in Retrospecticus, Review

Black Panther (2018)

Original Review: Wakanda Forever (four stars)

I think Wakanda is Marvel’s most interesting idea. Like Clark Kent being the alter ego of Superman, an unassuming, landlocked African nation secretly being the world’s richest and most technologically advanced place is immediately exciting. On top of that, it is a tantalizing alternate reality where we get to see a country that has grown up peacefully and without the influence of colonization. It’s so intriguing that it’s fun just to think about. Black Panther is one of the MCU’s most popular films and definitely its most acclaimed in a big part because it realizes this world. The struggle between the two lead characters, T’Challa and Killmonger, represents alternate visions for the future of Wakanda, making the story more compelling than typical save-the-planet super heroics. But it all ends in a terrible CGI battle, perhaps the worst out of all Marvel movies. Here’s my pitch for how they could have avoided that.

One of my pet peeves is when movies insist on doing the same thing twice. When it’s not a deliberate redundancy, it makes the second instance of whatever is being repeated automatically seem tedious – the stakes are lower because obviously the other outcome has to happen or else the movie wouldn’t be repeating it. In Black Panther‘s case, they repeat the trial by combat to become Black Panther and king. When Killmonger asks T’Challa to fight and he accepts, you know that T’Challa will lose because we’ve already see him win and winning again would bring Killmonger’s story to an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion. So my proposal is this: Combine both trials into the second one.

What this does to the first half of the movie is better feed distrust in T’Challa among Wakanda’s leadership. There could be some existing tension with some people (namely W’Kabi) about how King T’Chaka allowed T’Challa to become the Black Panther instead of giving up the crown and having a trial back then. Maybe even Nakia or Ramonda could push T’Challa to do the ceremony but he brushes them off saying that apprehending Klaue takes priority over tradition. Mostly just add even more tension to the council’s desire to see T’Challa become less a warrior and more a king. He drops all of this when they get the lead on Klaue being in South Korea.

This time, instead of Klaue being rescued and then murdered by Killmonger, T’Challa and the others capture them both and bring them back to Wakanda – I think maybe even for the same reason, Ross getting shot. I’m not trying to put Martin Freeman totally out of work. On the flight back, Killmonger hints at the truth, implying that T’Chaka wasn’t as great a man as T’Challa wants to believe. He doesn’t fully tip his hand, but T’Challa is suspicious, especially because Killmonger has the ring. Angered and confused, T’Challa orders them both imprisoned.

With Klaue captured, there are no more reasons to delay the trial any further. Everybody goes to the waterfall and T’Challa drinks the juice that takes his powers away. Cut back to the jail, Klaue uses his magic arm to bust out of his cell. He lets Killmonger out and says something about sticking to the plan – he thinks this was all a ruse to steal more vibranium. Killmonger says that was never the plan and mercilessly kills Klaue. After all, if it wasn’t for Klaue, Killmonger’s dad wouldn’t have been killed. Back at the trial, M’Baku makes his big appearance and fights T’Chaka. He wounds T’Challa, just like in the existing movie, but ultimately yields when T’Challa reminds him his people still need him. With that done, everyone celebrates, but just then, Killmonger appears and challenges the throne.

Everyone is aghast, Ramonda says only someone of royal blood can enter the trial. Killmonger says that he is of royal blood and forces Zuri to confirm that his claim is valid. Zuri tells everyone about how T’Chaka killed his brother and left Killmonger behind, devastating the royal family. T’Challa has no choice but to accept, but he’s in no condition to win this fight: he’s injured from fighting M’Baku and his heart is broken. He makes a valiant effort, but Killmonger wins the battle. Zuri steps in the way of the killing blow, dying but saving T’Challa by making Killmonger throw him over the waterfall instead of stabbing him.

The outcome is the same: Killmonger ingests the herb and gets super powers while also becoming king. We get to see his visit to the Ancestral Plain where he has that conversation with his dad. When he awakens, Killmonger is even more resolved, telling the council the outside world is worse than they know and wins over the support of W’Kabi, with whom he begins making plans to mobilize their agents around the world. Meanwhile, Nakia, Ramonda, Shuri, and Ross flee to the mountains where they meet M’Baku who is protecting an injured – but not comatose – T’Challa.

Instead of just immediately going to war, in my version, Killmonger needs a little time to work with W’Kabi to come up with a plan and mobilize on it. During that time, a defeated T’Challa will be healing with the mountain tribe. He’ll question if he was worthy of being a king, if Killmonger is right that Wakanda shouldn’t stay isolated, if his father was actually a good person. Everyone will get a chance to tell him that they’re counting on him – that he is their king. Eventually he makes his decision, they have to stop Killmonger.

I still want to have the big battle with the rhinos and planes and gizmos, this is still a Marvel movie. But this time, T’Challa does not have super powers. He makes his way through the battlefield alongside the mountain tribe warriors, succeeding purely on his own incredible skill as a warrior, fighting numerous better-armed border tribe soldiers and still winning. The others will also get to fight with their cool custom weapons and Okoye can still have her fight with Killmonger. But now, all this is about getting T’Challa in a position to make a speech to the people of Wakanda. He’ll explain that Killmonger is right, the time for Wakanda to remain a secret is over. He’ll concede that his predecessors made mistakes and he wasn’t sure he was the right man to be both king and Black Panther. But he’ll also say that Killmonger has become the type of monster he hates, and that Wakanda needs to rejoin the world as a friend, in the name of peace, not as conquerors. Oh, and by the way, he did not yield, so the trial is not over. And the fighting will stop.

Killmonger tells T’Challa that he’s beaten him before, this time it will be even easier because he has the powers of the Black Panther. Someone (Okoye?) tells him that traditionally he would give up his powers, that he hasn’t earned them yet. But Killmonger doesn’t care about tradition and he really wants to kill T’Challa. He’s so close to achieving his dream. That makes him a little careless, which T’Challa exploits by using Shuri’s EMP beads from the beginning of the movie, which she has upgraded with vibranium-dampening tech, on Killmonger to destroy his suit and weaken him.

Now instead of the dumb CGI fight in the vibranium mines, we’ll get a brutal fight in front of all of Wakanda. Killmonger is a better fighter and still a little super powered, but T’Challa has experience and the power of righteousness on his side. Blow after blow, T’Challa keeps fighting on, making Killmonger sloppier and angrier. Eventually, Killmonger makes a big mistake and T’Challa stabs him. He falls, but T’Challa catches him, saying they can still save him. Killmonger says no, death is better than bondage, and looks out at the setting sun. He sees, for the first time, the beauty his father told him about, the home he had dreamed of as a boy. And he dies.

Finally, T’Challa gets a chance to drink the herb again and meet with his ancestors. He greets his father, first warmly saying he misses him, but then resolutely telling him and the others they were all wrong. T’Chaka tells him he’s proud of him, that he will make a better king – all that Odin from Ragnarok stuff. I would keep the rest of the ending unchanged: T’Challa establishes an outreach center at the building where his uncle died, trusting his closest friends to run it. He then goes to the United Nations and reveals Wakanda’s true nature to the rest of the world.

Anyway, that’s how I would have rewritten Black Panther to get around the few parts of it that I don’t love. It’s probably some hack bullshit, I’m no screenwriter and this movie won Academy Awards. This was just something I had to get out – a feeling and I needed to turn it into words. I know that writer-director Ryan Coogler is capable of doing intense, exciting action scenes and it’s always disappointed me that Black Panther and Killmonger’s second fight is so lame. A mirror match in an underground mine where no one could see what was happening? Seriously?

Canon-wise, Black Panther was more about tying up loose ends than establishing new leads. We find out Klaue was able to steal vibranium because he had N’Jobu’s help, explaining something that probably didn’t need to be explained from Age of Ultron. Post-credits, we see that vibranium has helped Bucky get over his brainwashing, making him the “White Wolf” for some reason. Mostly, from the greater MCU perspective, Black Panther just exists to set up Wakanda as a battlefield in Infinity War. How lucky we are that so many talented people seized on it as a chance to make something special.

MCU Power Rankings: If you’re someone who considers all super hero action obligatory, this is probably your favorite of these. I’m not, so it’s just below Thor: Ragnarok. To put it in a way that maximizes frustration for my more discerning audience, it’s just a bit better than Age of Ultron.