Black Panther: Wakanda Forever?
*SPOILER ALERT*- In this review, I hint at things that happen throughout the movie. So, if for some crazy reason you haven’t had the time to watch one of the highest grossing films of all time (over the last 7 months, people), you’ve been warned. I would also like to congratulate you on the fact that you clearly have better things to do with your time than watch movies. Your prize for that is a “too long, didn’t read” synopsis below. You can thank me later.
TL;DR Synopsis: 75/100 – An above average film with gorgeous aesthetics and an outstanding soundtrack.
Now onto the actual review
When it hit theaters back in February, Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther” eclipsed all expectations in terms of projected box office sales, anticipated critical reception, and shattered all stereotypes marketing executives had decided to be the elements and the makings of a successful film. In light of the universal praise during the “Black Panther” release, it is a film worth re-visiting seven months later. Does this movie really live up to the initial hype? Will it receive significant buzz at the Academy Awards this year? Or is “Black Panther” another silly comic book movie that people want to stretch into something more?
All film elements considered, “Black Panther” gets a lot right. Director Ryan Coogler misses some opportunities from a development standpoint, but I’ll touch on that later.
Aesthetically speaking, “Black Panther” does an incredible job merging futuristic innovation and the traditional—it’s a blend of Elon Musk’s pot-induced imagination mixed with rich, traditional aspects of various African cultures. The soundtrack is just one element that reflects this fusion in a BIG way; however, I found myself wanting them to use more of it throughout the movie. The two original songs they did incorporate are thematically appropriate and pleasing, but many others (which were deserving of being highlighted) on the album do not get “their moment.” Give the soundtrack a listen, and I guarantee you’ll agree.
Aside from the soundtrack, another dazzling element is the costumes. The costumes serve as their own character, breathing life, color, and tone into every scene. Each article of clothing that “Black Panther” features reflects the mood and the state of the characters that wear them, informing the audience to play closer attention to important moments and tune in to a character’s development. I could make a heart-felt attempt to describe these incredible frocks, but words would not do them justice. Seriously, just look at photos of the costumes and try to convince me that the “Black Panther” costume designers did not do a marvelous job at implementing variance, texture, and uniqueness to the film. I dare you. These costumes reflect the history of the different groups inhabiting Wakanda. It made me want to know more about who these groups are, which is precisely what costumes should do: tell a story all their own.
And the uniqueness doesn’t stop there. It extends into the visual effects, sound, and production design as well. Wakanda seems like a mesmerizing, one-of-kind place; a place worth of warranting protection from outsiders because what they have is good. Wakanda really put “Black Panther” a step above other films within the same genre because Wakanda, moreso than say—Asgard—had a cultured, human element that was special. It is an immersive, vibrant world that I could see living in but on one condition: that they enact some “common sense” vibranium control. That stuff could do some deadly, serious damage.
Although unreasonably dangerous, the all-powerful, fictional resource in the movie, vibranium, is super cool, and helps make a majority of the movie’s CGI look epic. However, what irks me is that people witnessed the Black Panther Suit—hell the U.S. Government witnessed the suit—and nobody found it odd that some farming country had the resources to create something so obviously superior to most modern protective armor. Nobody paused and though “hmmm, I wonder if there is some kind of technology, more vibranium perhaps, that the Wakandans are using to make themselves superior to us.” It takes the witnesses, and particularly the U.S. government waaaaaaaay too long to figure this out.
Furthermore, the film’s dependency on vibranium goes overboard, with it seeming like a total “get out of jail free card” at certain points in the movie. It really detracts from a lot of the character development because we don’t get a good idea of how well native Wakandans carry themselves without it.
At times, the film falls victim to what I would call the “Superman effect.” In a nutshell, Superman movies bore me because he is pretty much invincible. He is perfect and impenetrable, save for one small weakness (Kryptonite). Any attempts to make Superman seem vulnerable end up being shallow, superficial, lame, silly, and various other negative adjectives that show my contempt for the hero. Applying this logic to “Black Panther”, vibranium seems too overpowering, making it difficult for me to see vulnerability within many of these characters. As a result, the movie felt a tad boring at certain points.
That said, I want to stress that “Black Panther” is exponentially better than any Superman movie ever, mostly because the use of vibranium in the movie does generates more interesting “food for thought.” If a country possesses a resource so overwhelmingly powerful, how should they manage it? (I realize that the political point in superman might be construed as “to what extent should we control power because power can be dangerous” but making it a resource here seems more relevant in today’s political world given that we don’t have superhumans flying around). The Wakandans are faced with remaining hidden or sharing their resource to better the world, and they make that decision at the end. By uncovering and acknowledging past mistakes, the Wakandans emphasize the need to reconsider old ways of thinking. This is a really good lesson. Unfortunately, this theme popped up at such a late phase in the movie that it never got a chance to explore any nuance.
With respect to direction, the movie hit a fork in the road. Their decision to have two villains, even if both actors played their respective roles well, hurt the actors’ ability to develop their characters’ depth. One of the villains, Klaw (Andy Serkis), was portrayed as villains are meant to be played: psychotic, intimidating, and an all-around egomaniacal badass. He stole the show in every scene he was present. Sadly, those scenes were few.
From the failure to use thematically appropriate music, to the odd decisions surrounding the movie’s double villain arc, to even the vibranium cop-out, “Black Panther” misses some opportunities to take the story to the next level. But even with these picky reservations, the movie tells a unique story, and all of the stars in the cast and production crew played an important role in bringing this fictional world to life.
How will it fair at the Oscars?
For starters, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (A.K.A “the people who decide who gets nominated and wins all of this stuff”) decided to entertain the idea of having a “best popular film,” it was clear that, aside from trying to garner better ratings from people who otherwise wouldn’t go out of their way to watch Oscar nominated films, there was an ulterior motive. One of the best comments I remember hearing when this news was made public was that the Academy might as well just call this the “Black Panther Award.” Martin Wolgen, thank you for summarizing that up so succinctly for me.
Fortunately, the Academy scrapped this idea, so we will not be getting any of those “what if we did not have this silly new category” questions. The reality is that there should be one best picture to rule them all. If a popular film wants to win, it should need to compete with everyone else. No special treatment should be given to a movie just because a lot of people decided to drop $18.95 on an IMAX experience for it and it happened to be better than those other four films that people decided to drop $20 on DBox seats for. Seriously, unless you pick the right theater, movie prices can get WAY out of control sometimes.
Ranting aside, “Black Panther” has, I would say, around a 40 to 50 percent chance at getting nominated for Best Picture, but it will need nothing short of a miracle between now and February 24 for it to take home the trophy. Its overdependence on an all powerful fictional resource along with there being no real movie magic moments from the film make it difficult for it to gain traction amongst Academy members.
Where it does possess serious potential to win is in the aesthetic categories. At its peak, it could very well turn out to be this year’s version of “Mad Max: Fury Road” in the sense that it cleans up on all of the visual categories, but fails to take home any of the big hardware near the end of the show.
The best way to dissect its Oscar potential is to sort everything into the following three categories: Frontrunner to win, likely nomination with a chance at victory, and long shot charity nominations with virtually no chance at winning.
Frontrunner to win:
Costume Design: The way the colors contrast with one another and illustrate a greater Wakandan history bodes well. I was impressed with the craftsmanship of everything, and as moviegoers, we will be hard pressed to find any movie this year that comes close to costumes more refreshing than what we see in “Black Panther.” The only movie that could potentially take this down is one based in Britain called “The Favourite.” I have not seen that one yet, and to be frank, the only way that one can take “Black Panther” down is if it reinvigorates the Academy’s phase where it had an odd fetish for period piece costumes from royalty days (see: Academy Award Winners from 2006-2009 for “Best Costume Design” amongst a few other films that won it).
Hairstyling and Make-up: The aesthetics extend here as well; it would be surprising if something else takes it over “Black Panther.”
Best Original Song: Even though the soundtrack was underused, either “Pray for Me” or “All the Starz” has a strong chance at taking home this category. My personal preference is the latter, but they both pose a worthy challenge to any potential foe this year.
Production Design (Fancy term for “Best Setting”): As I mentioned earlier, Wakanda is vibrant and compelling—one of a kind in beauty and tech., but also its detailed mix of futuristic architecture with more traditional African style makes it a contender to take home this prize.
Likely Nomination and a Shot at Winning
Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: Cue the inevitable “what is the difference between ‘sound editing’ and ‘sound mixing’ question. To simplify the difference into one sentence: Sounds editing involves the creation of brand new sounds for the sake of the movie, while sound mixing incorporates already existing sounds into the movie in the most effective way possible. “Black Panther” does a solid job at both of these.
Visual Effects: The CGI brings Wakanda to life without being distracting, and given the Academy’s propensity to reward movies in this category with futuristic themes, a nomination in the category is within reach.
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’O as King T’Challa/Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) assistant/love interest shows some nice acting range throughout the course of the film and could sneak in there as a shout out to the need for strong female protagonists in movies.
Best Supporting Actor: Michael B. Jordan as the villain Erik Killmonger undergoes a major transformation to play this role, brings an interesting perspective to everything, and showcased emotional range. However, given the strength of the best supporting actor category this year, it seems highly unlikely he gets a nod.
Best Cinematography: For the most part, they do a good job capturing the essence of Wakanda along with the various action scenes, but nothing about it stuck out to the point where it would get anything more than a distant courtesy nomination.