Black Panther Storytelling Analysis.
Before we begin,
With an over $200 million opening weekend, Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman cement The Black Panther as (rightfully) one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
But… could it be better?
Of course it could and I’m here to give you my take on that.
I’ll start with saying it was definitely a great movie, with great production, direction and cast. Ryan Coogler is an amazing, up and coming, talent that has already produced two great full length films: the thoughtful, Fruitvale Station and the fun, over the top, Creed.
Chadwick Boseman, playing the Black Panther, has previously wowed me in the films, 42 The Jackie Robinson Story, biopic and Get On Up, the James Brown biopic.
If you haven’t seen these four movies, I highly recommend them all for different reasons. So now that we know who the 2 main players are of this masterpiece, let me further set the stage for my viewing:
I saw Black Panther on Saturday morning in my hometown of Oakland, California at our crown jewel cinema house, The Grand Lake Theater.
It’s the same theater that Coogler and I went to as kids (not together). It was here, that Coogler surprised fans at the Thursday night opening (He also premiered Fruitvale Station here during its’ release).
My wife and I attended the 12:45 showing, which was packed. The Oakland, African American community came out in full force. People brought their kids, wore African clothing and treated the movie more like a celebration than just a film. I was happy and proud for my friends and neighbors to finally have their likeness represented in not just a positive light, but a shining beacon that any community could aspire to. From the opening shot with the word “Oakland” on the screen, Coogler had us, as the theater roared with cheer.
I was transported back to my youth as a kid in Oakland, growing up in the neighborhood where the real life Black Panthers were formed and operated, where Mr. Neon (everyone’s favorite substitute teacher) would teach us Capoeira, where the Black Cowboys of Oakland would hold their parades. From the look on the crowd’s faces, I could tell I wasn’t alone.
So, now, with all that amazing hype and build up out of the way, I’m going to try and stay grounded as I dive into what worked and didn’t work with Black Panther.
For starters, my expectations were high, based on the previous films by Coogler and company. Add to that, my personal connections to some of the locations and characters and I really needed to be aware of my critical thinking!
As a story minded artist, I still want a clever, clear and well thought out film. We don’t always get that with the 2 hour and 15 run time of Black Panther, but what we do get for most of the movie, is Coogler’s clear and concise vision and camera work.
Sometimes you’ll watch a movie and recognize a director’s touch right away, like Sam Raimi, Wes Anderson, or Tim Burton. Other times, you’ll get a director that does his best to blend into the background of his work.
The jury is still out on what type of director Coogler will become, but I will say, for now, he does fall back and let the storytelling do its job. And that’s one of the most promising parts of Black Panther, we are rarely ever sucked out of the large tapestry of characters and locations. There is one glaring exception that I’ll get to in a minute.
The Black Panther does a great job of fitting in with the rest of the Marvel stable of films with the direction usually sticking to a straightforward path. No goofy editing, crazy camera angles, lighting, etc. As big a production as these Marvel movies have become, it might be a double edged sword here, not giving Coogler a proper chance to put his, sole stamp on the film.
The movie follows several beats we have come to expect from other Marvel films, down to the CG fueled brawl at the end. Panther goes up against his arch nemesis while the rest of the country wages war against different factions. It’s one of the weaker moments in the movie, overall.
I’ll be honest, a real test of how great a blockbuster type movie is, is how awake I am by the third act. Even in Wonder Woman, I felt the movie drag by the end and the same could almost be said here, except for one big difference:
Black Panther has one of the better antagonists of any Marvel movie to date, the always amazing and charming, Michael B. Jordan, as Killmonger. Killmonger’s motivation throughout most of the movie is relevant to today’s world, personal to the character and (almost) always on point when he’s on screen. Killmonger made me care about him more than most protagonists in a film! His motivation carries the entire third act with great success.
What didn’t work for this character and most of the beginning of the movie, was the plot, which made little sense.
If you didn’t see my last blog post about the difference between comics and film, I talked a little about how films can use speed and motion to buzz past details like plot and story with a bit of razzle dazzle and action.
Black Panther is completely guilty of this as well. For about two thirds of the movie, the villain’s motivations are never clear, with long shots of action carrying the scenes. It’s only when Killmonger makes it to the end of the second act of the film that he becomes an actual interesting character. But his story is so strong, that he makes up for all the previous scenes.
I may have missed some small detail here or there (with all the cheering from the crowd going on!) but the scheming of the villains towards the beginning seemed beyond me. It seemed like they were only added to lengthen the film and action scenes. Even after their machinations were explained, it seemed overly complicated to the plot of the movie.
There is one scene in particular, Killmonger and Klaue’s final confrontation, that feels like it got hit hard at the chopping block, knocking me out of the story with confusion as to what happened! Killmonger kills Klaue off screen and we, the audience are left confused as to what went on. Using off screen violence can be a great way to get around gruesome details or even let an audience’s imagination run wild, but that wasn’t the case here, just shoddy editing.
While the odd edit may lead to a bit of confusion, it’s probably best that we saw the end of Klaue, as he added very little value to the story. Killmonger’s love interest was also an odd inclusion that didn’t add much value. My guess is that there is more footage that expands on both those characters. It’s a shame that the story lost a bit of steam at this point.
Klaue was my least favorite part of the whole movie, who seemed more in line with a tertiary Batman villain rather than fitting in with all the great characters in Black Panther.
Remember, typically, we want very clear and concise storytelling. Edit the unessential. Klaue was unessential to the overall plot.
I would have been happier if Klaue had less screen time (or even none!) and we instead focused more on the relationships between Panther and Nakia, or between Okoye and W’Kabi. As great a character as Okoye is, there could have been more emotional weight behind her very tough decisions between honor and love.
Character development is one of the strongest parts of Ryan Coogler’s storytelling prowess.
Not just in Black Panther, but all his movies. If he focuses on that, he’ll always strike gold and Black Panther is no exception. I just wish there was more time to get to know the cast more instead of all the car flipping and fighting. Who knows, if we had less crazy action, we could have more of the scene stealing Shuri and M’Baku.
Overall, Coogler and his team did an excellent job of balancing the big budget extravaganza of a very corporate movie. I do, however, wonder about some of the choices made, like the spectacular CG fueled end battle, some editing choices and the South Korea action. Even with those minor flaws, Black Panther is a solid, excellent movie with characters we want more of.
The filmmakers uplifted a whole people with their production and casting as well as uplifting the superhero genre at the same time by giving a story that has more depth than just, good versus evil, with very clear objectives for most of the cast.
The production is as much a landmark as any great movie and adds to what is already, a fun story. If you love the genre, this is a worthy entry that makes you care about the characters and Black Panther can finally take its’ place as one of the great superhero movies of our time.
I want to know, where does Black Panther rank for you in the Superhero film genre list?
Until next time,