Black Panther, the highest-grossing film in history with a majority black cast and crew, is also the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture.
Following his father, T’Chaka’s (John Kani) death in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir to the mantle of the Black Panther, returns to his homeland of Wakanda, a secretly hyper-advanced but isolated African nation, to become the king and rejoin his superintelligent sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his wise mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Along with his head guard Okoye (Danai Gurira), he rescues his former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from her undercover duties attempting to end human trafficking so that she can attend the ceremony. T’Challa takes on the only challenger to the throne, M’Baku (Winston Duke), and emerges victorious, but spares his life.
Meanwhile, thief and murderer of Wakandans Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) steal a weapon made from Vibranium, a near-magical metal that is found almost exclusively in Wakanda. T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) asks T’Challa to capture Klaue, who murdered W’Kabi’s parents. T’Challa captures Klaue in South Korea, but Stevens rescues him… only to kill him shortly after and present his body to W’Kabi to gain entry to Wakanda. Stevens reveals himself to be N’Jadaka, the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who betrayed Wakanda until being killed by the king. This makes Killmonger a candidate for the throne of Wakanda. He challenges T’Challa and wins, knocking T’Challa off of a waterfall.
Killmonger, now the king, prepares to distribute Wakanda’s advanced weapons to secret operatives around the world with the plan of staging insurrections to institute black supremacy in the major world powers. Shuri, Nakia, Ramonda, and CIA Agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) flee to M’Baku’s territory and find that T’Challa is alive. They give him the heart-shaped herb that powers the Black Panther and he returns. While Okoye and T’Challa’s loyalists fight W’Kabi and Killmonger’s soldiers, T’Challa and Killmonger battle, with T’Challa emerging victorious. Killmonger, mortally wounded, chooses to die rather than live in prison. T’Challa realizes that isolation from the world has weakened Wakanda and chooses to reveal the nature of the country to the United Nations.
Well, this is the first Superhero Movie to be nominated for Best Picture for Academy Award. Is it a perfect film? Well, let’s Pro-Con this.
Here’s what the movie does well: First, it features a representation of African culture that has not often been seen before, particularly the Afro-Futurist aspects. Most depictions of Africa often ignore the developed areas and instead focus on the more tribal and poor areas. Hell, most movies treat “Africa” like it’s just one country, rather than dozens of countries with wildly different cultures, something that this movie makes a point of avoiding. Even Coming to America, which does depict a similarly wealthy and powerful African country like Wakanda, doesn’t particularly have an underlying representation of the nature of different African cultures like this movie. None of this is by accident, either, as Ryan Coogler spent a lot of time and effort working symbols of various countries and groups into things ranging from backgrounds and sets to costume choices.
Second, the supporting characters in the movie are fantastic, particularly the female characters. Letitia Wright’s Shuri is the embodiment of the plucky genius to a degree that, appropriately, is usually found only in comic books. She’s been described by at least one Executive Producer as the single smartest human in the MCU, which means that she’s outclassed Bruce Banner, Hank Pym, and Tony Stark. Despite her intellect, or perhaps because of it, Shuri is one of the more relatable characters, being mostly a rebellious and creative teenager finding her place in the world. Okoye, on the other hand, is not necessarily relatable, instead being a well-crafted rendition of the Amazon archetype, a stoic warrior. However, her wonderful sense of humor keeps her from being too serious and her care for the country and the people in it make her stand out from being generic. Also, they cast Danai Gurira without having seen her in The Walking Dead, something that’s insane to me. Lupita Nyong’o is amazing, as she always is, although her character as the love interest sometimes seems a little underdeveloped, due to always sharing the scenes. In contrast, Winston Duke’s M’Baku, while he has little screen time, is well-developed because he’s always the focus.
Third, and let’s be honest about this, Killmonger is the best part of this film. It’s rare for a film to go out of its way in presenting a villain’s ideology in this way… as having so much of a point that the hero actually has to change his way of thinking in response. Throughout the movie, T’Challa, like all of the kings of Wakanda, is mired in tradition and isolation. Wakanda has never needed allies, nor has it wanted them, but this has limited their way of thinking. For example, they still use TRIAL BY COMBAT as a way to select their leaders, something that is, on every level, freaking ridiculous for a sophisticated society (as the movie even points out implicitly). Additionally, their refusal to help others has resulted in a much more awful world for everyone, particularly their neighbors. Killmonger points out that Wakanda could have helped stop the slave trade or made Africa technologically advanced enough to prevent colonial exploitation… but just chose not to because of their insular nature. Killmonger points out that they could easily have solved so many of the injustices which have been levied upon black people over the centuries which have resulted in the countries doing the exploiting gaining wealth and power… but, again, chose not to. So, he decides that it’s their obligation now to try and undo that mistake. Unfortunately, he also has a big chip on his shoulder from having his father murdered, which leads him to believe that the only just action is to literally reverse everything that has happened and create a world where black people are subjugating everyone else. Still, it’s telling that, at the end of the movie, T’Challa is forced to admit that isolation has weakened Wakanda and that things need to change.
Also, the music was great, most of the action sequences were solid, the locations were all interesting, and the writing was amazing in most of the scenes. So, yeah, lots of good stuff.
As for the things that the movie didn’t do perfectly: Pacing in the movie isn’t great. The first time I saw it I didn’t really notice, because I was kind of caught up in the clever writing, but yeah, there’s a lot of scenes in the second act that feel a little slow.
Several of the action sequences didn’t have the best CGI, particularly of T’Challa. The stunts were great, but when you do a CGI sequence in the middle of a live-action film, particularly one where the CGI figure is close to the camera, you get a lot of uncanny valley action and some of it doesn’t hold up well.
Mostly, the biggest problem with Black Panther is Black Panther. T’Challa is well portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, but the character itself is actually a little blunted because of the number of other great characters in the movie. The other problem is that he’s genuinely too overpowered in this film against anyone other than Killmonger. The armor that Shuri gives him is completely invincible against almost anything, so even during the major chase scene in Korea, T’Challa is never really at risk. Also, the final fight just isn’t that interesting, since it’s two nearly invulnerable people punching each other. The best parts of the performance are when it’s Boseman as T’Challa, not the Black Panther.
So, no, this isn’t a perfect movie. I don’t think it’s the best superhero movie of last year… in fact, I don’t think it’s the best superhero movie of last year featuring a black lead (Into the Spider-Verse takes the gold), but it’s still a good movie. Mostly, though, it’s an important movie. A few years ago, the Sony leak confirmed that, within film studios, the myth that “black films don’t travel,” i.e. that black films can’t make money internationally, was still going strong. This movie kicked that myth in the nuts. It proved that representation does not necessarily mean falling into stereotypes or trying to remove the characters from their cultural roots. It showed that a diverse cast and crew can produce a different feel to a film and that a film could address race relations within a structure of a normal action movie. If you don’t think that’s significant, let me remind you that Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to be nominated and win an Oscar, wasn’t allowed to attend the premier of Gone With the Wind due to Georgia’s segregation laws. THAT WAS IN 1940.
Overall, I don’t know that I think this movie deserves to win Best Picture, but I do think it deserved the nomination. It’s a well-done film on many levels, even if it has its flaws, and I think it represents something much bigger than itself.
One complaint I do want to address right now is that superhero films aren’t deserving of this kind of accolade. I see a lot of critics online complaining about the idea that this is “legitimizing” superhero films, which are just popcorn flicks. To that I say: Good. Legitimize them. They’re genre films with a lot of rules and shortcuts that can be taken, to be sure, but you know what else that applies to? Westerns. Mob movies. War films. All of which are constantly given critical accolades as art, when they deserve it. So, let’s encourage people to make artsier, more impacting superhero films, and stop treating them like they are just there to grab the box-office.
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