The main thing I got out of Black Panther was a mild headache. It's packing theaters, even in the podunk of Arvada. I am usually one of five people in the rundown halls around here when the latest turd gestates its way out of Hollywood's butthole. I have my choice of seats and plenty of room to fart without anyone noticing. For Black Panther I got the last seat, in the front row, way off to the side. This is a shitty place to be for an action movie because all you can focus on is that small portion of the screen directly in front of you, a corner that only shows some guys shoulder or forehead. The rest of the screen, which is too far away to view, has the context of whose body part it is and what it's supposed to be doing.
The other thing I got from Black Panther is that it's really fucking boring and serious. I haven't heard this many Goddamn earnest speeches since the City Council meeting where they voted to close the last video store in town that carried pornos. There must have been forty fat dudes with beards lined up to speak "on behalf of free speech," all of them pretending to be concerned about our liberty and not about losing access to "Anal Choir 4: Butthole Hymn of the Republic." Joke was on them, though. I lost that DVD months ago and returned the empty box.
Every character in this movie has his jaw clenched the entire time. Smiles are hard to come by, jokes even harder. Good jokes, nonexistent. It's all so fucking serious that it stops being entertainment, which is a damn shame. The most effective way to convey a message is to slip it into the entertainment, not to slip a little entertainment into the message. But this movie loses sight of that in its effort to say something while hewing hew closely to the superhero origin formula.
The central moral quandary of Black Panther boils down to this: Black people have been fucked over and pillaged by the rest of the world for most of recorded history, but if given the opportunity to exact a revenge, should they? Or should they use their new power to lift black people up? Revenge or redemption? As a corollary, is it better to keep power a secret or expose it to others knowing that the more who are aware, the greater this risk of it being misused?
There, I said it in a few sentences. Had the movie done that, it could have had a shitload more of what people go to comic book movies for: fighting, bad puns and cool scenery to watch while the message sinks in. Instead, this is a dark bludgeoning.
A make-believe country in Africa named Wakanda appears to the rest of the world to be impoverished and agrarian. Secretly, though, it sits on a mountain of the world's most powerful material called Vibranium. (I think Mrs. Filthy had a marital aid named that once, and she defeated it. Hence, Mrs. Filthy is a mountain of the most powerful material on Earth.) The Wakandans have used their secret stash to develop a hidden and technologically advanced society full of spaceships and highly advanced weapons.
When the Wakandan king dies, his son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes the reins, but only after being challenged by one of the region's tribes. He is also challenged, as I often am, by the over-emoting of Forest Whitaker, who plays some sort of shaman. This backstory is meant to show a few things: 1) a melding of African tradition with Tomorrowland; 2) the story's rules of engagement, and 3) some scenery. It moderately succeeds at the first: Black Panther looks different and more interesting than other Marvel movies, all muted darks and flashes of gold. Yet, it's sort of sad that the moviemakers envision utopia as Dubai on the Nile. Also, some of the special effects underwhelm, looking almost cartoonish in their lack of detail. The story's rules would be fine if the movie didn't leave them twisting in the wind when it they are no longer useful. As for scenery, the movie flunks. This is supposed to be Africa and the only wild animals we get are a few panthers who are ghosts and then some armored rhinos in a climactic scene. There is more time spent talking about it being beautiful tan there is showing that.
T'Challa gets his magic powers of speed and strength by drinking an herbal tea made from glowing plants left over from Avatar. He gets a dorky-looking, self-healing suit from his sister, who is like Q from James Bond. But he is reluctant to embrace his strength as a source of good until his country is under attack. Only then does he understand his responsibility and power and act accordingly. In other words, he has the formula Joseph Campbell transformation.
The difference here is that his responsibility is rooted in the more real struggle of black people to rise up against oppression. That struggle is real and has been the source of many stories. This is a Marvel, though, and Marvel pays its bills by selling Redditors and 4Channers fantasies that miserable lives can be transformed by magic superpowers. In this case, Vibranium is the magic.
Enter Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), T'Challa's long-lost cousin who wants to take the throne not to help others, but to beat the shit out of white folks. Yes, his name really is Killmonger. Maybe the name Manexterminator was already taken. T'Challa is forced to battle his cousin for the sake of everyone.
Sadly, their brawls are limited to a rather dull and predetermined fistfight, and then the last fifteen minutes where each is joined by his supporters in a confusing battle that combines spears, spaceships, rhinos and force fields, yet feels sluggish. That's mainly because it keeps getting interrupted so people can make speeches about what side they are on and why.
Black Panther wants to be serious, but then it also wants to have a bad guy with a robot arm named Klaue (pronounced Claw), and Martin Freeman as a CIA agent who, apparently, works rogue, reports to nobody, and swings wildly from bumbling clod to brilliant operative. Then there is the mandatory and fucking awful Stan Lee cameo. I probably hate that old man more than any other old man on the planet.
The biggest problem, though, is the lack of people hitting each other. What action the Black Panther has is pretty fucking timid, and occasionally frustrating. It is also dimly lit and definitely hard to follow from the front corner seat in the theater. One important brawl happens on train tracks so that the trains can interrupt the fisticuffs and allow the two fighters to have speeches. Another fight--in a casino because that's where fights happen to give background color these days--is over too quickly and easily. It is followed by the biggest chase of Lexus's I've seen since there was only one parking spot left at Nordstrom during a sale.
There's something to be said for a Marvel movie having a message rooted in the real world. There is also the reality that Marvel movies are beholden to formula, to a Universe and to merchandising that are all designed specifically to make them mindless entertainment. Black Panther is too dull to be entertaining, and too Marvel to be smart. Two Fingers.