Why ‘Black Panther’ Is Just Short of Being a Truly Great Movie

by Simon Williams on February 16, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Okay so Black Panther is one of those films that’s near pointless for me to actually write about as most people will see it anyway and won’t listen to me and my opinions on it. Not only is the film a Disney/Marvel Studios superhero project, it is the first of that franchise/subgenre to have a black main cast and director, it is the first film adaptation of an always popular if underreported comic character and … it’s pretty good.

Most people who read this review will already have seen the film or at least have read about it by this point and anybody going into this piece of mine will be going in with an opinion at least somewhat formed. It also doesn’t help that partially out of the film’s very being as Black African Superhero Project made by a black filmmaker as well as a marketing campaign focusing on representation over the film itself and suddenly Black Panther has become the biggest cultural thing of the moment and I’m just the random white dude #4097 on the Internet writing about it, and really what do I have to say that you haven’t heard or thought already?

For those very few of you making the mistake of reading me as your first bit of Black Panther-centric media I will preface everything I have to say with this: it’s good. It’s well acted, well shot, the pacing is snappy and the action is fun and effective. Ryan Coogler is a damn good filmmaker and he continues to be here. It’s also shot by recently Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison who is one of the most interesting DPs working today. I will also say it handles several real-world issues with a bluntness and a deftness that is admirable.

However.

This isn’t the kind of review where I come in and help rejoice in the moment of a great new cultural moment. This is the kind of review where I get hate messages for months moving forward.

Black Panther is a massive, grandiose epic with an enormous cast that actively tackles black identity, the horrors of colonialism and the ever-changing politics of what race even is. This is a vast, deep film with tons to talk about and handles most of its ideas with quite a lot of grace. It is also about 45 minutes too short to give a lot of those ideas the time they need to be fully explored and okay I said it. There, you happy?

Writing this I feel like I’m actively ruining the party. The general outlook on this thing isn’t just that it’s good but rather it’s a masterpiece of modern action filmmaking and … I’m just not there. Listen, if you think it’s amazing, good. But if you want to hear some criticisms of WHAT I DO BELIEVE to be a genuinely good and intelligent film, please bear with me as I go point-by-point through things I feel don’t totally work.

Cool?

Cool. (Spoilers below.)

The cast is massive. Too massive, for the one film with its current runtime. Not to say anyone gives a bad performance but many characters are deeply underserved by their lack of screen time. Forrest Whitaker and Angela Bassett are the obvious points here for me. Whitaker’s death and identity reveal don’t end up having a modicum of the weight they need because we have only spent around 10 minutes with him thus far. Bassett also suffers as her role becomes fairly one-dimensional, and is given almost no time to grieve her husband, instead spending what little time she has doting on T’Challa or fading in the background as Letitia Wright walks away with the rest of the film.

We also do not get anywhere near the time we need with Killmonger. Michael B. Jordan is great in the role but the character is barely given a moment to breathe and the vast majority of his backstory is depicted through dialogue that flies across in seconds. His first scene, taking place in the museum of London, is easily my favorite in the film and shows a wickedly intelligent and ruthless character with a sense of humor and an easily identifiable agenda, and his relationship with Andy Serkis’ Claue is instantly striking, engaging and clearly wrong. It’s great. He doesn’t have another single scene to develop his character until the third act. I would have done anything for more dissections of his character. Just dialogue scenes with Claue and his “Bonnie” would have worked miracles in expounding upon what could have easily been the best character in the film. It also would have made his killing of the two far more shocking and exhilarating.

Thinking of it, why do we let Martin Freeman off the hook for so much? From dialogue we can easily glean that he is firmly aware of and has probably partaken in the same amount of violent nation-destroying as Killmonger, but we just kind of roll with him because he’s nice? He gets called “Colonizer” a few times but never has to face up to his own acts of destruction.

The films biggest emotional beats are also, consistently, telegraphed to hell. We know T’Challa isn’t going to die. We know Killmonger is going to turn out to be one of those boys from the intro. We know M’Baku (who is, admittedly, a goddamn scene-stealer with a bawdy, funny performance by Winston Duke) is going to come back and save the day at the last minute. The machinations of the plot end up being revoked of their power.

None of these are large enough problems to tank the film if you discuss the film as another in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re universal, accessible action flicks that are just smart and well made enough to rise above most of the modern blockbuster chaff. But Black Panther doesn’t seem interested in being a Marvel film at all. At the end of the day, it wants to be the African Lawrence of Arabia. There’s far more of Shakespeare than of Steve Ditko to this thing, and when you’re working on that wavelength, it doesn’t help to ignore the small stuff.

The chief conflict of the film is that of two different concepts of being an activist. On one end there is Killmonger, who espouses a politik of revenge and blood. Equanimity comes from one’s ability to reach the top of the totem pole yourself rather than from sharing the wealth. T’Challa, on the other end, representing a message of understanding and education. Equanimity achieved through education rather than violence. This is a conversation we do indeed have today but in the context of the film this means almost nothing as Killmonger is so clearly the villain and his mindset so clearly wrong. I ask you, what if we were forced to see his point? More than just saying he’s fighting for all his brothers and sisters, show us. Show us his own life and why he joined the military. Show us why his anger bubbled over from cultural stigma to real action. Don’t give us the same easy outs we get in all of these films with contrivances and telegraphed plots.

I admit, I think the film I want Black Panther to be may not have been the goal of its makers. I don’t as much want the film changed as I do expounded upon. Keep the film as is, just add about 45 minutes of material. More conversations of the deeper topics the film wishes to explore. More time with the vivid supporting cast. I also admit I really wanted about 15 minutes after the final action sequence of nothing more than one-on-one debates between T’Challa and Killmonger about their differing approaches to activism. I want it to be less a Marvel action film and rather a three-hour political epic, and I understand if everyone else thinks I’m insane for that. However I maintain that, for my money, every point I make here is valid criticism. I like Black Panther a lot, but it’s not quite a masterpiece, and it wouldn’t have taken much more to make it one. And that’s a shame.

[Rating: A hesitant Solid Rock Fist Up that kinda wants to be more.]

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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