Spoilers ahead for Black Panther.
There’s so much Black Panther does well that its flaws end up more glaring in comparison to the strengths of the rest of Ryan Coogler’s Marvel movie. Coogler definitely feels like he’s doing the best he can within the standard superhero tale, and his story is fearless in exploring politics, legacy, and black culture. It’s a film that has the freedom to paint Wakanda in big, bold colors to the point where I would absolutely be on board if Marvel wanted to launch a weekly TV series about what’s happening in the secretive African nation. It’s a world that feels lived-in, well defined, and unforgettable. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Black Panther ending.
The climax of the film sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to the capitol to face off against Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has claimed the throne after besting T’Challa in combat. Unsurprisingly, Erik is slightly reluctant to give up his power, so the action splits across three separate conflicts. The first has W’Kabi’s (Daniel Kaluuya) forces squaring off against the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are protecting T’Challa. Then in the air you have Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) shooting down Wakandan ships that are threatening to take Vibranium weapons to Killmonger’s War Dogs that could use them to upend the world. Finally, you have Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) trying to stop Killmonger, but it all leads up to a fight between T’Challa and Killmonger in the mines beneath Wakanda.
Although the stakes of the battle are clear—if the weapons get out, they will destabilize the world—the climax itself is poorly drawn, as if it had been written down and the rest of the movie just had to shrug and accept it. For example, Ross is piloting his plane remotely, but if Wakanda has this remote control technology, shouldn’t it be available for all pilots, similar to what we saw with the Sovereign in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? And if this technology is only available to Shuri and Ross, does that mean Ross is just shooting down Wakandans whose greatest crime is following their king’s orders? That’s an impossible position for the faceless Wakandan pilot who either has to disobey the new king or, show disloyalty, and hope that T’Challa wins the day.
We also have to believe that W’Kabi would turn on T’Challa, his close friend, as well as Okoye, his love, just because he’s so grateful to Killmonger for murdering Klaue (Andy Serkis). Yes, W’Kabi does say he’d be willing to work as a conqueror, but the willingness to do that and following a man who killed his friend is a bit of a leap. T’Challa and Okoye are people he’s close to, but he’s going to risk his life and the lives of his men just for Killmonger’s mission? Perhaps W’Kabi deeply believes in Killmonger’s vision and there’s simply not enough set up for it. Nevertheless, his turn also undermines one of the movie’s central themes, which is that T’Challa is a strong king because he has strong bonds with the people around him. Killmonger is ultimately alone, so he can only exert power through force and manipulation. If the bonds of love and friendship are as easily broken as W’Kabi shows, then T’Challa is a weaker king.
But the biggest misstep is in setting up yet another battle where the hero faces a darker version of himself. Let’s set aside the fact that even though Shuri, the technological leader of Wakanda, was on the run, Killmonger still figured out how to use the other Black Panther armor. There’s still the larger issue that everything in this movie is going to boil down to a fistfight between two people who have similar powers, and the hero wins because the hero is the better person.
We’ve seen this climactic battle since the first MCU movie, Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, Marvel has done some variation on it with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Ant-Man. It reduces all the conflict and all of the characters not down to what makes them distinctive, but to the technology they use (or the tech that made them).
Marvel is known for having templates for their movies, and then they work with directors to see if that direction has vision that can work inside a Marvel framework. It’s not a project built from scratch as much as it’s a collaboration between the vision Marvel wants and the director being able to meet the studio on that vision. For his part, Ryan Coogler does exceptionally well at crafting a superhero movie like no other, but at the end of the day, he also has a Marvel movie that resembles more than a few others.