Despite its initial praise, Black Panther (2018) has seen a significant amount of backlash and accusations of being overrated. But how many of them are true?
Instead of starting off with a joke or some witty remark like I usually do, I would like to take a moment to remember the late Chadwick Boseman. You will forever live on in our hearts.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is the 18th film in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, and follows the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the titular Black Panther. He has been crowned the new king of the isolationist nation of Wakanda after his father’s death, and vows to lead his kingdom to prosperity. However, he’s faced with challenges both inside and outside the country, such as a former US Navy SEAL named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who is out to challenge the throne for his own gains.
Black Panther was initially released in 2018 to near universal acclaim, with one of the highest critical scores out of all the MCU films. Everyone loved it: you wouldhave been a fool not to. Many had nothing but praise for its performances, its portrayal of African American narratives, and also for it being just a plain fun superhero film to enjoy. Yet, such praise inevitably led to its dissenters. While the post-release hype remained strong for several months, other voices started to pop up regarding the film, and whether it truly deserved its pedestal. People started digging deeper, finding numerous plot holes or inconsistencies, or claiming some characters were written weakly. Several video essays would come out on how Black Panther was overrated, some going as far as to say the film only achieved its status because of its cultural significance rather than anything of substance it actually had.
Obviously, neither blind praise nor vehement disapproval are healthy mindsets to have. Yet I have found the debate itself fascinating. With how much people are criticizing the film, could it be that the initial hype was unwarranted? How many of the ideas in “15 reasons why Black Panther is overrated” sorts of articles actually hold some weight? Today, I’d like to contribute to that discussion. I have taken some of the main points levied against the film since its release, and will try to see whether they are valid or not, and whether the film truly is overrated.
Does T’Challa Feel Regressive?
One of the main reasons why people claim the film is overrated is that it supposedly messes up the main character, mainly because of comparisons to his previous appearance. Black Panther actually made his MCU debut not in his solo movie, but in Captain America: Civil War, as one of the major side characters. He actually had a small arc throughout the film, where he learned the futility of vengeful rage. Because of this, many claim that he was already complete as a character in Black Panther, and therefore his emotional struggles in the latter feel regressive.
However, I find the basis of that argument – that T’Challa’s character growth was already complete thanks to Civil War – a rather shortsighted approach. Characters are multifaceted; T’Challa grew in one area, but that doesn’t mean his journey was complete. And in Black Panther, the arc that T’Challa goes through is completely different from the one he takes in Civil War.
Civil War focuses more on T’Challa as a man. There, he pursues the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) because of a mistaken belief that he has killed his father. His motivations are inherently personal, connected to his feelings as a son, without any regards to his nation. Therefore, him deciding to stop letting revenge consume him at the end is his growth into a more pragmatic man.
Black Panther, however, focuses more on T’Challa’s growth as a king. Rather than how he is going to let go of vengeance, the film questions how he is going to lead this nation. He may be a good man, but the movie questions whether that means he is a good king. Intead of digging up solved issues to throw at T’Challa again, the movie raises new issues that organically present themselves due to his rise to the throne.
In fact, we can see that T’Challa has kept the lessons he learned from Civil War. Despite the fact that Killmonger nearly kills him in Black Panther, as he intended to use Wakanda’s resources to start a war, T’Challa doesn’t lash out at Killmonger with hatred. Intead, he approaches him with mercy and tries to make him yield without casualties. An argument could be made about how he treats Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer that stole Wakanda’s natural resources many times in the past, as he is intent on executing him once he is caught. However, that is more because Klaue is an enemy of Wakanda, not just of T’Challa. Therefore, when he is out to execute Klaue, he upholds his responsibility as the king of Wakanda, rather than acting based just on his personal emotions. T’Challa’s character growth in Black Panther isn’t him regressing, but rather, him progressing further.
Is Wakanda’s Portrayal Insensitive?
The nation of Wakanda is shown to be the wealthiest and most advanced nation on the planet. It has technologies such as maglev trains for common usage, and other fun gadgets that would make guns look primitive in comparison. Yet, at the same time, it chooses its leaders through ritual combat. Some say this is an insensitive portrayal of African American culture, putting a crude, almost barbaric procedure into the politics of a supposedly developed nation.
However, it is likely the filmmakers’ intentions weren’t particularly malicious. On the other hand, I see this as a result of portraying Wakanda’s isolationist policies in its culture. Wakanda has spent all of its time shut off from the rest of the world, keeping its wealth or advanced tech a secret so that other nations dismiss it as a least developed country. Therefore, it hasn’t engaged in international trade or brought in foreign cultural influences such as pop culture or politics. Therefore, it is not out of question that the tribal parts of its culture have persisted to modern times. We even see this sort of mix in how Wakanda looks: its streets remain dirt paved despite having shiny tall buildings all around, and its residents’ clothes and armors have tribal influences.
I find that the issue with Wakanda is not due to insensitivity, but rather to incongruousness. Despite the film successfully meshing a technological paradise with classic African culture, the ritual combat still sticks out, considering the setting for the ritual combat leans especially heavily into its tribal roots, with chanting people on the cliffside and half-naked men fighting with spears and shields. It is certainly an odd part of the movie when the rest of it shows sleek laboratories or hover jets. I don’t take too much offense with it, as said duels are still entertaining and beautifully shot, but it is an understandable thing to be vexed about.
Does Wakanda Make No Sense?
Other criticisms have been levied at the logistics of Wakanda itself. Wakanda’s technological marvels are mostly thanks to its boundless supply of vibranium, a near-indestructible comic book super metal. Some ask how Wakanda was able to accumulate its wealth despite keeping all the vibranium to itself and never trading with other nations, or how people were able to process vibranium in the first place, when it is almost indestructible.
Logically speaking, such critiques are fairly valid. Wakanda is indeed an unrealistic nation to exist when you dig into every facet of its operation. However, it is here that I want to pose a question: is that scrutiny necessary? This actually applies to films as a whole, and the tendency to find plot holes in everything. On some level, it is necessary. If something in the movie doesn’t make sense, it can hamper your immersion. Yet I believe that if a movie manages to capture your attention with its story well enough and doesn’t draw too much attention to some of its smaller logistical flaws, it is fine to overlook such plot holes.
And Black Panther succeeds in doing so. Because its premise is engaging, I am on board with its exploration of T’Challa and the different facets of African American heritage, and the aforementioned questions dwindle to nitpicks. They are still there, but it’s nothing that will permanently harm my immersion. After all, what do you think is worth your time focusing on? The inner battles of T’Challa as he mulls over the sins of his ancestors? Or the theoretical economic history of Wakanda?
Has The Action Devolved?
What do you watch superhero movies for? Of course, it’s to see faithful characterizations of beloved superheroes and a compelling story to boot. But we also watch these movies to see cool stuff happen onscreen. It’s something that Black Panther has been panned for, as many claim its action feels lifeless and often devoid of tension. Many have also claimed its title of best picture is yet another sign of how overrated the film is.
In this case, I have to agree 100%. One issue is the lighting. I watched the movie both in theaters and on my computer, and in both cases I found several fight sequences to be too dark, which isn’t helped by the fact that the main character wears all black. In addition, compared to his lithe yet powerful movements in Civil War, Black Panther’s moves feel more sluggish in this movie, and don’t stand out as much.
A part of that may be due to a new move Black Panther has in this movie. His suit can now absorb kinetic energy and then let it out in a massive blast. While this is a cool gimmick and some neat eye candy when you first see it, the movie seems to rely too much on that gimmick instead of actual choreography. It also makes much of the action feel pointless, as T’Challa literally cannot get hurt by conventional means while wearing the suit.
Other action scenes don’t fare much better. The car chase in Busan is pretty creative, but other scenes, such as the war between Killmonger’s and T’Challa’s supporters in the climax, feel disappointingly small scale. There aren’t enough people involved to create a sense of grandeur such wars deserve, and the stuntwork shows its faults in many places. And when a superhero movie doesn’t have cool action, you can’t help but feel a bit let down.
Is the CGI Ugly?
Another visual related topic is the CGI. Despite being a big-budget blockbuster, the effects have been panned as quite an eyesore, some even going as far as to say the action scenes look like XBox cutscenes. On that note, I must agree once more. Apparently, the filmmakers were only given 6 weeks to film the final duel between T’Challa and Killmonger, which would explain why their movements look so rubbery and floppy.
The issue lies not just in the quality of CG used, but the amount of it as well. I get that there is a lot of technological beauty that you just can’t recreate without the help of digital effects, but there are other cases such as scenes with nature backdrops where real life sets could have been used. It is likely a result of the production team being rushed to fit into the overall MCU schedule of three movies per year, but knowing that doesn’t make the CG any less of an eyesore.
Is Black Panther Overrated?
So now we return to the initial question: is Black Panther overrated? Yes. But is it a bad movie? No.
Why the film gained both a huge following and some backlash is understandable. Before Black Panther, audiences had not had proper Black representation in a genre as mainstream as superheroes in over a decade. With movies like Blade dating all the way back to 1998, Black Panther would have been like finding an oasis in a desert. People were justifiably happy, and it may have led to some hasty reactions on some parts. Over time, heads began to cool, and many started to look past the the film’s cultural significance.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that Black Panther doesn’t have anything to offer besides being a cultural milestone. Its introspections about T’Challa’s character as a king and his debate with Killmonger’s philosophies are fascinating to watch, and it does its job well solidifying Black Panther’s place in the MCU. I also find it easy to look past many plot holes or potentially loaded topics. The only parts that truly drag it down are its visuals. With this being a visual medium, when another clearly CG energy blast fills the screen, it unfortunately hampers my immersion.
Thus, I feel Black Panther’s reception and status as the top of the MCU has certainly been overrated, especially when other entries have had just as solid writing and far tastier eye candy to boot. But that doesn’t keep it from being a solid movie. I wasn’t blown away by it or anything, but I had little trouble going back to it for this article. Hopefully Wakanda Forever will continue the film’s strong legacy, and show that the success of its predecessor was not a fluke.
Black Panther (2018) is now available to watch on Disney Plus. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will be released globally in theaters on November 11, 2022.