Black Panther: A Revolution Strangled by a Formula
I wrote an article last week, prior to Black Panthers release, discussing the prelude of hype leading up to the movie, and how I, as a Black man, am supposed to feel about the movie. Here’s my followup:
I am proud to say that I saw Black Panther on its opening day; as did many, many others. Now that I’ve seen it and had a week to think about it, I feel like I can finally form an actual opinion on what the film was, instead of just what the film was supposed to be.
I’ll summarize my feelings of Black Panther as a film by saying I liked everything outside of the Marvel trappings. I liked when they showed characters having conversations, I liked the plot and the Afrofuturism of it all, I thought the production was on point, and I thought the entire opening sequence was well executed and exciting. At the same time, I didn’t feel the weight of the conflict or the characters. I thought the action scenes were just alright with a very typical Marvel climax, and I feel like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was a strong, but ultimately underexplored as well as an overly familiar antagonist. Overall, it was more of the same, and I have no problem with that. I do, however, rank this among Marvel’s best films, easily. It was good, and exactly what most of us expected it to be as a film. Yet, instead of offering a review of the film, I want to review the phenomenon and determine if Disney was right for the way it handled Black Panther as a milestone film. Caution: There will likely be spoilers from here on out.
First and foremost is the issue of race. This film was embraced as revolutionary before anyone had even seen it, and I didn’t fully understand why for reasons I mentioned before. One review site described Black Panther’s revolution aptly as “a long road from Uncle Remus to King T’Challa.” For those that don’t know, Uncle Remus was one of Disney’s previous attempts at a leading Black character from the film Song of the South. He’s a problematic, southern Black caricature that Disney still won’t pull out of that vault of theirs. Through that lens, the hype around Black Panther makes sense. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a better Black character, hero, and role model for modern audiences, obviously. However, he doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In addition to existing after other Black-led projects, gave Disney enough confidence to move forward with this film. T’Challa is still part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and held back because of it.
All things considered, Disney handled the race issue in Black Panther as well as I think it could have while still pulling off a family-friendly blockbuster. Like Disney’s animated hit, Zootopia, there was a sense that the characters in Black Panther were motivated by their race and culture. It addresses the issues of being displaced and honoring a culture that was taken by others. Like Zootopia, it all worked to critique systemic, commonplace racism. Unfortunately, the only character who actually examined the issue of racism head-on was the genocidal Killmonger. All of the heroic characters were lukewarm or ignorant toward any racism in the world, living in a secluded paradise.
I didn’t want Black Panther to be a film where the main conflict was simply being Black. At the same time, I don’t think linking frustration over racism with a psychopath, and suggesting that the way minorities want to overcome racism is by inciting a bloody, global race war was the right way to go. That shortcoming is exacerbated by the fact that, despite all the lip service, there aren’t any actual displays of racial tension in the film as far as I can remember. Instead, it all comes secondhand from Killmonger, and the ultimate solution is for T’Challa and his kingdom of Wakanda to stop worrying about preserving their culture, to offer their resources to the rest of the world. I would have felt better about T’Challa’s decision if it was reached by him actually interacting with the rest of the world’s governments as a king rather than just because he’s the helpful hero.
T’Challa isn’t represented much as a king because it’s a Marvel film; the focus had to be put on action scenes in Korean casinos instead of how the society of Wakanda actually functions. T’Challa is a very cool superhero, but I never really understood his relationship with his people outside of his inner circle. For me, every scene of T’Challa meeting with the other tribe leaders brought back memories of the Jedi council scenes in the Star Wars prequels. I didn’t leave the theater fully understanding how Wakanda functions, so the decision to bring Wakanda into contact with the outside world didn’t feel like a major one. I think Marvel missed the chance to give us a Black hero who was a true social leader because they spent too much time making sure the film never let the audience’s adrenaline level drop. I know that a large portion of director Ryan Coogler’s vision was left out to keep the film tight and exciting. So, I will again chalk this up to Marvel adhering too closely to its formulaic pacing and action climaxes.
Similarly, Killmonger is a good villain and the most interesting character in the film, but he too is trapped in a Marvel film. Like many other villains in the MCU, he is underused and forced into the position of being the dark version of T’Challa who gets taken out in a fairly standard final battle. The nuance of what he is trying to do is lost because Killmonger needs to present a conflict that requires a superhero to stop. That all represents a larger problem with the film. No matter what strides it makes, it’s still a Marvel film. Unlike what Fox did with Deadpool and Logan, and what it’s doing with The New Mutants; Marvel doesn’t take as many chances, generally. Black Panther wasn’t a film that needed to end with the heroes shooting down hi-tech airships to save the world, but that’s what Marvel does. It tried to tell a small story in a large framework, but that small story covered big issues tucked away in the background. This is a film I like a lot, rather than a film I love because it is stuck in the mold of a Marvel superhero film.
Black Panther is a beast of two natures. On one hand, it is a manufactured product from Disney/Marvel that is meant for mass consumption. On the other, it is a social event that’s meant to signal a new age of progress. As much as I would like to say it’s just a film and judge it by the merits of filmmaking, I know that would be pointless because of those two facts. Whether it’s as important as media outlets are making it seem, and whether or not that importance forgives its formulaic flaws is a question that I can’t answer for anyone but myself.
I honestly liked Black Panther, but only as much as I can like another Marvel film at this point. A few of the characters–Killmonger, Winston Duke’s scene-stealing M’Baku, and Danai Gurira’s Okoye–were huge standouts that I’ll remember more than the film itself in a couple of weeks. I think that should be fine, but when every news site and the creators themselves are saying it’s a revolution for race relations, I feel underwhelmed. Yes, Black representation in the media started out pretty damn problematic. However, since then we’ve already been superheroes in film and in TV, we’ve been superstars, civic leaders and regular leads in different genres. If anything, Black Panther is the current sum of progress rather than the major progress in itself. The accomplishment isn’t so much that there’s a Black hero, it’s that Disney finally realized that having a Black hero film, backed by a largely Black cast and a young Black director is something enough people are okay with to make a successful blockbuster film. I don’t think Black Panther should be taken as the revolution itself, but I do think it’s a perfect emblem for how far we’ve all been progressing. I’m glad it’s here, and I’m glad it’s one of the MCU’s best films. Maybe now there can be films of other minority heroes without pushback as to whether or not people will pay to see them.