Black Panther has been out for weeks now, so all the worthwhile reviews have already been posted and read. I can’t imagine I’m adding anything new to the mix, but I’m going to do it anyway, just because. In my defense, I was busy with a lot of stuff outside of movie-going. I do admit I was a bit worried going into the theatre about how I’d feel about the film. I had heard it was good, but the hype was building so fast I was worried I’d be let down. Sometimes I’ll just skip watching a film based on hype. Either I’ll have too high an expectation going in, or, as was the case with the Ghostbusters remake, the level of polarization on the film will be enough to drive me off. In the case of Black Panther, though, I was very pleasantly surprised. I really do think it’s one of the best movies Marvel has put out.
The cinematography is beautiful. I never once got the impression I was viewing a green screen backdrop. The film was incredibly colorful and I felt like I really had stepped into a world that was simultaneously urban and rural, technological and traditional. It was clear a lot of careful thought had been put into the world of the film.
Set designs were likewise impressive. I especially liked Shuri’s lab. One of the interesting things about portraying a technologically advanced lab is the use of a visually sterile set (as if tech mean medical-grade cleanliness). Another stereotypical portrayal is the messy lab with lots of tubes and pipes and gadgets lying around in a general mess. What was great about Shuri’s lab was that it went with fashionable look. It was clear immediately that this was her domain because of all the painted walls. It was kind of hip and cool and artsy. Kind of like how a lot of Silicon Valley startups like to portray themselves. I liked this because it showed how the filmmakers didn’t want to rely on convention, even in the smaller details.
The acting was top notch. There were some great talents brought to the film and it showed. Just one example is the relationship between T’Challa and Shuri. It’s established as soon as Shuri appears onscreen and felt very authentic and unforced. I enjoyed watching them interact with each other and I feel it’s a good representation of all the acting in the film. These were pros who knew how to pull the authenticity out of the text in the script.
This authenticity helped a great deal with events in the film. In the fight between T’Challa and his rival M’Baku, I logically knew it was too early for T’Challa to be dealt a serious blow. The film still had to establish his character. Despite this, however, I really found myself concerned about T’Challa’s fate. It did feel like he was going to lose his kingdom to M’Baku. When he did not, I felt relief. Of course, when Killmonger challenged T’Challa, that earlier victory made it clear he was going to lose, which in turn set up anticipation in the rest of the film. In addition to this, I was really invested in the scene between Killmonger and his father. This was a scene that would be easy to cut out in other films, but is so critical to showing how Killmonger has lost his way and the failure of his father. Mostly what struck me was the quiet emotion. This could easily have been a scene-chewing moment, but the script, the director and the actors correctly went for a subdued interpretation that spoke to the emotional struggle of the moment.
As much as I liked the film overall, there were a few minor points that broke me out of the film. For one thing, the final fight sequence was relatively hard to be invested in. The primary culprit was the fact that I could tell very easily that I was watching a CGI battle. When W’kabi runs through his opponents in a giant rhino, I could see very clearly that this was a digital effect. The smoothness of motion, the speed, the blur to hide any artifacts, it was all very clear what was happening. In addition, the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger screamed CGI, especially as they fell down into the underground subway system. Again, it was all about the motion, the smoothness and the attempts to provide a cool shot. All this did was make me think “Huh, CGI” and wait for it to be over.
Speaking of the subway, I’d like to point out a small logical error. Earlier in the film, Shuri explains that sonic generators are used to weaken or neutralize vibranium. If that’s true, then both T’Challa and Killmonger would have become permamently deaf. If the sonic generators are strong enough to visibly warp light around them (there were visible ripples whenever they turned on) the they were more than powerful enough to blow out eardrums. The fact that T’Chall and Killmonger were both enhanced by the heart-shaped herb is meaningless. At the end of the fight it’s clear that either can be harmed by bladed weapons. It stands to reason that sensitive organs like eardrums would be just a susceptible to damage. So, basically, T’Challa should be deaf right about now. Thank movie magic for that one.
One final quibble. I really didn’t believe that the CIA operative, Everett Ross, was in any trouble in the final battle. I just didn’t believe that the enemy aircraft was going to shoot through the windows in time to stop him. That meant his decision to stay in the simulator to remote-fly his aircraft felt hollow. The whole moment really just felt forced. It might have been better to just let him fly the simulator without anything attacking him as he did so.
There were a variety of themes in this movie, all of them worthy of discussion. For the sake of time, however, I would like to point out one interesting theme of inherited guilt. Just prior to watching the film I had been reading up on articles analysing H.P. Lovecraft. These articles pointed out that one of the themes of Lovecraft’s works is the concept of inherited guilt. That is, disaster coming to one through the sins of ancestors. This must have influenced how I saw the film, because I noticed similar lines of thought as the story wore on. The first notable instance was when Killmonger raided the museum, pointedly blaming the museum artifact expert for the sins of British imperialism that resulted in slavery and exploitation of natives on the African continent. Killmonger shows another aspect of inherited guilt in his battle with T’Challa at the waterfall. He points out his desire for revenge because T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka killed Killmonger’s father N’Jobu. In other words, T’Challa is receiving punishment for the sins of his father. Outside of Killmonger, we see this in Shuri as she refers to Everett Ross as “colonist”. It’s a casual reference, and not necessarily meant as a profanity, but it carries a history of guilt with it nonetheless. Finally, we see M’Baku air his grievances at T’Challa over an ancestral rivalry. This rivalry is based on the feeling of being snubbed by the ruling clans of Wakanda, which in turn caused M’Baku’s tribe be antagonistic towards T’Challa’s clan, thus creating a cycle of retribution.
Apart from the general “good guy/bad guy” dichotomy, it’s really this cycle of retribution that separates T’Challa from Killmonger. Killmonger is heavily tied to this cycle, mostly because he feels he can end it with enough violence and bloodshed. If he can kill enough people, he can suppress resistance and create a new world order. T’Challa goes the other way. In a critical scene M’Baku points out that for hundreds of years, no ruler of Wakanda has ever come to visit M’Baku’s tribe. T’Challa acknowleges this, but also points out that he is not his ancestors. One of the last scenes showing M’Baku among T’Challa’s circle of advisors completes the message; we all have guilt in our ancestry, but we are not our ancestors. Every generation has the chance to forge a new path. Furthermore, acknowledging the past while forging a new future leads to a more peaceful society. Killmonger’s way results in in near indiscriminate destruction. He instantly tears apart a stable political hierarchy and destroys the respository of the heart-shaped herb. This is an act that not only destroys an artifact of religious and cultural significance, but also serves the dual purpose of reinforcing Killmonger as the undefeatable leader of Wakanda and cutting off Wakandans from their heritage, thus making them easier to manipulate as a society. Killmonger isn’t interested in improving the world in any way. He just wants war and revenge, something that is destructive to all parties, not just a select few.
At the end of the film, T’Challa decides to unveil Wakanda to the world. Although there was a carefully constructed narrative of Wakanda as a poor country, T’Challa decides to throw this away in an attempt to lead by example. Since this is a movie, T’Challa’s decision is clearly scene as upbeat and positive. That said, and I know I’m doing more quibbling with this, I wonder just how effective T’Challa would be. I would argue that Wakanda, if anything, would become just another player in the great game of International Politics.
First of all, let’s broach the question of exactly how Wakanda would interact with the outside world. It can’t possibly be through any form of immigration. Wakanda has spent centuries as a highly insular country and would therefore not have the social, political, or logistical infrastructure to handle immigrants. There is evidence to suggest the population in general would resist this. W’Kabi, for example, early in the film states that immigrants bring their problems with them. I can’t believe he would be alone in thinking this.
So, Wakanda can’t build bridges through immigration. That part is out. The only other option is through outreach. This is in fact what happens. T’Challa, at the end of the film, points out that he’s purchased numerous buildings in order to build a Wakandan outreach center. But what effect will this have? First, let’s remember that it is stated early on that Wakanda has spies in every country. As long as Wakanda was thought of as a poor country, no politician would suspect espionage. Now that T’Challa has unveiled Wakanda as the most technologically advanced society on the planet, espionage must be at the top of everyone’s mind. The outreach centers just add to the problems. When the British landed in Africa, India, the Americas and Canada, they were the most advanced technological society of their time. We all know how that panned out for the natives. Wakanda will, in effect, be very susceptible to accusations of cultural imperialism.
Claims of cultural imperialism won’t just be used as general utterings of paranoia. These claims will be used as leverage for access to Wakandan technology. For all of Shuri’s brilliance, it’s absurd to think that Wakandan tech couldn’t be reverse engineered given enough time, enough resources and enough hardware to study. At the very least Wakanda and any representative will be the subject of hacking attempts, theft attempts, or other methods to obtain Wakandan technology, knowledge and resources. A couple things are inevitable from this. First, Wakandan representatives would demand a halt to the activities and, when it is clear nothing will stop, would probably start demanding concessions in the form of trade, treaties and so forth to offset the loss of Wakandan property. Second, the Wakandan tech would inevitably be used to harm others. This would give other countries the leveage they need to demand international regulations on Wakanda and possibly an opening of Wakandan society to outsiders.
This kind of behavior would put incredible pressure on the Wakandan leadership due to both internal and external pressures. On top of that, T’Challa is a superhero and is spending significant time saving the world. T’Challa might bow to pressure to close off Wakanda from the world again, but this would be a mistake. China already witnessed first-hand the results of being exposed to the outside world. In centuries past, the British wanted to trade with the Chinese who in turn just wanted the British to go away. Because of this, the British engaged in something called “Gunboat Diplomacy”. That is, “trade with us or we’ll attack you”. Wakanda would engage in devastating damage on its attackers, but no one country can stand against all the others forever. This means that Wakanda’s only option is to stay open and play the game of International Politics. Wakanda doesn’t become a leader of the world so much as one of the crowd. There isn’t enough vibranium in the universe to solve that problem.
Keep in mind, of course, that all this is pure conjecture. It’s just something fun to do after watching a good movie. In all, Black Panther really was a good movie. It was well-acted, had excellent visuals and it was clear that a lot of thought and care went into the story and the world the story inhabited. As I mentioned earlier, one of the top level Marvel films. For the Marvel films that focus on individual characters, I hope they keep it up. Infinity War is coming out this weekend, but that might be a different type of creature what with all the characters that have been crammed into it. We’ll see!