Blu-ray Review: Black Panther

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Marvel Studios' phenomenal hit Black Panther is still in the box office top ten, closing in on a $700 million domestic gross, as it arrives on Blu-ray (also 4K UltraHD). Of course, the titular character—portrayed by Chadwick Boseman—is a featured player in the biggest movie in theaters at the moment, Avengers: Inifinity War. Safe to say, Marvel is king and Black Panther is the newest jewel in its crown.

The movie was widely heralded for aspects above and beyond its storytelling, acting, and special effects virtues. Similar to DC's Wonder Woman last year, championed as a feminist statement, Black Panther became a signpost for black filmmakers in Hollywood. Here is a big-budget franchise film written and directed by a black filmmaker, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed; his Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole is also black), that stars a nearly all-black cast, and is set in a fictitious African country. Aside from a couple "token whites" (villainous Andy Serkis and MCU-returnee Martin Freeman), Panther makes no concession to mainstream 'white America' movie-going expectations. And it was embraced not only as a commercial and critical hit, it has become a bona fide pop culture event for audiences of all stripes.

For all of that, the celebration is entirely justified. Too bad the movie itself isn't one of the better entries in the MCU's now-19 movie run. Fair or not, one risks being viewed as "racist" for simply disliking Black Panther. This also recalls the hysterical fervor that greeted anyone willing to take an opposing viewpoint on the also-celebrated Wonder Woman, i.e. "You just don't support feminism!," etc. When the generally shallow (intentionally so, for the most part) superhero sub-genre of action films is imbued with greater social significance, things often start to get a little silly.

There's no point in recapping the overly complex plot of Black Panther at this point. Everyone who cares in the slightest already has heard about Wakanda. We first met Prince T'Challa in Marvel's Captain America: Civil War a couple years ago. He was a mysterious presence there, unfamiliar to the established Avengers. Since his father was killed amidst a terrorist attack in that earlier film, Black Panther finds T'Challa being crowned king of Wakanda, the most technologically-advanced nation on the planet. And the most private. None of Wakanda's amazing tech, powered by the extra-terrestrial metal vibranium, is known to the outside world. To the U.N., Wakanda is just another developing nation. 
 
Black Panther feat (380x214).jpg There are some very interesting ideas at the heart of Panther. An ethically questionable decision made by the late King T'Chaka (John Kani, also returning from Civil War) has resulted in the rise of a real threat to Wakanda's way of life: Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, delivering the film's finest performance). Killmonger believes Wakanda has made a perilous error by refusing to aid and assist other developing nations that could benefit from their superhuman advances. Maybe he has a point, though his "might is right" philosophy is understandably at odds with Wakanda's peaceful neutrality.

There's nothing wrong, per se, with trying to lace a popcorn movie with thought-provoking topics. But ultimately Black Panther is about car chases, mano a mano fights, and CG spectacle more than its deeper issues. Part of the reason critics fell all over themselves to praise it is that it is admittedly "different" in its approach than anything that went before it in the MCU. But unfortunately the film is marked by lackluster dialogue, leaden plotting that makes its 134-minute running time feel even longer, and a puzzling dichotomy at its center.

Wakanda we're told (and can plainly see) is in fact beyond any society on earth in its technology. Yet its archaic monarchy and willingness to submit to brute force challenges to the throne are steeped in the "tribal" cliches that went out of vogue with '30s-era Tarzan movies. Why do Wakandans assemble at a waterfall to chant, bob their shoulders up and down, and watch two guys pummel the stuffing out of each other in order to declare a ruler for their people? It's nonsensical. And those are the topics at the center of Panther that could've used further exploration. Instead we get a big blow-out battle at the end that recalls the 'gungans vs. battle droids' climax of The Phantom Menace.

Disney's Blu-ray edition of Black Panther is supplemented with a number of special features: deleted scenes ("Okoye and W'Kabi Discuss the Future of Wakanda" should've made the final cut; including it would've only necessitated the trimming of a few minutes of mind-numbing CG action), a gag reel (as unfunny as most), a series of four short-ish featurettes (24 minutes total), a roundtable discussion of adapting the film from its comic book source, and a couple of promos for other entries in the MCU. Best of all is an audio commentary by Ryan Coogler and Hannah Beachler (the film's production designer) that demonstrates the ambition invested in the film.

Just because it's not my personal favorite in the ongoing MCU doesn't mean I don't have a lot of respect for the effort that went into Black Panther. It stumbles in terms of shoehorning relevant sociological issues into sci-fi/fantasy/action territory. It's missing the watchable fizz that carries the best MCU movies along so effortlessly (the humor, what there is of it, in Panther feels grafted on obligatorily).

Black Panther BD (300x380).jpg

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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