Come for the Panther but stay for the Serkis.
Black Panther (2018): 8 out of 10: Marvel Universe’s first African superhero (Chadwick Boseman) gets his first solo outing after an appearance in Captain America: Civil War (AKA the good Avenger’s sequel) where he takes over his hidden African kingdom of Wakanda after the death of his father in a terrorist attack. As the king, he faces questions on whether to open his country to the wider world and also to manage threats from a usurper (Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan) who threatens to take the throne.
The Good. There are some outstanding performances in Black Panther. Angela Bassett brings gratis as the Queen mother (And looks neither her own nor the character’s age); Winston Duke shines as M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe; Letitia Wright is funny and brilliant as the Black Panther’s sister Shuri and seriously needs her own movie; and last but certainly not least, is the best Marvel villain since Loki (and one that gives Heath Ledger’s Joker a run for his money) Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue.
Another thing that saves the movie is excellent costume design and a genuine sense that they took care to absorb real African cultures into their fictional world. This is an African utopia with a glorious sense of place. The music and costumes combine to help recreate a magical kingdom that still seems somewhat grounded.
I cannot emphasize how much fun and joy the four actors above bring to the screen. Heck, I am recommending the film based on Wright’s and Serkis’ characters alone. They honestly save the movie.
The Bad: There is a moment in the film (or two) where there is an opportunity to have Winston Duke, as the leader of the Jabari tribe, usurp the crown and take the Black Panther mantle. The movie would have been wise to take this opportunity. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is dull and incompetent. Lady Jane Grey had a longer and more effective rule than this dope. Winston Duke has charisma and presence, something one would hope for in a Marvel superhero. (As bad as the first two Thor movies could be, they at least always got Thor right.)
The antagonist Killmonger isn’t that much better. He is overshadowed by Andy Serkis’ bad guy, he rants like Buggin Out from Do the Right Thing and he is as an Angry Black Man trope that mostly died out in the seventies. His beef is that Wakanda didn’t use its wealth and technology to help the African diaspora, particularly as it refers to the Transatlantic slave trade. In other words, he is upset they didn’t invade Mali in the 15th century.
Black Panther really missed an opportunity here. Wakanda is a Utopia. All Utopia’s have a hidden dark side (See Dubai). Why not have a hidden underclass that Killmonger tries to save? The Mali Empire (1230 to 1670) is basically Wakanda in real life. I mean, it is an absolute monarchy with mines. It doesn’t take a genius to write in an underclass for Killmonger to identify with. It would have also given the Black Panther character some depth and a reason to disagree with his traditionalist mother.
The Ugly: Someone at Disney shorted these poor folks on their FX budget. They got the B-team. You would think with all the money Disney was saving remaking both The Lion King and a superhero movie in the same film, they could have spared a few bucks.
In Conclusion: Remember how underwhelming the third act was in the Original Iron Man? Remember how we ignored that because the film was so good? Black Panther is the now the eighteenth Marvel movie, yet are we still treated to the same lame showdown and battle in a field?
While it is no Blade, Black Panther is a treat of music and costumes and some breakout performances. Come for the Panther, but stay for the Serkis.