Question Club: The best and worst parts of Black Panther
Over the weekend, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest installment, Black Panther, opened to record box office. It’s something new for Marvel: a movie with a largely black cast, helmed by a black director, and set in a fictional African country, where the vivid art, costume, and makeup designs were all inspired by real-world African tribal traditions. Critical and fan response has been almost universally positive and enthusiastic.
The film is part of a necessary retrenching for Marvel movies. The all-hero battles of Captain America: Civil War, and the galactic adventures of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor: Ragnorak, are leading up to the Infinity War saga, but for Marvel to keep putting out two or three superhero movies a year, some of them have to drop down to a smaller scale. Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther limits the focus to a hero fighting his own local, personal battles: in this case, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, facing a threat to his rule and to his technologically hyper-advanced kingdom of Wakanda. We sat down to discuss the film’s story focus, its look, its frustrating flaws, and its heady successes. Warning: spoilers ahead.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE SCALE OF THIS STORY?
Chaim: Not only did the smaller scale work for me, I think Black Panther (and hopefully, other movies like it) represents the only viable way forward for Marvel. You can only go so much bigger, and the dangerously-close-to-overstuffed Avengers: Infinity War, which will feature practically every person who has ever been in one of these films, is more or less it. Bringing the lens in closer and just telling T’Challa’s story, as opposed to the more expanded “the entire fate of the world / galaxy / universe is at stake!” felt right to me.
Tasha: I agree that the lens needs to refocus down to the individual hero level for these stories to continue, and examining the hero of a completely isolated country is a particularly smart way to start. The one place that aspect didn’t really work for me was in the climax, where I just didn’t properly feel the threat coming off this handful of ships flying out of Wakanda, and getting shot down video-game-style by fancied-up drone pilot Martin Freeman. The film worked better for me when it was about the personal stakes of T’Challa’s family and friends not wanting to be ruled by this hostile stranger. The threat to the world felt comparatively abstract. I’m not sure why Marvel still thinks it needs this “threat to the entire world” aspect to give a movie stakes. Black Panther already has plenty of personal stakes before the ships go up.
Chaim: Right, “Oh by the way, if you don’t shoot down these three ships, the world will end” did feel tacked-on, and the threat of the Wakandan War Dogs destabilizing world governments was never tangible enough to be concerning.
Bryan: The ships did feel shoehorned in as if the studio thought they needed to satisfy a certain contingent of Marvel fans with the traditional approach. But that was a small price to pay for a film that didn’t have some mysterious alien creature yet again destroying some planet / world / universe yet again, until our costumed heroes could stop them yet again. (Now that I write that, I’m realizing just how tired I’ve become of the established Marvel movie formula.)
Black Panther worked not just because it was different in scale, but because the stakes were so incredibly personal, with so much modern thematic resonance. Michael B. Jordan’s villain, Erik Killmonger, carries the fury and outrage of slavery. T’Challa struggles with the realization that his own father raised him with lofty ideals, then betrayed them. It’s incredibly easy to relate to the anger and confusion of both characters, and for that reason alone, I was more invested than I’d been in a Marvel film in years. I’ll be a lot happier as a moviegoer if future entries in the franchise learn the lessons Black Panther teaches.