Black Panther is beautiful, boring, and bad. Everything rich and colorful and magnificent—costumes, scenery, torsos—is ruined by prodigiously inept writing and astonishingly smug racism with a generous dose of heavy-handed moralizing.
If the filmmakers had reserved just a tiny bit of the cash dumped on marketing this mediocre film out of its ever-loving mind, and spent that money on a quick script touch-up and firing composer Johann Görannson completely, then at least it would have had a shot at being a compelling, well-structured action flick with a soundtrack actually worth buying. But it still wouldn’t be a good one. Because while Black Panther may not play the race/victim card as loudly as it could have, its deafeningly silent sneak attack is far more effective.
Two hours later, I’d forgotten I’d even watched it. I had to regurgitate this tasteless mess just to get here. So let’s break it down and then forget about it.
The babbling and shapeless Act I delivers scene after scene with no bullseye. What’s the story about? What’s at stake? What does the hero want—not just in this scene, but for the next two hours? T’Challa freezes in front of his old girlfriend, wanders through a coronation, sorta wins an okay fight (I guess), and generally piddles around before finally gaining traction with an actual plot. The story doesn’t even try to begin until about 30 minutes in when it announces the bad guy (at the London museum heist), but then banishes him again till way too late.
Correction: the bad guy is technically announced in the very first scene (when T’Challa’s father and uncle face off in Oakland), but I refuse to give credit for this because it was a confusing episode with zero emotional impact since we don’t have a clue who people are or why we should give a darn. Opening scenes are supposed to light the powder keg. Even if you don’t understand what’s going on, you shouldn’t be able to look away. But Black Panther’s launch is a dangling modifier. Annoying and rootless.
In fact, 90% of the scenes in the movie’s first half exist primarily for the sake of scenes in the second half, instead of containing value and moving the story forward in their own right. For example, the king’s ritual of visiting his ancestors, instead of being explained and anticipated (Does T’Challa want to be king? Why does he look so doubtful? Does he look forward to asking his father a particular question?) exists almost purely for the sake of its echoes: Killmonger visiting his father, and T’Challa visiting his father again.
Similarly, the ritual combat takes place chiefly so we understand the tradition by the time Killmonger issues his own challenge—but pops up out of nowhere with no sense of foreboding (Will anyone challenge the king tomorrow? Without the Black Panther’s powers, will he be able to defeat the challengers?) and is almost completely tension-free. We never doubt for a second that T’Challa will win. The whole scene rushes through the motions because the real point is an an hour later. That’s like scurrying through David & Goliath because the ultimate triumph is years later when the Son of David beats the Devil. Um, can’t a Marvel movie scrounge up enough awesome for more than one fight?
This is sheer bad story mechanics. All of these (and other) critical plot points should have been given more context, more explanation. Each scene should be its own miniature, attention-grabbing, love-demanding movie: hook, coil, spring, bullseye, release. The delight when we realize these scenes also laid groundwork for major game-changers should be echo-lovely. Not <yawn> “I guess that’s why they stuck that in there the first time.”
I’ll grant you two and a half good scenes: the hilarious sister showing off her tech (T’Challa also gets a rare shot of personality), the two ritual combat sequences that together amount to a single good one, and a few moments here and there: Martin Freeman reclaiming the cockpit, T’Challa taking his dying cousin to breathe his last with a view of his homeland, and dead King T’Chaka’s warning to his son: “It is hard for a good man to be king.”
As for the rest, there is zero memorable action. I’ve already seen the casino bust in James Bond’s Skyfall, I’ve seen better car chases in literally every other movie—snazzy remote technology notwithstanding—and the climactic battle is nondescript at every turn with ludicrous stakes thrown in last-minute (“Don’t let those three ships outa here or the world will end!”). I’m not even sure how we got here. Can a long-lost Americanized Wakandan seriously show up, win a fight, announce a preposterously murderous plan, and gain overnight support from nearly the entire nation, no questions asked? Would those soldiers honestly fight their brothers and sisters in a giant civil war the next day? This twist works only with an army of mindless robots—which is exactly what we get.
And that brings us to characters.
A Bevy of Bland, Unappreciated Friends & Foes
Black Panther has a grand total of two and a half decently memorable characters: T’Challa’s sister (cutest Q. ever, but seriously, how many hats does she wear?), Andy Serkis, and half the bad guy.
I’m truly grateful for Killmonger, unequivocally Marvel’s best villain since Loki. In fact, he is Loki: an orphaned boy in line to a throne, deeply wronged by those closest to him, unloved by those who should have loved him most, now hell-bent on vengeance against the entire planet for his slights (real and imagined). Played by the exceptionally well-cast Michael B. Jordan with all the right swagger and charisma, Killmonger towers above an exhausting multitude of mind-numbingly dumb Marvel villains. But he is largely wasted. After ignoring him for far too long, the movie scrambles to usher him in, then just as quickly kills him off. Is it just me, or might Killmonger have made a valuable contribution to the next Avengers? (Having said that, don’t you dare bring him back. Let your dead be dead and your alive be alive.)
Okoye (Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) is fairly well developed, but her embittered, traitorous lover (Daniel Kaluuya) makes precious little sense. (It takes more work to plausibly twist a Sam Gamgee into a Boromir.) Lupita N’yongo is almost completely unexplored, but apparently she gets a free pass because any girl who says “no” to a guy for the sake of her career is CLEARLY developed enough.
Martin Freeman gets handed the unenviable role of bumbling white guy surrounded by black geniuses. He manages to steal a few scenes towards the end, but only because he becomes more like his new black friends. Seriously, if the races were swapped, the world would be outraged at the injustice paid to the solitary black character surrounded by superior whites. How on earth is this fair? Or interesting?
But T’Challa is the worst. The greatest victim of the movie’s insipid meandering is him. This king might be rich in vibranium but he’s a pauper in personality. He’s a half-cooked stew: all the ingredients are there, but the cook stopped shaking the spices way too soon.
First, if T’Challa doubts his abilities (every hero does at the outset), doubt more. Explain why these are particularly big shoes for him to fill—don’t make the audience do the work of filling in the backstory, assuming “Oh, I’m sure taking the throne must be daunting for anyone.” Explain why it is daunting for him.
Second, if his love life has a complicated past, bring it in! What happened between him and Nakia? Were they ever officially together? Why did they break up? Whatever happened, don’t be so tight-lipped! Let it out.
Third, and most importantly (because this is THE story), if T’Challa is outraged, explain why. Unless I missed something, we don’t even know he had an uncle until it is helpfully explained in a giant information dump of implausible plot twists: His undercover uncle betrayed his country and was unfortunately (but justly) dispatched by none other than T’Challa’s father who then abandoned T’Challa’s innocent young cousin to a disjointed life in unhappy white America in order to keep Wakanda’s prosperity a secret because there was NO WAY he could have risked whisking a single boy away after an entire basketball court of middle-school kids HAVE ALREADY SEEN HIS SHIP IN THE SKY.
Two problems here. 1) The screenwriters bully T’Challa’s father into an out-of-character blunder because, well, they must explain how Killmonger became Killmonger—spurning a myriad of better explanations for leaving a boy behind to grow up into a bitter man. 2) Do you see now the importance of explaining that opening scene? T’Challa should have grown up with either a tragedy or a mystery hanging over him—some reference to a cousin who, alas, died at the same time as the uncle, or a burning question of what happened to that boy who vanished the same night as his father…? This is super basic story-prep that should have come in the film’s first 20 minutes and that (coincidentally) would have jazzed up the soporific coronation and combat sequences a ton.
Don’t Waste Your Money Buying a Soundtrack They Clearly Paid Very Little For
I’ve got no comment on Kendrick Lamar’s much-worshipped rap contributions, but Ludwig Göransson’s original score is a heinous loser. What happened to The Lion King? This is Africa, people! Not just Africa, but Wakanda, supposedly grand in every way.
Göransson goes for a marriage of authentic African and superhero cinematic. He nails the first and bombs the second. The rousing songs don’t rouse. They don’t shape action, or build emotion, or assist with scene transitions. And MERCY, what’s with that prima donna violin with the awkward melody and ghastly timing? During the first ancestor scene, I seriously thought the violinist had walked out of his orchestra pit and moseyed on set to insistently serenade at T’Challa’s elbow. (Watch for a particularly intense close-up of T’Challa’s face, and just when you’re starting to connect with the emotion of the scene…NEENER NEENER comes the violin.) I snorted and had to hold my eyes inside my head to keep them from rolling around the room.
So far, we’ve covered failures easily fixable by screenplay edits and replacing Johann Göransson with Hans Zimmer. But Black Panther’s chief crime is more than money can repair. It requires a worldview shift.
Apparently, the Color of Your Skin Is the Content of Your Character
Let me show you how Black Panther props up a 100% non-existable country to promote its own racist gospel.
You’ve seen the meme. Objection: “Wakanda doesn’t exist.” Retort: “Neither does Hogwarts.” Okay, I get it. It’s entirely asinine to sneer at Black Panther simply because it features a fake country. I completely agree. Fiction is meant to be “the lie that tells the truth.”
But I would like to repeat the objection with a different application. Wakanda doesn’t exist. No, seriously, it doesn’t. It wouldn’t and couldn’t. As one insightful critic points out: “Wakanda can’t exist, not owing to any inherent flaw in Africans, but because of the inherent flaws of human beings.” Sorry, but wealth and resources and ancestor-worship just don’t result in utopia. Certainly not a utopia spanning centuries. Grab a history book. Flip to almost any page in the Old Testament. The most glorious, high-tech empires—apart from the gospel—wither within a few hundred years. And they aren’t righteous and brotherhoody in the meantime. They are bloody, brutal, and depraved.
Yet, untouched by anything white or Western, Wakanda is presented as practically perfect. The point is clear: Black culture is the ideal, while white culture ruins everything. Furthermore, the weaknesses that Wakanda does have strikingly mirror those of America, which is what gives Black Panther ample opportunity to preach longwindedly on immigration, open borders, foreign wars, civil rights, and even gender “discrimination” in the workplace (all the elite soldiers, surgeons, and inventors are women).
I’m all for Marvel tackling relevant political issues (the way Captain America: Civil War takes on the question of freedom vs. big government), but Black Panther gives voice to almost every single Left-wing hissy fit in a distracted attempt to SAY EVERYTHING IN ONE MOVIE. The sheer effort required to shoehorn everything into the space of two hours is positively herculean, I’ll give it that. But it’s so much too much. On top of that, they’re wrong.
The entire movie doesn’t prove but rather assumes white guilt—not just for black troubles, but for every trouble in the world. “White culpability for global inequality is accepted without question by protagonist and antagonist alike,” as noted in one astute review. Whites are the root evil to every mishap—even and especially helping to create Killmonger, who rages against his family for abandoning him to drastically unfair life in the “racist” US.
Note carefully: Killmonger isn’t challenged for assuming that his troubles are white westerners’ fault. He is challenged because his solution to flip the tables is wrong (true that). T’Challa’s sole objection to Killmonger’s solution is that it is inverted racism, which is no solution at all. Kudos for hitting this particular nail on the head, but Killmonger’s problematic premise remains alive and kicking. The entire assumption must be torn down.
Guys, the current status of racism in the US is far too big an issue to debate thoroughly here, so let me skip to the truth of the matter: America is not a racist country. Did it used to be? Yes, especially in the Northern states (which I’ve written about here and here). Are there individual racists? Sure. Are there disastrously unfair deaths of blacks at the hands of white cops? Yes. But the rabid emotional hoopla has pushed America into such a tizzy of white guilt that we are tipping in the opposite direction into reverse racism.
Suppose (more than likely) I get called a racist not because I claim in this critique that whites are better than blacks (in the name of Christ who bled for all men, I do not), but simply because I’m white. Who just skipped logic, looked at my skin, and jumped to a slanderous conclusion? But it happens all the time. Trying to watch the news without getting hit with another “racist” accusation is like trying to go swimming without getting wet.
Thus Black Panther squanders its shot at a perfectly good story and wastes its hugely talented cast by using said cast as a get-out-of-jail-free card to deliver a PC gospel. Why? Because they know that anybody who objects to the film’s message or critiques its technical weaknesses will promptly be labeled racist. Cheap is the victory won only because your opponent isn’t allowed to fight back.
Ironically, the movie becomes guilty of the very sin it claims to oppose. It sides with its own villain. Black Panther is the biggest Killmonger of them all.