Earnest, socially important, and undeniably heartfelt, “Black Panther” certainly pulls the right emotional levers focusing on the theme of the forgotten and the lost. But with its questionable adherence to a quaint, outmoded monarchical state system, the film falls short of the transcendent picture it should have been.
Picking up where 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” left off, “Black Panther” has T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) coping with the loss of his father and planning his ascendance to the throne of Wakanda. A fictitious, hidden African nation, we learn in an animated sequence that Wakanda was ground zero for some sort of meteor strike thousands of years ago leaving behind a metal known as Vibranium. On top of a mountain of this rare material, five tribes came together to form one nation. And because Vibranium provides everything they need, Wakanda secrets itself away under the guise of being a poor underdeveloped country. Of course, aside from their form of government, nothing is farther from the truth.
A subplot involves a mercenary or pirate of some sort named Ulysses Klaue (motion capture expert actor Andy Serkis out of makeup), who years ago penetrated Wakanda’s defenses and steals some Vibranium. The pile of bodies Klaue left behind caused long-term conflicts between some of the tribes. And now that T’Challa is King and has assumed the full power of the Black Panther, he’s determined to bring Klaue to justice. This is of particular personal importance to another unsettled tribe leader named W’Kabi (“Get Out’s” Daniel Kaluuya), who lost family members to Klaue’s incursion.
Pursuing Klaue leads T’Challa, his love interest Nakia (the great Lupita Nyong’o), and his head of security Okoye (Danai Gurira) to South Korea of all places. And this is where the film teases a James Bond-like format. Into the mix is CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who adds a bit of levity to the somewhat heavy story. And assuming the 007 type role, T’Challa makes a pretty slick secret agent type prowling around an underground casino. But while he exudes sex appeal, the script requires him to be in positive puppy love with Nakia, but frankly, who wouldn’t be?
In time, an American named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) will challenge the throne, and the peaceful anonymity of Wakanda will be threatened. And there’s rhinos, that wear armor and run around.
There is a reason why absolute monarchies are not the modern form of government. In fact, our imperfect, but nonetheless stable and arguably egalitarian form of government was created as a rejection of the monarchical model. But in “Black Panther,” a highly advanced and developed nation chooses its ruler based exclusively on two criteria: 1. royal blood; and 2. combat skills. While the script, based on a comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, tries hard to wrestle with big issues, its foundation is shaky from the start.
And in setting up the world of Wakanda, little attention is paid to just how the metropolis they live in would actually function. Because the source of the country’s wealth is based primarily on a natural resource (albeit extraterrestrial), it is impossible not to think of Saudi Arabia and the like. My feeling is that someone in Wakanda gets the short end of the stick, as they clean the King’s toilet.
But no matter, as King, T’Challa is a benevolent leader, which is the only way an absolute monarchy would continue, even if the ruler has to have little more than excellent fighting skills and brute strength to sit on the throne. Forget a Twitter account, T’Challa has drank some kind of tea made from a Heart-Shaped Herb enabling him to take on an army. And while the women in the film are impressive warriors, one gets the impression that a queen has never led the nation.
Aside from my quibbles with the governmental politics of “Black Panther,” I also found the visuals more distracting than impactful. The fantastical technology is ever-expanding like that of the now ill-fated Asgard. But instead of the goofy tone of “Thor: Ragnarok,” most everything is played seriously. The laughs that are there can’t overcome Boseman’s deadpan portrayal. He’s not given enough time to flash his sly, attractive smile and remind us how he can carry a film on his back. As an introduction to the character, this movie will serve the same purpose of the initial “Thor” entry. Things will certainly loosen up in the inevitable future installments.
Those distracting visuals though will leave you a bit dizzy. A huge amount of CGI is employed as the fight sequences shake and sputter, and are shot so closely that one could easily wonder who is winning and who is fighting who. And when things get stale, some magical, convenient technological marvel pops up as if from no where. In one scene, an army of warriors appear to wear blankets that can instantly become shields on command. And then there’s rhinos…
In a world in which Vibranium powers cloaked, flying “space” craft and creates weapons of potential mass destruction, for some reason, partially armored rhinos take to the battlefield. It’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but is it really necessary? While we recently saw an exciting Afghanistan war film involving soldiers on horses taking on tanks (see “12 Strong”), I still question whether in a highly technologically advanced society rhinos would ever be a practical, or even humane, weapon of choice. But the beasts are there, and I would be surprised if any real rhinos were hurt, let alone used, while filming “Black Panther.”
The outrageous nature of most everything in Wakanda would have worked much better had the tongue-in-cheek tone from “Ragnarok” been carried over. And “Black Panther” gets kinda preachy, especially in its closing moments. Still, it was hard to fight off a lump in my throat as a sequence reminds us of the central theme of the forgotten and the lost. And one of those forgotten ones is likely working overtime in a Wakandan sweatshop to sew the King’s indestructible underwear. “Black Panther” is a comic book tale that makes us glad that we have evolved beyond being ruled by a monarch.
NOTE: Director Coogler co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole. Even though I have real problems with the emphasis on royal lineage and the monarchical model, you have to hand it to them, they do the best with the source material’s comic book limitations. Future installments can hopefully deal with the T’Challa’s abdication and a transition to a more democratic political system. Utopia just can’t be maintained under authoritarian rule.