Dir. Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan
Everything else being equal, all of us can choose between a Golden Corral steak and a filet from a good steakhouse; the tougher choice comes when the Golden Corral option disappears and is replaced with a lobster. There are two good choices in Black Panther, both villains, and either one of them feels capable of giving us a really strong movie. If this were 2008 again, when the idea of an “extended universe” sounded like a fun possibility instead of a nightmare symbol of everything wrong with how we consume entertainment, I could see why Black Panther would decide to squeeze both villains into a single movie. Knowing that Black Panther could be made into sequel after sequel, I’m not sure why it’s necessary to burn the most interesting superhero villain I’ve seen in half an hour or less of screen time.
I like Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has a reckless, greedy streak in him that makes for explosive carelessness. One of the better sequences in the movie is the chase through the streets of Busan, but that’s kicked off by a scene in which Klaue struts brazenly into an underground casino, armed to the gills and armed with his…arm cannon, I guess we’ll call it. Serkis has, since being the contrarian’s Supporting Actor in the early 2000s, become everyone’s Supporting Actor, and the Seth Efrican bombast he plays Klaue with is a welcome contrast to everyone else’s performance, which, with the exception of Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright, can be described as “stoic” or “noble.” He is a very ’30s villain not because he is stronger or better than the hero, but because he is more slippery and thus can be chased around forever and a day. This a devil-may-care type, one part ego and two parts assumption, always sure that he’ll be back to poach more vibranium again no matter how dire his circumstances. But the fact that he is a very ’30s villain means he is also a very pre-Joker villain; he does not bring gravity to his role as the bad guy, and there’s no pseudo-philosophy in his frame. You can hear it the same as I can: “Black Panther has a great cast but fails to give its hero a really difficult challenge…” As an introductory film that would last perhaps 100, 110 minutes, and still actively build the world of Wakanda—M’Baku would, as far as I can tell, still show up and do things—I could see Black Panther: Fight Tooth and Klaue finding a middle ground between action setpiece thriller and socially intelligent movie.
The problem, of course, is that Klaue is given about as much focus in the movie as Erik Stephens (Jordan), T’Challa’s (Boseman) long-lost cousin, and that Erik has the seeds of an interesting person within him. Orphaned as a boy, Erik chooses a life of complete discipline; he joins the American military and becomes an elite soldier specializing in black ops. Once he reaches Wakanda, making his way in by showing the border guards Klaue’s body, Erik quickly makes his intentions known. Wakanda is a purposefully isolated African nation which sustains itself through its uniquely enormous deposits of vibranium, a metal which seems to contain limitless power. Erik grew up in Oakland in the ’80s and ’90s and resents the presence of a group of black people who could have fundamentally altered the systemic racism in the United States but chose not to do so; he also resents the leadership of Wakanda, since the last king, T’Chaka (John Kani) murdered his own brother when he began to express a more militant and outward-facing perspective. Erik is like his father, but decades of hurt that his father never knew have made him long for bloody action. After executing a legal coup, for lack of a better phrase, Erik begins to execute his plan to arm people of color all over the world to fight back against oppressive governments; these people will, presumably, owe allegiance to Wakanda. It is a very Marvel movie plan, obsessed as it is with world domination and completely devoid of useful details. If it has a purpose, it is to show us that Erik is as reckless as Klaue. Erik just has bigger plans.
Jordan’s performance is typically strong, exciting, engaging. T’Challa’s traditional and unexamined leadership, built on hero worship of his father and the Wakandan version of the Divine Right of Kings, the power of the heart-shaped herb, is backwards. It is good for Wakandans but not good for anybody else, a fact which the movie addresses; the question of who we owe allegiance to is expressed well in personal terms by Okoye (Danai Gurira), but no one gets to do much more than say empty stuff like “We are all in this together” in terms of global connection. Erik, although his leadership would be actively disastrous for Wakanda and for everyone else, has a keen eye on what it would mean to work for others. His process has been handed over entirely to his id, and the movie realizes how electrifying that can be for others. We watch W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), whose parents were recently killed by Klaue, switch his allegiance to Erik in real time because he’s come home with the corpse. One of the issues with the movie is that Jordan’s performance, as strong as it is, feels like it’s taking place in a vacuum. Elements of his delivery are silky smooth, and he speaks with AAVE influences; the people around him speak with generic African accents, and Boseman in particular seems a little uncomfortable with it. Most of his scenes take place with an enormous CGI background which strips the presumed realism from his character. And most of all, Erik feels a little underbaked. The movie needs him to be more of a person before he shoots, strikes, and scores the throne. Too many of his motivations have to be explained while he’s absent, primarily by Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA operative who is allowed into Wakanda (without his knowledge) for life-saving surgery. His last scene in the movie is powerful because he chooses to die rather than be held captive. As he says to T’Challa, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” The guy who dies with that on his mind is reduced, in his own life, to a would-be megalomaniac. Black Panther: Enter Killmonger could have opened so many more doors than the ones left closed, essentially, by Black Panther. There’s a two and a half minute scene where Erik gets to speak to his father again through a Wakandan ritual ceremony; Sterling K. Brown could matter so much more in this movie than he’s allowed to.
Black Panther, to its credit, is working from a different set of rules than the average Marvel movie. There is a pretension that the vastness of the Marvel Empire’s scope is about mythology, or creating a mythology, for people of the 21st Century. (These people never seem to realize that it only takes a couple decades before everyone spits on the mythology: Exhibit A, Westerns.) Black Panther is not about mythology, but seems to care very much about history. There is a Shakespearean know-how in the movie, less in terms of structure than in terms of its motivations. One man kills another; the murdered man’s son confronts the murderer’s. (This is why I’m so disappointed in how empty Killmonger feels, I guess, because by rights the guy should have five different monologues to explain himself and each of them should cause riotous cheering.) Marvel movies blow up New York City every five minutes, but Black Panther turns two and a half decades of personal resentment growing more powerful by the day into the coup that detonates an entire nation. The movie even makes a point of making a visual reference to the Triangular Trade in its first minute, raising the question as T’Challa’s airship smoothly flies into Wakanda: why didn’t the Wakandans of five hundred years before use their advantages to the benefit of those who were severely oppressed? Tradition, it turns out, is the guiding force in a nation which has the technologies of a thousands years from now and the political system of a thousand years ago; it requires us, T’Chaka tells T’Challa, to choose the lie.