Black Panther’s Missed Opportunities
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
I finally got the chance to see Black Panther two weeks after its initial release. I loved it. I knew I would. I wasn’t a huge reader of the comic but I have always loved the character and the book’s world. Wakanda is a badass place and central to the Marvel Universe. I loved the character’s involvement in Captain America: Civil War and knew the Black Panther’s own movie would be exciting.
Like most everyone else who saw it or has written a review on it, I am thrilled, and not surprised, that a film with an almost all black cast, and a black director would be the gigantic hit it is with audiences and critics alike. It proves a lot to the Hollywood establishment in a lot of different ways. It’s similar to how Wonder Woman proved itself. Hollywood doesn't need white men on a poster to make money. So, right on.
But despite the incredible cinematography and thrilling action scenes and beautiful costume design and magnificent acting, I was disappointed that the film missed some storytelling opportunities. They seemed obvious to me, so I was surprised director Ryan Coogler, writers Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and producer Kevin Feige didn’t seize them.
One of the great things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) comes from the Thor and Captain America storylines. With these, we avoid the Bad Guy of the Week trope in Loki and The Winter Soldier. They are both bad guys, sometimes turned allies of Thor, Cap., and The Avengers. Loki and The Winter Soldier are complex characters that, had they been killed off in their first movies, would have caused the MCU to lose exciting characters we care about and important story plot fuel cells. When Black Panther killed Eric "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the franchise lost the ability to build on an important relationship between T’Challa — Black Panther’s real name (Chadwick Boseman) — and his cousin, Killmonger.
Part of what makes Black Panther such a great film is that the conflict is one of realistic proportions. The goal is not save the world, but save a country, a people, a way of life, and then once saved, figure out what to do with that country’s ability to help others. There’s a secondary conflict, which enriches the film, and that is the conflict of family and self. Killmonger got the wrong end of the deal and it upset Black Panther. T’Challa is angry that his late father left family behind in America all those years ago. As a result, Eric grows up angry and ready to destroy everything Wakanda stands for. T'Chaka's abandonment of his young nephew gives birth to Killmonger. This is a real human issue set against the imagination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with wild weapons and kickass acrobatics.
If Killmonger had lived, subsequent Black Panther movies would have established relationships and stakes to build upon and heighten. Killmonger and Panther could team up to fight an outside enemy; Killmonger could betray Panther; Panther could flirt with coming to Killmonger's side of things. This is not unlike what happens between half-brothers Thor and Loki. I don’t want to rehash used plot lines, but I would have liked to see these characters continue their fight and hash out their differences while discovering new similarities. All the best heroes and villains do this. X-Men and Magneto, Superman and Lex Luthor, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder...
Jordan was a great Killmonger. He’s a great actor. He would have brought so much more to the franchise had he not been killed off in the final fight scene. I could watch Jordan and Boseman go at it for another two Panther movies easily. Alas…
Got plans this afternoon? Let's have a civil war
The momentary civil war in Wakanda when Killmonger claimed the throne didn’t make sense. It seemed to be the studio's excuse to create a sprawling fight scene, which is fun to watch but hurt the storyline. I understand that the people need to be loyal to their king, regardless of who sits on the throne. Hell, that’s a problem with monarchy. It seemed to me that the division between W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), and their respective teams occurred too fast and broad.
I recognize that a movie can only be so long, but there wasn’t enough hand-wringing debate before W’Kabi’s people and Okoye’s people set out to kill one another. The “Wakanda forever” idea was quickly cast aside until W’Kabi, using an armored super rhinoceros to plow through his countrymen comes horn to face with Okoye — his lover, mind you. W'Kabi asks her if she'd really kill him, and she replies — I'm paraphrasing here — “For Wakanda, I would not hesitate.” This apparently reminds him of his country's motto and way of life, which he cast aside a day before, causing him to drop his sword, and his people immediately follow suit. So now the civil war is over and everyone is cool again, I guess. Maybe the Black Panther sequel will show the awkwardness this battle caused when the unified country buries its dead.
This writing belongs more in a DC movie than in a Marvel movie. Because DC movies suck. And they suck because of lazy writing like this.
Foreplay is for chumps
The final missed opportunity I found in Black Panther was in the mid-credits scene. The MCU has done a great job of teasing the next film or things to come with these scenes. In Iron Man, the scene teased us about The Avengers. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, we learned that the Vulture might be back and that Scorpion could be the next movie’s villain. This was great because it also hinted that Spider-Man’s enemies are going to go after Peter Parker, which has always been at the heart of what made Spidey’s comic books so exciting, and the stakes so high.
In Black Panther, however, the mid-credits scene shows us what we already know, what we just saw in the film’s final scene; that T’Challa will no longer be selfish and that Wakanda will no longer be an isolationist nation. We see it more formally at the U.N. Here. Coogler could have teased us with the next Panther film, or something new about Avengers: Infinity War. If Jordan’s Killmonger had been left alive, we could have seen him preparing his next play.
The final gripe I have with Black Panther is not a gripe about Black Panther as much as it is with the MCU. Black Panther’s suit has always been an acknowledgement of how advanced Wakanda tech is. In this film, they improve on it by making it reminiscent of an Iron Man suit in that it’s less tangible with tech, and more tech you can touch. We saw this with Spider-Man: Homecoming, though, here it was used as a plot device. Every character in the MCU doesn’t have to have an Iron Man-like suit to make them near invincible. It feels like pandering. We love our Iron Man, so MCU is giving us some version of him in every film he’s not featured in. It’s not a big deal, just something I noticed.
I haven’t read a ton of reviews on Black Panther. I don’t know if I’m the first to have any negative criticism of the film, but I assume I’m among the few, if any. And that’s OK. I’ve never been comfortable in a crowd. Still, I’m excited to watch this movie again and again and again, because despite these missed opportunities to improve the storytelling and arc of the character, Black Panther was a great film. And it was marvelous to see Gurira being bold and kicking ass with fervor instead of moping around as she often does as Michonne in The Walking Dead. Goddamn, why do I still watch that show?
Yeah, Wakanda forever.