As the MCU continues to grow and expand to include a multitude of new characters, there have been many that have been great successes, including the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “”The Avengers” (and subsequent sequels). However, as great as this shared universe has been, it hasn’t been without its entries that haven’t quite worked, such as “Iron Man 3” and “Doctor Strange.” Now the MCU has expanded once again to include Black Panther (first seen in “Captain America: Civil War”) in his own solo movie. It’s always an exciting prospect to see a new superhero added to this ever-ambitious collection, but do we get to include his first solo outing in the success column, or is this a character that was best left in a supporting role in a separate franchise?
As “Black Panther” opens, we learn the history of the nation of Wakanda, which was apparently formed millions of years ago when several warring tribes came together after fighting over a meteorite made of a powerful substance called vibranium. A warrior from one of these tribes was the first to ingest a plant that had been affected by the vibranium, causing him to gain superpowers and become the first Black Panther. In present day, we find T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning home after the death of his father in order to take the throne and become king of Wakanda (and officially the new Black Panther). At the ceremony, he is challenged by a member of another tribe, but T’Challa defeats him and claims his rightful place.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to the main villains, Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who steal a Wakandan weapon from a museum and plan to sell it in a casino in South Korea. When T’Challa hears of this, he, his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) set out to bring Klaue (a black market dealer who previously stole from Wakanda) to justice. However, things become complicated when they discover that the intended buyer of the item is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). A fight ensues, leading to the capture of one of their enemies, but the war is far from over, eventually culminating in a battle for the throne that will determine the fate of Wakanda’s future.
“Black Panther” is a film that seemed to have all of the necessary ingredients to make it work: a fascinating new landscape with an incredible culture, several potentially interesting characters to populate it, and a narrative that deals with this nation’s political climate and their place in the world. So why is it that the film doesn’t work quite as well as it should? There are several different spots to point a finger to, but it would seem that one of the major issues is that T’Challa just isn’t that compelling of a character. This is not the fault of Chadwick Boseman, who’s shown that he’s a tremendous actor in projects like “42” and “Get on Up,” but rather the fault of a surprisingly weak script by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
Their screenplay presents a rather uneventful and by-the-numbers tale of King T’Challa trying to capture a thief and then trying to reclaim his throne, culminating in the typical all-out battle between our heroes and their enemies. Furthermore, because of the weak nature of the script, the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they should be, causing most of them to be just as uncompelling as our main hero. This includes a disappointingly flat, forgettable villain in the form of “Killmonger” (played by the talented Michael B. Jordan), who feels like nothing more than a stand-in (a problem that several superhero films have, though not usually an issue in the MCU). With no characters that you can really attach yourself to and a story that didn’t have that much thought put into it, the film can’t really help but feel like a somewhat uninspired effort.
While there are a number of disappointing elements to be sure, it’s hardly a total letdown. For starters, it’s exceptionally well-made. Director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) brought the project together quite well, giving such detail to Wakanda that it feels like it could be a real place. On top of that, the cast is filled with great actors like Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, and Angela Bassett. There is certainly no blame that can be placed on a cast that is this packed with fantastic performers, which includes two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees.
It’s just a shame that Coogler and Cole didn’t give them a screenplay that was more worthy of their great talents. Again, I’m hardly saying that this is a bad movie, it’s certainly not. It’s more of a disappointing one due to several issues that needed to be worked out before the cameras even started rolling, issues that should have been prevalent on the page during the earliest stages of production. As it is, it settles in nicely next to “Doctor Strange,” a film that also had amazing visuals and a marvelous cast, but also had narrative issues that needed attending to. “Black Panther” was certainly an intriguing idea, but with its fundamental defects, it just isn’t able to achieve the heights it desperately tries to reach. 2.5/4 stars.