Black Panther

2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordon, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown | directed by Ryan Coogler | 2hrs 14mins |

Studio Pitch: That cool panther guy from Captain America: Civil War, what’s his story?

Previously on the Marvel series, during Captain America’s latest adventure in South Africa we met T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the prince of the fictional African country Wakanda. In Civil War T’Challa, in his high tech panther skin suit, seemed like the rebellious son of royalty using his secret identity to work outside the law and right the wrongs in classic comic book fashion. In his own spin-off Black Panther we learn the truth is far more complex. The Black Panther is the royalty line that leads the Wakandan people and Wakanda is the world’s grandest secret: the most technologically advanced city on Earth, hidden from the rest of the world. All of it is made possible by the greatest movie McGuffin since Unobtainium, Vibranium, an alien metal/energy source/plot device from a meteor that crashed in the cradle of civilization centuries ago.

As the latest indie movie director to get called up to helm a huge studio blockbuster, Ryan Cooglar (Fruitvale Station, Creed) certainly has his hands full with Black Panther. Even for a new franchise set-up, it is an incredibly dense and busy movie.  Cooglar juggles not just introducing our hero, now walking into the responsibilities of King after his father’s death, but the world-building design and rituals of Wakanda, the villain set-up and a family drama. Cooglar does it all without letting it get away from him. Black Panther is a sci-fi film, a power fantasy and your average Marvel action movie with teasing shades of Shakespearian family betrayals and James Bond spy sequences.

The movie juggles all of this to varying degrees of success. My reaction to the film changed almost from scene to scene.  Sometimes it delivers a killer action sequence (like a Skyfall-esque casino fight and resulting car chase through South Korea) and sometimes the action falls flat (rhinos!). Sometimes the world-building is clever like T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, Black Mirror: Black Museum) as the film’s Q whose gadget liar is a brilliant bit of production design that mixes African architecture with a Japanese nightclub. Sometimes it fails to feel fully realized (we actually see very little of Wakandan streets outside of palace interiors and Vibranium mines). The set design of what we do see is all wildly imaginative. The film is, if nothing else, a visual feast. But like Thor’s Asguard, Wakandan doesn’t feel lived in. It doesn’t feel much deeper than actors up against a series of green screens and computer animated landscapes.

The other problem with the world-building is Vibranium itself, which fails to work as a real world parallel (if Unobtainium stands in for oil in Avatar, what the heck is Vibranium?) and as a plot device with a specific set of rules. The technological leaps afforded by Vibranium allows Wakanda to be Marvel’s own little Star Wars universe tucked right here on modern day Earth. A world of space ships, holographic communication, lasers, remote vehicles, blanket shields and oversized rhinos. A society that is ruled by a monarchy but also transitions power with ritualistic fights to the death. A foreign policy that is entirely isolationist. Vibranium is simply an all purpose sonic screwdriver that plugs in and allows the movie to do whatever the plot requires at that moment and in infinite supply. Even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m not sure how game changing it is. Since the events of The Avengers, alien technology has been scattered all over the world so is Vibranium really going to throw everyone back on their heels like the film’s villain thinks?

The politics of Wakanda are also a bit wonky. T’Challa continues to argue his isolationist stance basically because it’s always been like that. Which brings us to Michael B. Jordan as one of Marvel’s better villains (both in motive and ferocity, Jordan is terrific as always), playing the super-comic-booky named baddie “Killmonger”. Killmonger and his group of assassins and thieves (lead by one-armed arms dealer Andy Serkis) run around the world toppling governments and stealing back Wakandan artifacts from “colonizers”. Killmonger’s story and the way it unfolds is the film’s highlight. It’s rich and cleverly told. Killmonger also undermines Wakanda’s own sense of tradition. Wakandans engage in sacred rituals like the ceremonial fight to the death for royalty – until a legitimate challenger comes in that they don’t like and the movie snaps into Star Wars rebellion mode. The debate about Wakanda’s place in, not just the world, but the film’s revisionist history is an intriguing one. It’s in these moments, when Cooglar is paying off nearly every little set-up in surprising ways, when it offers up a sympathetic villain with things to say worth debating, is when Black Panther starts threatening to transcend the genre.

Then, as if a Marvel studio executive threw down the script and demanded to know where the big battle was, the movie takes some pretty hasty and ridiculous turns toward the third act. I’ve complained about how formulaic this series has become over the last 10 years and never has it been more evident than in Black Panther, a movie that is so lovingly crafted in the details that it really stands out when it slims down and forces itself back into the superhero formula. This movie more than most recent superhero movie could have gone any number of directions, but like Wonder Woman (which also set up some beautiful world building and character relationships in it’s first 2 acts) it becomes a disappointing special effects battle blow-out in the final reel.  The climax of the film feels rushed and comes on so suddenly that it’s as if several scenes were just lifted wholesale out of the final cut.

In the end, Cooglar is only allowed to color outside the lines in the most superficial ways. The Wakanda isolationism debate is given a few lines of dialog. The Wakandan struggle between tradition and tyranny is given a few. The film’s power fantasy, one where a fictional energy source could have changed the entire course of history of African descendants across the globe, is articulated by the film’s villain like a revenge-seeking kid and not given a thought by T’Challa. And then there is Black Panther himself… and he’s kind of boring, livened up mostly by the solid cast of female warriors around him. Marvel knows how to fill the call sheet with talents who will make the most of their divided screen time, which is exactly what  Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) and Letitia Wright do even while saddled with cheesy Marvel one-liners. What’s the turning point in T’Challa’s arc that makes him question centuries old Wakanda policy? It seems like Killmonger just beats it out of him.

Still, this franchise is a machine managed for maximum efficiency by Disney and Marvel at this point. They know how to make these movies, know just what boxes to hit and almost always get the mechanics right. Marvel formula fatigue has set in at this point. Had Black Panther come out earlier in the Marvel cycle it might have felt a lot fresher. It certainly isn’t as rich or cliche-busting a comic book experience as last year’s stellar Logan. The movie has it’s moments, delivering more to chew on then your average action movie and it looks gorgeous.  High on ambition, production design and at least one of it’s three stories works in a big way, but it has issues with pacing – chugging in the middle and lurching abruptly to a goofy end. A mixed bag of all that, and the jarring sound of Martin Freeman doing an American accent too.

4 thoughts on “Black Panther”

  1. This review has opinions throughout instead of closing with opinions. It does not help me to decide whether to watch this movie or not. What audience is the author speaking? Most will only have general knowledge of the Marvel Universe. This review is more rhetoric than review.

  2. Excellent question and comment here. From my perspective, I don’t think it’s the job of a critic or a movie review to persuade or dissuade the reader from seeing the movie. People are going to make up their mind to see something based on the trailer, cast or subject, etc and a critic shouldn’t have the hubris to think they can change that. To box the movie into a go/no-go recommendation would do a disservice especially to one like Black Panther, which is very dense and includes things that work (like a great villain and imaginative production design) and things that don’t (like a rushed third act and tricky world building). Who are these reviews for? Generally for someone who has already seen the movie and is interested in a discussion on it. I’m less interested in how these movies play during their short life in the theaters than how they may be looked on in the entire pantheon of film. This review in particular is way too specific in the details Black Panther does well, doesn’t do well and compares with other works to be considered rhetoric.

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