Why Black Panther is Overrated

This article assumes you have seen the movie Black Panther. Spoilers ahead: 

Before I continue, I do want to give 2 disclaimers.

Disclaimer 1: I liked this movie. I would give it a solid 7/10. When I say this movie is overrated, what I mean is that the critical acclaim and general audience consensus is disproportionately positive compared to the quality of the movie I actually saw.

Disclaimer 2: I am not trying to dissuade people from watching this movie. I am 100% in favor of this movie making all of the money. It places minorities and women in important roles in a way that is genuinely non-pandering and exceptionally rare for big budget films. This movies profitability is a massive step in the right direction for future film making. That said, the movie’s diversity does not make it inherently better than a film of similar quality that is not diversely cast.

I’ve seen this movie twice. The first time I saw it, I left feeling disappointed. I didn’t feel it lived up to hype. I spent the next day thinking about the movie the entire day wondering why I felt this way. The movie presented the themes I wanted to see. The movie was well acted and well shot. It did a fantastic job of incorporating a wide variety of African and African American culture, from its spectacular visual design to its score that fused traditional African folk song with Hip-hop trap instrumentals and more traditional orchestral film score. Michael B. Jordan was phenomenal as the villain Killmonger. I felt compelled to watch the movie again. Knowing what to expect and watching it on a shitty cell phone recording brought clarity. Almost every issue in this movie can be boiled down to two issues.

  1. The thematic material, social commentary, and general construction of the plot really demand a grittier, probably R-rated movie.
  2. Some of the time the themes of the movie are set up very well. Sometimes it is set up as if the audience consists primarily of grade school children.
  3. Character motivation is driven by plot demands rather than informed personality traits, especially in Act 3.

Grittyness

After the visually intriguing exposition dump, the first scene takes place in Oakland. The year is 1992. Prince N’Jobu is allegedly undercover in what is vaguely portrayed as some sort of gang related gun smuggling ring. The apartment complex is in relatively decent shape. In fact, the only sign this takes place in the projects at all is the use of a plastic box as a replacement for a basketball rim. At no point does anyone in this alleged 1992 Oakland projects smuggling gang use the n-word, or any other swear word for that matter. It seems like incredibly minor nit-picking, but all these things add up to feel inauthentic.

The suffering of Africans worldwide is never explicitly shown. It’s merely stated as a fact by the characters. The first problem is that this takes place within an established Marvel Cinematic Universe. We the audience cannot make assumptions about what has taken place in this world whose history has diverged since the alternate events of World War 2 depicted in Captain America: The First Avenger and other movies.

This problem is worsened by the aforementioned lack of authenticity when a host of minor details in the movie don’t match our world. We as an audience are meant to infer that Africans are suffering worldwide because that is what happens in our world, but both the extended universe connection and the lack of authentic details in the name of keeping a PG-13 rating makes the world of Black Panther feel disconnected from our world. This is further augmented by the futuristic CGI technology and the semi-cartoonish PG-13 violence where death is clean and bloodless. I may say I feel empathetic for the plight of Africans in the world of Black Panther, but I only say it because I know what the movie is trying to imply and I know it is morally wrong to say I don’t feel sympathetic for those suffering from the legacy of colonialism and racism. The reality is forming an emotional connection with individuals I never see on screen and don’t match individuals in real life is close to impossible. I can only empathize with this plight on a strictly intellectual level because I understand it is the right thing to do.

Setting Up Themes

Setting up a theme doesn’t always need to be subtle, but if it’s going to be explicitly stated, the character stating it should do so in a way that fits within their motivations. More importantly, we should see the theme reinforced subtlety with the action of characters.

A perfect example is how The Joker’s ideology of nihilism is set up in The Dark Knight. Alfred’s jewel thief story is about as subtle as a brick to the face, but it also makes perfect sense within the context of the character interactions. Alfred is allegorically explaining the Joker’s philosophy because it is vital to helping Batman understand he can’t be defeated by conventional means. More importantly, this is subtly reinforced by action. Joker’s story about how he got his scars is complete bullshit. This is the philosophy of nihilism in action. Joker’s past is unimportant because life is meaningless and that extends to his own. Joker is willing to die to make Batman break his code because his death will prove that Batman’s code, like everything else, is meaningless.

Sometimes, Black Panther handles this well. It’s secondary theme about American colonialism and how it influenced Killmonger is done quite well. It’s explicitly stated by CIA Agent Ross, but it makes sense because he is explaining who Killmonger is in order to help the other characters to plan against him. Killmonger’s plan is to send weapons to sleeper cells in order to destabilize other countries. This plan is straight out of the C.I.A playbook. Killmonger using the tactics of his enemies makes sense both within character and thematically, and for the most part, the movie doesn’t feel the need to beat this hypocrisy to death. It states it a few times explicitly, and lets the audience fill in the blanks.

Compare this to the movie’s main theme: “To intervene, or not to intervene?” The opening of the movie pretty explicitly sets this theme. After explaining what the nation of Wakanda is, Prince N’Jobu is punished (We don’t find out he was killed until later) for betraying Wakanda in order to bring it out of hiding. N’Jobu explicitly states that Africans worldwide are suffering everywhere and this was the only way to force Wakanda to intervene. We have a hint of our villian’s motivations via his father, and we’ve set up the theme. We’re good to go…

Only we have two more conversations that explicitly state the theme. After a brief action sequence, Soon-to-be-King T’Challa has basically the reverse conversation with his ex-girlfriend Nakia.  “Stay here.” “No can do. People outside of Wakanda need our help.” “I need to make sure Wakanda stays isolated from the outside world for the good of our people.” “Kay thanks bye.” End scene. The very next scene is almost the exact same conversation, only this time with T’Challa’s friend and tribal leader W’Kabi. “I’m worried. We need to keep Wakanda a secret.” “I agree my King.” K thanks bye.” Then we get this conflict AGAIN when Agent Ross is wounded protecting Nakia. “We can’t bring him here. Wakanda needs to be a secret.” and then AGAIN when the council argues about Killmonger being an outsider, and then AGAIN when T’Challa finds out that his cousin was abandoned in Oakland by his father,  And ONE MORE TIME with T’Challa’s confrontation of his father in the ancestral plane. I think I actually forgot a few other small mentions of the theme.

Tons of precious screen-time is used beating us over the head with the Intervention vs. Isolation theme, which is already the main conflict of the story. It can be streamlined by cutting out the two unnecessary explicit theme conversations with Nakia and W’Kabi for starters. Cut down the Killmonger/Council scene. T’Challa already made his choice by saving Agent Ross. There’s no reason for him to remake the choice again by initially refusing to accept Killmonger’s challenge. That leaves us with:

N’Jobu betrays Wakanda > T’Challa decides to save Agent Ross > T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jobu’s son > T’Challa confronts his father in the afterlife. 

The rest can be implied by our intelligent and sophisticated audience.

Plot derailing character motivation.

This is mostly to do with the third act, but it starts earlier. At the end of the casino shootout, T’Challa has successfully captured our mecha-armed mercenary. He’s about to kill him in cold blood out of rage, but Okoye talks him out of this. The problem is that T’Challa’s entire character arc in Captain America: Civil War was about learning that vengeance is not the solution. This scenario ignores T’Challa’s previous character arc because it wants to create a dramatic moment. This scenario also ignores the mercenary’s character motivation. The mercenary seems rather giddy at the prospect of T’Challa killing him, but he has no reason to be. He’s still in a position to negotiate with the CIA and presumably knows that Killmonger is going to rescue him because he believes Killmonger wants to get paid, but he taunts T’Challa because we need a dramatic moment. 

Fastforward to when W’Kabi brings Killmonger to the council for his challenge. We already have a massive plothole because Killmonger has no way of knowing W’Kabi’s beef with T’Challa for failing to kill/capture the mercenary. Then we establish that Killmonger is culturally an outsider by his use of English over Wakanda’s native tongue, only T’Challa declines the challenge, which is unnecessary considering he already made the choice to be more interventionist by saving Agent Ross. He only does so because the plot demands we have another Intervention vs. Isolation debate. Then Killmonger is suddenly able to speak perfectly fluid Wakandan because he needs to provoke T’Challa into accepting his challenge because the plot demands it. 

W’Kabi is completely 100% on board with intervening in other countries like Killmonger wants, despite being completely opposed to this at the beginning of the movie. Because of his petty desire for revenge, he does a complete 180 on his personal beliefs without even trying to persuade Killmonger (his ally) to take even perhaps a more moderate approach because the plot demands he later fight for Killmonger so that we can have our epic large scale fight and we don’t have enough screentime for him to gradually radicalize like a real human being. 

Fastforward to T’Challa’s few remaining supporters turning to M’Baku’s mountain tribe for help out of desperation. Turns out, M’Baku saved T’Challa’s life. Sweet! This is a payoff from earlier in the film when T’Challa spared M’Baku’s life because he fought honorably and was needed by his tribe. One heart-shaped herb later, and T’Challa calls on M’Baku for help. NOPE. I only did this because a life for a life. Ok sweet. He’s honorable but not necessarily an ally, what an interesting character, but mom can still stay with us because the plot demands T’Challa’s mom can’t die. 

Killmonger refuses to duel T’Challa a second time to be king, despite the fact that he is A) Confident in his abilities to the point of arrogance. B) Has already beaten T’Challa reasonably handily and has no reason to believe he can’t do so again. and C) Is smart enough to know many of his allies (like Okoye) will turn against him if he breaks tradition because Agent Ross establishes him as being a genius level intellect earlier in the movie. But no, he opts for the “fuck it, I’m King” route because the plot demands a large scale battle occur in Act 3. 

Oh no, the forces of good are losing. How will they possibly get out of this one? M’Baku decides to come after all because the plot demands the good guys win. This is especially ridiculous because the whole last minute Han Solo move doesn’t work when we all expect it. We already know the good guys have to win because T’Challa is in the Infinity War trailer. It’s already a baseline expectation fort he good guys to win. The drama comes in how they’ll get out of this bind, only there’s no drama because it’s literally the only way they can get out of this bind. M’Baku is clearly established as a decisive character unlikely to change his mind because of

A) The historical behavior of his tribe explained in the beginning of the movie and…
B) Literally every action he’s taken up to this point in the movie.

Want M’Baku to only do the bare minimum to help T’Challa. That’s fine. It leaves an interesting unresolved conflict for the next movie. Want M’Baku to rejoin Wakanda because it’s the right thing to do. Sweet. It ties in to the movie’s core theme of intervening over isolation. But the in between mode the movie executes goes against character motivation.

Why complain about a movie I (allegedly) like?

What makes Black Panther frustrating is that the hardest stuff is done remarkably well. The directing and acting is done excellently. It’s really hard to get a 200 million dollar budget on a movie with a predominately black cast, let alone a movie that features a predominately black cast in a way that’s genuine to black culture and not pandering. It’s feminist in action and confident enough to be feminist without drawing attention to its feminist ideals. The themes that it wants to tackle are super interesting and rarely discussed in popular storytelling mediums.

The flaws all feed into one another. The derailed character motivation feeds into the empathy problem created by a lack of gritty realism when dealing with issues of racial injustice. All the time spent beating the main theme into our skull means less time to more coherently assemble the third act in a way that’s still consistent with character motivation.

What makes this movie frustrating is that some small tweaks to the script and a bit more daring from the studio would have elevated a merely good film into an all-time classic. It had all the important ingredients sitting right there.

It’s important to critique not just bad films, but good films, and even great films. Without acknowledging the flaws even among the best, there’s no way to get better.

 

 

 

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