Rating: 3.5 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
After the bombing that killed his father, Prince T’Challa returns home to Wakanda both to mourn and to take his place on the throne. But first, a largely ceremonial ceremony, in which the various tribes of Wakanda are given a chance to challenge T’Challa in physical combat, with the winner becoming the new king. In fantasy stories it’s common to decide both leadership positions and guilt or innocence in a criminal trial via ritual combat—sometimes even nominating a proxy to fight on one’s behalf—and you’ll notice that in 100% of these stories, 100% of the time, it goes bad. It goes real, real bad. Bad people become leaders and bad people are declared innocent of crimes they most definitely committed. Anyway, I’m sure it’ll be fine in Wakanda. They seem like a super advanced and level-headed society.
While this is going on, a guy named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (the secret long-lost cousin of T’Challa) is working hand-in-prosthetic-hand with fun-loving gunrunner Ulysses Klaue, robbing museums of Wakandan artifacts (which are full of the miracle metal vibranium). Soon the Wakandans learn of their antics, and T’Challa travels to South Korea to confront Klaue and bring him to justice over crimes he committed in Wakanda back in the early 90s. When Killmonger, who has been looking for a way to get his foot in the door over in Wakanda, realizes they want Klaue so badly they’ll send their actual monarch to retrieve him, he decides to kill Klaue himself and hand-deliver him to the Wakandan border.
Once Killmonger arrives, he spends approximately zero seconds marveling at the sci-fi city his father once called home, and immediately asserts his right to challenge T’Challa in ritual combat for the throne (dang it, it’s going wrong here too!). I kind of thought this was only an option when the current king dies, but I guess you can just do it whenever. Of course Killmonger wins, and he orders his troops to distribute advanced Wakandan weaponry to oppressed people all over the world so they can begin overthrowing their countries’ leaders.
The supporting cast in this movie is second-to-none. Everyone is basically perfect, and I join the chorus of people wanting to see more projects with these actors and characters. Making T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri into a Q-esque super-engineer was a brilliant idea, and Letitia Wright owns the role. I like the idea of Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia as world-traveling undercover agent, doing her best to make a difference, being careful to never expose Wakanda’s status as a secret world power. And finally Danai Gurira’s Okoye, while I could have stood to see even more of her and more of the Dora Milaje, was magnetic in all her scenes.
Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is one of Marvel’s best villains to date. It’s clear this was the character that writer-director Ryan Coogler felt most invested in. It’s not by accident that he’s portrayed as growing up in Coogler’s hometown, that they’re around the same age, and that Jordan even seems to use some of Coogler’s speech patterns. Also, except for the part of about starting a violent worldwide uprising and filling the streets with blood, Killmonger is basically right. Wakanda’s refusal to use their wealth and power to help the less fortunate, instead adopting a fearful Wakanda First policy, is plainly immoral.
The set design and costume design are both stellar. It’s a consistently beautiful, colorful film.
What happened to T’Challa between Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther? When did he become so boring? He was absolutely one of the best characters in Civil War, with an amazing fighting style, a great performance, and a moving character arc. In this film, he is a bit of a blank. In any scene he shares with another character, he’s always the least interesting and least exciting person in that scene.
I really question the decision to give him essentially a magic costume. Certainly no one watching a super hero movie expects the hero to be killed, particularly in just a random action sequence, but when he can stand there and take infinite bullets to the chest without flinching, then just channel the kinetic energy into a super-punch, it robs any tension from the scene. It’s the age-old Superman problem, but the filmmakers came up with no solution for it. And since Black Panther isn’t anything like Superman, more of a cross between Captain America and Batman traditionally, it’s entirely an unforced error on their part.
And when Killmonger gets his own magic suit, the movie devolves into a lifeless CGI fistfight. The characters look so floaty and fake, especially compared to how good Black Panther looked in action back in Civil War. Plus, there is no real moment where T’Challa feels like he’s earned this victory. He lost to Killmonger in a straight fistfight earlier in the film, and the second time they fight he just doesn’t lose. Not because he had some revelation or really did anything differently. He just wins this time because it’s the end of the movie. They put a moment in where he figures out the train track will invalidate both their suits and make them both vulnerable to stabbing, and if you’re not really paying attention that can seem like he’s done something clever to enable his victory, but in fact he has just put themselves on the exact same equal footing they were when he lost to Killmonger the first time.
In the comics, Killmonger isn’t just a physical match for T’Challa, he’s also a mental one. They nod to it in the movie by saying Killmonger went to MIT, but they do nothing with that idea. This is a guy who, in the comics, nearly orchestrated a global economic collapse just to inconvenience T’Challa, whereas in the movie he doesn’t even seem to realize he could’ve went back to Wakanda any time he wanted, with or without Klaue, and just showed them his War Dog lip tattoo and his father’s ring. Instead of fighting the young, fit T’Challa, he could have challenged T’Chaka himself and got his revenge on the guy who actually murdered his father.
It’s taken as a given by everyone that a few crates of Wakandan super weapons will definitely enable the oppressed people of the world to simultaneously overthrow every government, but when an actual Wakandan civil war breaks out between the security forces and the Dora Milaje, it sure looks like they are just sort of kicking each other and hitting each other with the blunt ends of their spears.