So I’m an Asian dude reviewing a movie about fictional Africans originally created by a white guy. Nope, don’t see how this could possibly go wrong!
But yeah, Black Panther was pretty good. And let’s tell the internet and Social Justice to shut up and listen for a minute: Yeah, it was good because it was good.
So in another rare installment of “Tim reviews recent-ish things in a timely-ish manner“, I shall be talking about the Black Panther movie, part of Marvel’s third phase in their cinematic universe. And for the benefit for those of you who read this blog but haven’t seen the movie, it shall be as spoiler-free as I can manage.
Oh, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King
First, a crash course! Because yes, even in this time an age, there are people who go to superhero movies without knowing either the source material or the previous movie appearances.
So, Black Panther is the title held by the hereditary king and protector of Wakanda, a fictional, mysterious African nation. They’ve reached Atlantis levels of mystery and prosperity because of their national stockpile of Vibranium, one of Marvel’s mightiest metals that absorbs vibrations and is SUPER tough. Ehhhh, think of it as mithril: Super tough with lots of fantastic applications, guarded by an isolationist people armed to the teeth with technology centuries ahead of their time.
The story goes that after the tragic death of his father, T’Challa now has to don the mantle of king as well as Black Panther. Armed with the superior technology of his country giving him bulletproof suits and army-stopping weapons, the heart-shaped herb which makes gives him the strength of Captain America and the senses of Wolverine, and his own superior genius and fighting abilities, T’Challa must protect his title, his kingdom, and his family from pretty much anyone looking for sweet, sweet loot.
So where was he before that? Last we saw him, T’Challa was in Civil War with his dad T’Chaka in the UN summit dealing with placing the Avengers under government control. A terrorist attack left his father dead while framing Bucky, the Winter Soldier, and T’Challa forced his way into the conflict to try and avenge his father. Along the way, he scratched up Cap’s shield, beat up a bunch of people, captured his dad’s true killer, and gave Cap and friends political asylum.
So after all that, now we’ve got the movie, which essentially acknowledges “Hey, I’ve got a life and a country to run outside of your weekly superhero slapfights.”
Yes Our Teeth And Ambition Are Bared, Be Prepared
So that’s the quick recap. But what about the movie? Or rather, why did I like it and think it was good?
Well, first off, I’ll briefly cover why I thought it was good in an OBJECTIVE sense, namely because the SUBJECTIVE reasons will need a fair bit more explaining. So what do I mean by objective?
Simple: I mean the raw building blocks that make a story. What we were given, and how well they pulled it off. I’m talking about the plot, characters, setting, action, all that stuff. And given that this is meant to be spoiler-free, I feel that I can cover them pretty quickly.
So, for starters, the Plot. This movie is meant to introduce Black Panther and his lore to mainstream audiences, even beyond cartoons and comics. And I’d say it does that well: The information and mythology are all there, set up as the foundation of the plot. And the events unfolding are pretty tightly-paced, with a good groove of going high and low and high again.
The story we’re shown may seem like a conventionally idealistic origin plot, but it’s dealt with in a pretty competent way. The different plot threads are introduced and interwoven at a decent speed, giving each subplot time to breathe so that when they intersect we know what to feel about them going forward.
And moving outside jargon-literature-speak, what this means for Black Panther is this: I enjoyed the plot because it put T’Challa through his paces. He faced things which felt like legitimate threats to him, with story twists that made sense to bring him here or there. The ride was enjoyable, fun to watch, and felt like it was a huge achievement in growth for these characters. And perhaps most importantly in what’s meant to be a character’s FIRST film: It gives you a VERY good idea about WHO T’Challa is and what it means to be KING and Black Panther. Civil War was a great showing for him though he wasn’t the main focus; THIS movie is following up on that, and it nailed it. Anyone watching this will, like with any of Marvel’s origin movies, get a preeeeetty good idea of who the character is meant to be.
Then there’s the Characters. T’Challa himself is a suitable leading man, of course: He’s in a good balance of competence, idealism, and inexperience to not get on your nerves while winning you over and learning crucial things to grow as a person. But there’s one simple reason I consider this to be the STRONGEST part of the movie: It has one of THE strongest supporting casts I’ve seen in a long while. And I define it as strong because everyone, from T’Challa’s family to his royal bodyguards and villains, is a well-defined and deeply-involved character.
None of them feel like a useless extra who’s only there to give a few lines. EVERYONE gets a moment to show to the audience who they are and what they’re about, each of THOSE moments is a very good example of SHOWING because it involves MULTIPLE characters playing off EACH OTHER, and all of that is vital because all of them contribute to the plot in some way and are major elements in the main character’s life. Even characters you think are minor are written with enough lines and personality that they’re memorable, to say nothing of the fact that they’re STILL heavily involved in the plot.
And to kind of illustrate my point, I’d actually compare them to Skurge and Korg in Thor: Ragnarok: The former was criminally underused, the latter was memorable but ultimately superfluous. You could have just had Hela alone and it wouldn’t have changed anything. You could have had Thor start a revolution without any major characters besides his brother and it wouldn’t have changed anything. That’s not the case here: Whatever I saw each character doing, I felt “This is something only THEY can do.”
And that’s just function alone, which is done in a very efficient and well-developed manner. There’s also the WRITING ITSELF, which I HIGHLY enjoyed, meaning these are characters I would LOVE to see in action: T’Challa’s supporting cast is diverse with their own unique personalities and values. You have his regal mum, his spunky genius sister, his idealistic ex, his dutiful, no-nonsense bodyguard. And of course, you have his enemies in the form of the having-an-unhealthy-amount-of-fun Ulysses Klaw/Klaue and the charismatic but incredibly dangerous Killmonger who fights with total conviction that he’s right. This cast shows us VERY different sides and ideas, and they all play together very well on the stage.
And for the shortest part of all, there’s the matter of Setting and Action. These may be the most superficial, and I’m really not all that qualified to say much more than “Man, all of that was COOL.” But cool it was, and I really enjoyed seeing how they interpreted the utopia of Wakanda as a synthesis of technological marvels and pristine nature. And…yeah, action. Lots of tough, flashy martial arts and super technology on display here. It’s like it’s somewhere between the punch-in-the-gut fisticuffs of Captain America with the high-flying boom-booms of Iron Man.
So that’s each of its individual “external” things. Put ’em together and what do you get? Bippity-boppity-NO! NO! NOT THAT! ANYTHING BUT THAT!
Ahem. By my reckoning, you get a movie that moves its plot along VERY fluidly. Each act and each scene are given enough time to show us what we need, a strong mix of the fast paced and the slower paced, deftly weaving in action, lightheartedness, warmness, and drama. And all of this is done with great set pieces and action scenes, all of which is grounded in some really, really likable characters.
Remember Who You Are
And now for the elephant in the room, if you’ll pardon the expression relating to African wildlife. And that issue is: The ideas and themes. You know: The one EVERY would-be Social Justice Warrior and keyboard activist is up in arms about, all of them rushing into writing clickbait articles and ill-informed tweets along the lines of “The first and most diverse black superhero movie” without actually knowing anything.
But let’s forget all about those, because this is my blog, and I’m not here to give you anything but my opinion. And in my opinion?
I’d say they handled the themes pretty well.
Now, let’s be clear. ANY story is going to have themes and messages, some subtly, some not so subtly. So what are Black Panther’s?
Well, without giving away major plot points, here are the main topics on display for us:
- What it means to be a king, to bear the weight of the crown and its choices.
- The balance between safe tradition and an uncertain, modern future.
- What are the responsibilities of people/nations with great power and wealth?
- And of course, race. Wakanda is proud of its identity, it compares and contrasts with the history of the world, and that is even more closely contrasted with the African and African-American history and culture of the world.
So as you can see, the first three are pretty standard, safe-for-everyone, non-political themes associated with a royal legacy character like the Black Panther. It’s the last one which frames all of that.
And I have to say once again: I’d say they did it very well.
First and foremost, before I go into any detail, I just want to stress what they DID with those themes: They worked them into the story, and they didn’t preach them to us.
That’s it. That’s all there is to making subjective themes WORK. And Black Panther did it well. Here’s why I think so.
So, they made it work for the story, and by that, I mean that it felt like natural things the characters believed which clashed in an exploration. When you heard something that MIGHT be a moral or an idea, it felt like it was NATURAL for THAT CHARACTER to say it. And to kind of illustrate how that worked, I’ll contrast how I thought it went versus how I think the WRONG way would have done it.
So, when the characters express their ideas, they do it with full conviction. They do it in a way that makes SENSE for them. And they are only there to express THEIR opinion, not to DICTATE it to the audience.
So good use of themes is Black Panther going “All rulers, crown or no crown, are the servants of their people! That is the weight of the throne!” and leaving it at that. He gives the bad guy time to give his retort, which might be something along the lines of “You are a fool, T’Challa! Why serve a people so desperate to destroy you? To destroy themselves? They will never learn, so we must force them on the right path!” So there you get two character with clashing opinions, expressing them as best as they can, creating interpersonal drama. That’s what they did.
Now, on the other hand, if they’d been written the way Social Justice Warriors write comics, it would have been the complete opposite. We would have gotten themes and opinions, yes. But they would have felt VERY out of place, FORCED into the mouths of the characters. And what’s worse, they wouldn’t have been content to just leave it at that: They would have wasted our time TELLING US WHY WE ARE SO VERY WRONG.
So that would have been something like Black Panther delivering a long and very blatant tirade along the lines of “It is over, Killmonger! And you have lost, because of my WOMEN ALLIES. Because they are WOMEN! And STRONG! And YOU thought they were WEAK, but they are STRONG! They are the TRUE STRENGTH of Wakanda, TRULY! And now they will show you how WRONG you were! To think that WOMEN are WEAK! BUT THEY ARE STRONG! AND YOU ARE WRONG!” And Killmonger doesn’t get a word in edgewise, because then the next ten minutes are the ladies kicking his ass. No interesting dynamics, just wastefully shoving a message that doesn’t make sense in his mouth and TELLING the audience that it is meant to be the OBVIOUS choice. That’s what they DIDN’T do.
So what was the end result? Well, in my opinion:
The themes were important, yes. But they were important TO THE CHARACTERS. And because they were explored and contrasted with the same care the characters got, we got a pretty interesting look at those ideas.
Much like Civil War, it lets audiences reach this majorly helpful epiphany: “I see where they’re coming from, and I see where they went wrong.”
And the best way to reach that is simple: Don’t make characters say what YOU think. Let them say what THEY think.
It’s why Tony’s heartfelt argument of “We need to be put in check” is so much more powerful when he argues from his experience and regret, instead of just saying “NO CAP YOU ARE WRONG GOVERNMENT IS RIGHT.”
And it’s the same with Black Panther. When they talk about race, about tradition and family, about their identity and the injustices of the world, particularly against the downtrodden and marginalised minorities, it’s all done in a way that is meaningful TO THE CHARACTERS. Not the people making the movie. And certainly not a small but toxically vocal portion of the audience.