero flick I’ve come to expect deep dramatic tones during the heroes fall and ear-piercing feudal brass when the hero rises again. Not much to expect anymore.
Thanks to Black Panther, I was delighted to hear the many percussive instruments that beated by the action of the casino brawl, the ritualistic challenges, and the final fight. And I could not write a review without mentioning the several pieces for Killmonger’s onscreen moments. Those parts of the score alone were enough for me to grab the original score. I’m reminded of how masterful the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop is and A Beautiful Mind. It is great pieces like these that build true art in film.
Last but never forgotten, it is the story structure of Black Panther that captivated me the most. It’s reflection of reasonable characters in unreasonable positions push this story along at max speed the entire length. The typical hero story of the protagonist having to overcome his weakness is not lost, though a few quirks are made. Instead of the villian destroying cities (Superman) or stealing huge sums of capital (Batman x2), Black Panther’s antagonist forces his way to the hero’s front door and challenges him minus the excessive collateral damage. The now commonplace tactic of leveling a city has worn off on me and is simply bleak. How heroic can a character be if all of New York was just decimated?
Besides the senseless killing of past superhero films, Black Panther chose for its protagonist to learn from his mistakes. The main objective was not destroy Really Big Monster, rather stop the head of this revolt who has an ideology the polar opposite of the hero. Christopher Nolan’s Bane was a similarly more-respectable antagonist than the monster machine Marvel has been printing from lately.
If it isn’t apparent by now, I was extremely pleased by this movie and hope this is a turn-for-the-better from Marvel films to come. Although I’m not a particular fan of superhero films for their essential nature (why create superpowered problems when there are normal problems of which to derive stories; they’re especially for the young) one can only hope this effort in movie-making becomes the norm since superheroes seem to be here to stay.