Black Panther: valiant but flawed

Black Panther seems to have received nothing but praise. It seems to be universally accepted as a great movie and a great step forward. It seems churlish to argue with this seemingly universally held opinion, but for me the film stumbled slightly. Black Panther is perhaps the most morality compromised Marvel film to date, and this comes from the most part from oversight at the script writing level. This contrasts wildly with every other aspect of the production and intent of the film, all of which seem utterly worthy and honorable.

It is an increasingly common complaint among film critics that reducing the sight blood in children’s films, while it successfully lowers the film’s rating, does nothing to show the consequences of violence. This has never particularly bothered me before, but Black Panther may cause me to revise my views. During an act of ritualized combat, Black Panther is stabbed deeply into the muscle tissue of his shoulder, drawing only the slightest trickle of blood. On winning the dual, Black Panther raises his arms in triumph, his wound all but forgotten. This could have been better scripted. True they wished to heighten the peril of the combat, but, by moving swiftly on from the wound inflicted, they downplayed the severity of the injury. It not only minimized the blood, but also the harm and threat to Black Panther. This was a recurring issue throughout the film, as it was very difficult to judge the level of peril that Black Panther was in. The technology of Black Panther’s suit serving only to distort the issue further, gun shots only serving to power its surface with kinetic energy.

Black Panther is the ruler of the kingdom of Wakanda. His rule is hereditary, but this is open to challenge by ritual combat; though only by the upper echelons of Wakandan society. It is upon this system that polity of Wakanda is based. This process is represented at the film’s beginning, however, later we see Black Panther defeated by an outsider of modest means, linked to the Wakandan elite through birth and not privilege. Fair is fair one might say? But at this point Black Panther and his privileged family fail to recognize the legitimacy of the new ruler and attempt to usurp him. There is no attempt to work within the system, despite the fact the this system is entire basis for Black Panther and his family’s privileged position. If Black Panther had been in some way cheated in the ritual, perhaps this might be excused, but it really couldn’t have been much more cut and dry.

Wakanda lives in luxurious isolation from the rest of Africa, benefiting immensely from its plentiful supplies of Vibranium. This rare metal possesses many valuable qualities that have allowed the people of Wakanda to become immensely wealthy and to have developed extraordinarily advanced technology. They have managed to achieve all of this while keeping their riches hidden from the world. In order to maintain secrecy they have kept an extremely low profile. No one is allowed into their kingdom, which is flanked on all sides by mountains. Wakanda doesn’t give aid to its neighbors, while it is aware of the contributions made by other wealthy nations. So too does it keep its radically advanced healing technology to itself. This is all part of the price, paid in millions of African lives, that must be paid to retain Wakanda’s secret. It is strange then that on Black Panther’s friend becoming injured, a Mr. Everett k. Ross, he immediately breaks the rules and brings him to Wakanda for treatment. This is because of the sacrifice Mr. Ross made is saving Black Panther’s ex-girlfriend. Black Panther is perfectly happy to be party to a system that excludes medical aid to Wacanda’s impoverished neighbors, yet as soon as he has something personal to lose from this, he is quick to disregard the law. It would have exacted far more sympathy for Black Panther’s political stance here, if he had kept to his principles and enforced the law, even at the risk of losing his friend. This would have given him much more moral authority later, when he opposes the active foreign policy the usurper, Erik Killmonger, attempts to pursue.

Then there is the wild nepotism at play in Wakanda. Clearly, we are talking about a monarchy here, so meritocracy won’t be high in the average Wakandan’s mind, but why exactly is the Black Panther’s sister in charge not only of his research and development team, but apparently Wakandan R&D as a whole. Perhaps his teenage sister is the greatest mind in all of Wakanda, though it seems doubtful. The position doesn’t seem to be one of merit, but the product of kingly privilege. Here was an opportunity to build around Black Panther a series of Wakandan characters not dependent on royal patronage, but rather individuals who have come to recognize Black Panther’s abilities beyond his hereditary endowment.

Black Panther is not a bad film, but these oddities in the film’s centre were an issue for me. I never really felt on Black Panther’s side. He seemed to always hold considerable advantages over his opponents, requiring them to always appear as the underdogs. His double standard in Wakanda’s dealings with the world was annoying and morally indefensible. Also it was difficult to really get behind a family of such excessive privilege. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is equally a man of privilege, though admittedly not royalty, but his character buys sympathy with the mortal injury delivered indirectly by his own hand, thus spawning a redemptive story arch. Black Panther’s arch is not so dramatic. While he learns that the ways of his father and past rulers were wrong, he is never really forced to atone for this and his proposed solution of a inner-city outreach scheme – again under his sister’s supervision – seems limited at best.

Black Panther does have much to recommend it. The costume design is excellent, it is solidly directed, well acted – in some cases extremely well acted – and provides a much needed diversity and depth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). My issues with the film for the most part could have been resolved at the script writing process. It is certainly admirable to have produced a more nuanced, complex and relatable villain; which is a growing trend in the MCU, as we have seen with Michael Keaton’s performance as the Vulture in Spider-Man Homecoming. Though my sympathy for the Vulture’s motivations was never at the expense of that I felt for Spider-Man; the same cannot be said of that between Black Panther and Killmonger. I mean Killmonger went way off, but Black Panther’s wealth hording entrenched monarchy exacted a slightly reluctant sympathy – a kind of, “well, I guess it’s better than world enslavement under Greater Wakanda.”

Black Panther is an interesting edition to the MCU, as is Wacanda. It would have taken just a few tweaks to have made Black Panther truly great. I’m looking forward to seeing how the character moves forward in Avengers: Infinity War.

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