Hidden Utopias – Black Panther

After 2017’s hatrick of top quality flicks, not to mention their most anticipated movie now more than a month away from release, Black Panther could have quiet easily gotten away with being nothing more than a filler piece of fluff. Fortunate for all, the MCU’s 18th installment is a sharp slice of thrilling entertainment. Flaws can be found throughout, however top characters, delicious visuals and politically charged storytelling keep this feature moving at an energetic pace from start to finish. 

To start, let’s take a look at the more superficial aspects. Marvel’s 2017 line-up included the aesthetic fun houses in the form of Sakaar and Ego the Living Plane. Following up with a world as stimulating in design wasn’t exactly an easy feat. Nonetheless Wakanda is a visual delight; a lavish fictitious city fashioned from a variety of African cultural aspects integrated into a futuristic setting. Whether it’s the attire, architecture, weaponry or even the diegetic soundtrack contributing to Black Panther’s atmospheric qualities; all is taken from a variety of tribes and areas belonging to that of both the African continent and diaspora. The final result is an optical wonderland in the form of afro-future as dazzling as it is dissimilar from the usual Blade Runner inspired landscapes polluting contemporary cinema. 

Admittedly the optical delights of Wakanda do fall short in several respects. Whereas it’s a joy to take in all the unique visuals and impressive technological tools (most notably the sand sculpted holograms), its presence serves a decorative purpose more so than a world-building one. We may well get glances into the kingdom of Wakanda and some of the surrounding tribes, except these moments are limited. Sure, the flaws of T’Chaka’s father and the royal institution he’s inherited play a vital part in the film’s dramatic beats, but we don’t get to explore the shortcomings of this world any further. Likewise, it’s all good and well getting to see parts of the Jabari tribe, although we never find out all that much about who they are or what their lives are like. 

Many of the exclusive environments established in Black Panther act as flashy backdrops more than they do windows into a new world. This is of course standard for pretty much all MCU films. This isn’t exactly a terrible thing. Marvel movies aren’t setting out to examine imaginary societies or hypothetical futures. They aren’t aiming to be in-depth science fiction pieces. When it comes to Black Panther, on the other hand, the fresh elegance of this dissimilar space leaves you hungry for more. Every shot of this lucious afro-future triggers an overwhelming desire to learn about how every corner of this realm functions. In many ways, its beauty is its curse. 

Then there’s the more physical attributes belonging to the movie. As far as action films go, there’s a lot to like here, particularly when it comes to the moments when T’Chaka isn’t donning his costume. Scenes of one-to-one combat feel raw and real. We hear bones snap, punches shatter jaws and blood spill. These moments are intimate, painful and perilous. There’s a vicious honesty to them, one that often makes us wonder whether our hero will make it out the otherside in one piece.

Sadly the opposite is often true when T’Chaka is donning his panther getup. I guess the main problem with all this vibranium sorcery relates to how invincible the stuff is. Knives, bullets, explosives and vehicles can’t even so much as dent the bleeding stuff. As is often the case whenever we have invulnerable characters at the centre of an action sequence, Black Panther often tries to create tension during these moments by turning up the volume. Exaggerated car chases and CGI-riddled set pieces strive to emulate peril throughout the less hazardous of moments. 

Upon digging slightly deeper, where Black Panther grows more interesting concerns the story’s villain. This could have quite easily been a very different matter. For much of its first half, Black Panther seems overly concerned having Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue chew up the scenery. As delightful as it may be to see Serkis relish in playing the slippery arms dealer once again, after a short period of time it becomes relatively clear how much of a one note baddie this character is. In the end his presence largely seems to get in the way of the lead antagonist, Erik Killmonger.

Pushing the primary villain aside in favour of giving Serkis a second shot and mustache-twirling ran the risk of making Killmonger’s presence less imposing within this film. Except the opposite turns out to be true. This is possibly one of the strongest villains we’ve seen in the MCU to date. For one thing, his motives actually make sense beyond the usual “I want to rule the world” mantra. His intentions may well be extreme in nature, yet beneath the fiery exterior lies a man determined to both avenge the horrors inflicted upon his ancestors as well as help emancipate those who are oppressed across the world. These very motives were inspired by Killmonger’s father; a man who believed Wakanda should use their technological wonders to help those in need. Whereas the hidden nation thought it best not to offer asylum, N’Jobu wanted to share Wakanda’s vibranium science with people of african descent across the globe. It’s these beliefs which result in his own brother, former Wakandan king T’Chaka, killing him.

Erik Killmonger is essentially an antagonist not only possessing understandable motives, he’s a villain created thanks to the failings of  king T’Chaka. T’Challa’s dad screwed up big time, leaving Erik to fend for himself with little more than the ideologies of his deceased father. He’s a would-be hero, turned into a monster because of the damage inflicted upon him by the homeworld that abandoned him. He’s a victim of circumstance whose attempts to free those shackled by prejudice have mutated into something else. Heck, his goals are so convincing, by the end of the film the protagonist has pretty much adopted them for his own use. Before the credits role, we learn that T’Challa himself intends to open up Wakanda’s borders and share their vibranium mine with the wider world!

Having a villain such as Erik Killmonger allows writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole to pen a script dripping with political undertones. His presence gives them the freedom to touch upon the America’s horrific history, not to mention the ever-present inherent racism which still oppresses the lives of all African Americans in the modern society. Killmonger’s attempt to dissolve Wakana’s borders gives us a story constantly asking whether or not it’s offer asylum to outsiders is a good idea. This is a question debated frequently in today’s world, except we usually hear it from the perspective of westerners offering aid to other parts of the globe (most recently from places such as Syria). When it comes to Black Panther, Coogle and Cole alter the perspective by having the question come from an African nation; a part of the world often seen as needing outside aid. Switching the perspective in this manner allows us to witness a familiar discussion from an outsider’s perspective. This time, it isn’t the white man asking whether they have a duty to help the less privileged; but a cutting edge African civilisation debating the notion of gifting the rest of mankind with their technological wizardry.

Admittedly, where the film does fall a touch short is in its protagonist. Chadwick Boseman is great, no doubt about that. He’s a top casting choice and delivers a strong performance throughout. He nails the personification of an individual conflicted by the royalty he’s been born into. Behind the persona he’s carved out for himself sits an anxious and righteous man; one who’s far from ready to take on the responsibilities his father’s death has left him with. Boseman manages to channel such internal angst in a both a subtle and effective manner. It isn’t the easiest job in the world making a super wealthy dude likable, so hats off to him for making this happen.

Problem is, the film never really gets stuck into his character enough to make him interesting. His trepidation toward becoming Wakanda’s king is raise but never fully explored. For a film which delivers such a great villain, it’s a shame they couldn’t dedicate the same amount of time or energy toward it’s hero. Just think of the conflict and dramatic tension that could’ve been mined if T’Challa was as fleshed out as Killmonger! 

Hopefully the inevitable sequel will attempt to make up for this shortcoming. There’s still time to flesh out this character and turn him into something wonderful. Boseman has a lot of potential. No point in letting all that talent go to waste.  

On the whole, Black Panther is a treat of a movie. Although at times it suffers from not giving you enough of that angelic Wakandan vista, occasionally reverting to indestructible folk making everything explode and a protagonist not used to his fullest potential; it’s a cracking tale packed with political undertones, moments of genuine peril and a top-notch villain. 

There’s room for potential, but as far as first movies go, this one ticks more than enough boxes to make it a winner. 

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm a writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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