Disclaimer: This article contains major spoilers for Marvel’s Black Panther. Read at your own discretion.
Black Panther is hailed by many as a timeless masterpiece. People call it words ranging from “revolutionary” to “spellbinding.” While I personally think that Black Panther is the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does have its share of flaws.
I have read countless reviews stating that supporting characters throughout Black Panther are treated as fully fleshed out human beings instead of caricatures. Unfortunately, I could not agree less. As a counterexample, take Erik Killmonger: somebody whose motivations make sense, somebody we can all relate to on some level. On the other side of the spectrum, lies a character by the name of Shuri. My main problem with Black Panther is that certain characters appear in the movie as a vehicle which Ryan Coogler uses to move the plot forwards. For starters, Shuri represents a #MeToo movement attempt at creating a female character with the viable potential to rule, but without fleshing out her character or actually giving her that opportunity, it ultimately falls flat.
The only facts the audience knows about Shuri are her relationship to T’Challa and her technological abilities. Instead of providing a reason the audience should care about her, Shuri is portrayed as a caricature due to her lack of a backstory. Although one could say that T’Challa doesn’t have a fleshed-out backstory, we become his reflection throughout the movie by experiencing his growth towards the path of spiritual understanding. At the end of the movie, he is finally able to come to the epiphany that isolating Wakanda’s technology from the rest of the world is an act of selfishness. However, his sister is in the movie to provide comedic effect and serve as eye candy. Nothing she does is vital to the overall plot and the story would have been the same without her.
The major problem with Black Panther is the unbalanced tone between the first and second half. Nothing makes this more evident than the decision to make the first half about a certain villain and the second half about another. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Ulysses Klaue is interesting and eccentric. Having said that, Klaue is not an interesting character. Two traits make a good villain: a fleshed-out backstory and reasonable motivations. Klaue has none of these since the audience is unable to relate to him or understand where he is coming from. The first half is overblown with exposition and unnecessary action sequences which hinder the plot from developing further. It almost seems as if Coogler pitched two ideas then combined them into one film. Having said that, the film completely transforms once Killmonger reaches Wakanda. Michael B. Jordan’s performance elevates his character into a tragic hero; one whose story is routed in losing a loved one to murder. The second half of the film becomes a character study about revenge, hate, and what the loss of innocence can trigger inside a human being.
Like most Marvel films, this one also suffers from the third act battle sequence. While there are some stunning visuals in play (such as T’Challa and Killmonger fighting inside the vibranium mines), some useless elements are also introduced. For some reason unbeknownst to me, action movies feel the need to include some larger than life creature during the culminating battle between good and evil. In this case, Coogler chooses armored rhinoceros which W’Kabi introduces into the battle. Other than killing some people we as an audience were never introduced to, they simply provide a distraction for people to stare at while the main action is taking place. This is a scene which should have been focused on Erik Killmonger and T’Challa battling each other. Even though the audience does in fact get this, everything becomes predictable once Coogler jumps into formulaic territory. The good guy wins and the bad guy loses. Although Killmonger delivers the movie’s most emotionally powerful and resonant line (“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”) when T’Challa offers to heal him and keep him prisoner while watching the Wakandan sunset, I could not help but think that this ending was the easy way out. If Killmonger managed to quite literally obliterate T’Challa during the waterfall fight, how did T’Challa win in the end? I guess the answer relates back to making the superhero win since a loss would mean no Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War. I might never know.
Although Black Panther excels in world building, providing stunning visuals, and creating the most effective MCU villain to date, it also fails in some respects. This is a film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time since it gives a voice to those who have been silenced by their oppressors. Yet when analyzing such movie, we as a community must also understand that masterpieces can sometimes have flaws. At the end of the day, that is okay.