Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.
Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.
This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.
Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.
They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood) plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis (War, Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker (Phenomenon, Rogue One, The Crying Game) plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Marshall) has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.
With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.
For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or Trump White House.
Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.
Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?
A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’
Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.