Caught Black Panther last night and, contrary to my concerns (which stemmed entirely from the overhyping of the movie by various entertainment mediums), I enjoyed it. Unlike the before-mentioned mediums, I don’t think it was the best thing that Marvel has put out in the theaters – that is and remains Captain America: The Winter Soldier – but I definitely think this was one of the better ones. That said, it does have some issues that bothered me. Spoilers ahead so I’ll hide them behind the break.
First, the plot. Basically, T’Challa becomes king after beating a challenger in ritual combat, then goes to Korea to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkiss, who was a blast in this) but ultimately loses him when Killmonger (who is actually T’Challa’s cousin) liberates him. Killmonger makes his way to Wakanda after killing Klaue (to prove he’s better able to do the job) and challenges T’Challa for the throne; he wins, killing the token Obi-Wan Kenobi character (Forrest Whitaker) and seemingly killing T’Challa as well. Eventually, it is revealed that T’Challa isn’t dead and he gets better just in time to lead a counter-coup to prevent Killmonger from arming black nationalist extremists across the planet with ultratech vibranium weapons. The two men fight and T’Challa wins; alas, Killmonger dies and, in the end, T’Challa decides to reveal to the world that Wakanda isn’t a dirt poor speck of nothing in Africa (which everyone thinks it is due to advanced holographic technology.)
I was pleased that T’Challa wasn’t the usual ‘wisecracking smartass Learns A Lesson and Discovers His Place In The World’ motif. In fact, T’Challa was mostly composed and stoic, which set him apart from many of the other Marvel characters we’ve had (Captain America not included since he’s also composed and stoic.) Unfortunately, this made him less interesting than his cousin, Killmonger, whose point-of-view I could not entirely dispute even if his methods were far too extreme. He was entirely in the right when he pointed out that the world had gone to shit and Wakanda, which had the power to do something, didn’t and given his life experiences, it made perfect sense that Erik was terribly bitter. T’Challa’s sister was fairly adorkable at times (although she was the ‘wisecracking smartass’ which did start to grate a tiny bit; fortunately, the Really Bad Stuff happened then (Killmonger beating her brother in ritual combat) so she was busy grieving what she believed was the death of her brother to engage in a lot of snark-to-snark combat. I would love to see her and Tony Stark in the lab together though just to see what kind of murderbot they could design if they put their heads together. Serkis’ Klaue was hysterical and he really seemed to having a lot of fun here; I was actually quite disappointed that Killmonger murdered him, even though it made absolute sense with regards to the narrative.
Visually, the movie was extremely pretty – their use of vibrant colors, especially blue and purple were fantastic, and the clothing choices were really neat. I really like the tribal fashions we saw in Wakanda, particularly the outfits that T’Challa frequently wore when not in the BP suit.
However, it was not all perfect. Two major things leaped out at me throughout this movie. First, if Wakanda is such an advanced culture, why were they so backwards when it comes to politics? I mean, having a monarchy is fine and all, but evidently, Wakandan kings are absolute monarchs and the people are inexplicably incapable of actually disobeying an order! Case in point, when Killmonger orders them to burn the purple glowing magic herb that gives those who consume it super-powers … and they do it! This is aggressively stupid on every level, particularly since it seems to have robbed Wakanda of any future Black Panthers. And don’t get me started on the intrinsically unstable “ritual combat” that comes up when a monarch is challenged. Based on some of the clues in the movie, I gathered that the five tribes can only challenge at certain, specific moments, but members of the royal family can make a challenge at any time. How is that not a recipe for absolute disaster? Oh, right. Because Wakandans are evidently incapable of saying “No” to the king when he makes a command. A culture this advanced absolutely needs to have moved beyond the tribal mindset … and this movie shows us why.
Second, and this is more of a future issue, what exactly does T’Challa expect to happen the moment he reveals to the UN that his nation is A.) Not dirt poor but actually very technologically advanced and B.) sitting on untapped reservoirs of vibranium? I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen: war. The ‘bad actors’ on the international stage are going to come for that vibranium and they’re not going to take no for an answer. Hell, the good actors on the international stage are going to start trying to get their hands on it! For that matter, there is little chance that the other nations of Africa aren’t going to be thoroughly (and understandably) pissed at Wakanda since they’ve gone through hell and live in perpetual, crippling poverty. Meanwhile, T’Challa’s people have maglev trains in a mountain along with energy shields, flying saucers and sonic spear cannon-things. People are stupid, after all, and they like to blame others for the bad stuff that happens … and conveniently, T’Challa has just painted a big target on the backs of all Wakandan citizens.
Now, in my opinion, that would make a fascinating sequel if Marvel had the stones to tackle it without turning it into a standard Hollywood “America is the source of all evil” storyline. Imagine it: in the wake of Avengers: Infinity War (which we know will take place in Wakanda thanks to the trailers), T’Challa’s forces are devastated by the attacks of Thanos’ forces and suddenly, everyone of Wakanda’s neighboring countries see an opportunity to strike. Sure, they’re outclassed with regards to tech but they’ve got the numbers to overwhelm what appears to be just another tribal society, no matter the tech they have on-hand. So T’Challa has to deal with a brutal war, the collapse of his support back home since it’s clear that this is kind of his fault (have his sister start turning against him due to some personal trauma caused by the war – her best friend (or lover) is killed … or their mother), not to mention the political pressures from the bigger actors on the world stage to stop hording their vibranium. Naturally, since it’s a Marvel movie, there would need to be a Big Bad behind this inexplicable coalition of African nations that are attacking – a reworked Achebe would work well there, I think – but this shouldn’t be something that is just dealt with by punching it. In fact, the ideal ending would not actually entirely resolve it … I’m thinking of how Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the Marvel status quo – Surprise! SHIELD is actually Hydra!
Yeah. That’d be awesome.