Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Guns... So Primitive

Year: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o 
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

For a huge corporation dominating the box office, Marvel sure does manage to take some risks. Let's not pretend that these risks aren't carefully calculated and demographically analyzed within a nanometer of their lives to be as safe and sure as possible, but they're risks nonetheless. 

They hand movies to indie auteurs with only a few low budget gems under their belt (Taika Waititi earned his way to Thor: Ragnarok with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and James Gunn nabbed Guardians of the Galaxwith Super, a film that had literally 1% of that Marvel flick's budget), they adapt low-performing properties into mega-blockbusters (the aforementioned Guardians had two brief runs, and hadn't had a comic published in at least four years when the movie came out), and though all their movies have the same general sheen, they aren't afraid of changing up the tone and even genre of individual entries (from the paranoid political thriller of The Winter Soldier to the frothy heist antics of Ant-Man, there's a pretty wide range of material at this point). When you really take a look at the way they've gone at least a teensy bit out of their way to make sure their mass-market product is guided by interesting, dynamic people, it's pretty, well, marvelous.

Black Panther is a combination of all of these things, and way more. The character of Black Panther is a Marvel B-side, though he's right on the cusp of being a household name, at least in nerdier families. The director, Ryan Coogler, only had two films under his belt, though admittedly one of them was Creed, already a successful, critically acclaimed franchise extension. But most importantly, this is the biggest budget film ever to have a predominantly black cast, a black director, all while being the first Marvel film with a female cinematographer to boot. These are all very wonderful, and yes, capital-I Important things. While I personally wouldn't consider this kind of casting and hiring particularly risky (because I live in the real world, and am aware that all kinds of people can make all kinds of art), Hollywood has a tendency to view anything non-whitewashed as a potential financial loss. In the eyes of Hollywood, the near-future careers of many hard-working, diverse crew members depends on the success of  the mega-multi-million dollar Black Panther, as does the continuation of the box office juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's what I'd call a risk, and a very Important one.

Of course, the movie also has to be good in addition to important, but would Marvel take a risk on something that wasn't good?

Well, you got me there.

Spoiler alert: It's good. But first, the plot, which is blissfully as insular as it can possibly be from the greater orchestrations of the Marvel universe. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the death of T'Chaka (John Kani), King of the African nation of Wakanda, the throne has been passed to his son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman, who is finally free from playing every significant historical African-American figure the country to offer). Wakanda, though it seems to be a third world farming country from the outside, is secretly a high-tech utopia thanks to its vast deposits of vibranium, a magical compound that does, I dunno, comic book stuff. It's magic.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Wakanda is as pleased with T'Challa being crowned King as his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and tech-genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). The five tribes of Wakanda slowly begin to splinter according to their various allegiances, but the real breaking point comes in the form of two villains: the chav-bro arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, using his actual god-given face) and his partner in crime Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who is three for three on Ryan Coogler films at this point), an Oakland native who has mysterious ties to the Wakandan War Dog tribe.

Everything swiftly descends into what you might just call a "game of thrones" involving every major Wakandan figure, including General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the bald, entirely female royal guard; W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, currently an Oscar nominee for Get Out), a friend of T'Challa whose overwhelming hatred of Klaue makes him unpredictable; Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa's former flame and an international spy who wants to use Wakandan technology to help those in need out in the world; and also Zuri (Forest Whitaker), but I'm honestly not really sure what he does. 

He mainly just delivers exposition and takes care of flowers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Black Panther how very political it is. It's necessarily about political engagement and the responsibility of upper-class minorities to reach out and help the oppressed (which honestly isn't as far from the general theme of superhero movies as you'd think, although it is much more fervently expressed here). Occasionally the movie gets a little didactic, especially in a clunky monologue it shoves onto Michael B. Jordan's shoulders midway through, but otherwise it's soaked with an urgency and vitality that's startling for a film with this corporate pedigree.

But that's yet another thing about what makes it Important, and I'm a little sick of dwelling on that for the time being. Because Black Panther is fun, and it doesn't serve the movie to forget that. A tremendous cast is delivering crackling dialogue here, with just enough of a snappy edge to remind you that you're watching a Marvel project, but still shedding the vestiges of Joss Whedon flop sweat and finding its own personality in the process.

I mean, there's no way you can deny how awe-inspiring it is to look at that cast list. These people are all from different genres, mediums, and levels of fame, but they come together to create something spectacular. Everyone is having fun here, even Lupita Nyong'o, who is saddled with a tragically generic love interest role. A bright spot here is certainly Letitia Wright (whose biggest credit up to this point has been the odious British TV series Cucumber/Banana, which I regretfully watched all of in my capacity as a recapper at The Backlot) as the eager younger sister, whose energy and vivacity light up the screen like a thousand gigawatt bulb, but sometimes it's hard to look anywhere but the villains.

Marvel has notoriously had a problem with crafting solid antagonists, and that issue is cracked wide open here. Klaue is maybe not the best example, but the anarchistic glee with which Andy Serkis digs into the role is immensely satisfying. Killmonger, however, in spite of the ridiculous name, is a force to be reckoned with. Michael B. Jordan takes a role that we've seen in every Marvel origin story from the beginning of time (a villain who is a dark mirror-image of the main hero's costume and power set) and tosses in about a dozen extra layers of prickly emotion, charismatic intimidation, and moral ambiguity. He's not just a one note slab of eeeeevil, but rather a complex, satisfying character who serves up the themes of the movie on a silver platter. And not for nothing, he's so good-looking it almost hurts. Part of being a movie star is drawing the eye like an electromagnet, and he's at full charge.

Dude knows how to rock a vest, what can I say?

On top of all that, Black Panther is probably the best looking Marvel film to date, although - to be fair - only recently has it seemed like they've been trying to create any sort of visual beauty in their movies. But it also inhabits a wholly unique space in the American cinema sphere, bringing the traditions and aesthetics of Afrofuturism to the grandest scale they've ever seen. From the costumes to the sets to the sweeping cinematography of Rachel Morrison, Black Panther fully invests in the color, patterns, and majesty of Africa to create an arresting visual schema that dares you to look away for even a second.

There aren't nearly enough high quality screenshots of the film yet for my liking, but here's a quick taste of some of what it has to offer:

In the future, we don't question that women are badasses.

Western clothing patterns can go f**k themselves.

Oh yeah, did I mention Martin Freeman is in this movie? Should I have? Eh, probably not.

Sometimes set designers just get it.

The bottom line is that Black Panther is spectacular, and it makes itself so by utilizing a perspective that's been long absent from modern cinema. The heavy drums that propel the soundtrack straight through your skull, the elegant simplicity of the sci-fi gadgetry that blends old traditions with hyper-futuristic tech, and the eye-searing color scheme that doesn't remotely feel 80's in the way that most bold color palettes have gone recently, none of it could have come from Western culture, and the fact that it has been given such a platform is a blissfully new, visually entrancing experience.

What does come from Western culture, however, is the plot structure, and it's nothing we haven't seen before. Marvel falls back on a lot of their favorite tropes and plot devices, so nothing in the plot itself is going to particularly shock you. And while the action sequences are fun (especially a trawl through the streets of Busan, a South Korean burg we should all know very well, and a fight on the edge of a waterfall), none of them are blow-the-roof-off unique, especially the too-busy, dizzying CGI-fest that closes the third act.

The reasons to watch this movie are ample, but the parts where it fails are exactly the elements that mark it as a Marvel project. It's not Black Panther's fault that a formula we've seen 18 times before is getting a wee bit stale, but this is one in a long line of movies that are doing something unique and memorable, but I probably never need to see again. And it's a shame, because the act of seeing Black Panther is exactly what makes it so incredibly satisfying. 

It's a triumph of aesthetic, world-building, character-creation, and political urgency, and I highly recommend it. But it's still a Marvel movie, y'know? Thank heavens they're taking risks, but they're never going to make something one hundred percent new. There's no shame in that, but there's also no   longevity.

TL;DR: Black Panther contains a lot of material we've seen before, but it's presented with a vision that we certainly haven't.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1767
Reviews In This Series
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)


  1. (Written on my phone, so please forgive any errors.)

    Man, "triumph" is a bridge too far for me, unfortunately, outside of the admittedly-very-good production and costume design that would look so much better if DP Rachel Morrison weren't trapped by the Marvel House style. (Whether that's her fault, or not, I can't say, but she's not that experienced with this kind of greenscreen/CGI-heavy production, and the "undifferentiated sunlight" look of Wakanda makes it look way less cool than it could. Note well, though, that maybe only half the Marvel movies do have good photography (Age of Ultron and Winter Soldier look like butt), and even some of the ones that do (Civil War) are mostly just dully-proficient in their mood-setting. So I mean toward "not the Oscar-nominated DP's fault.

    I do blame Coogler for not getting a completely-coherent world out of Wakanda, though. This was supposed to be the Afrofuturist Blade Runner, and that it was not.

    That said, Christ, MBJ is amazing, and that character and the politics he brings with him floored me. I wanna watch Creed again.

    I'm convinced--convinced!--that there was a great movie here, all it needed was to skip the challenge battle with M'Baku (super-redundant), and have T'Challa lose his crown to a Killmonger who beat him while he still had powers (hence camping the threat), outside of Wakanda, and (ideally) still wearing That rad mask. That would help fix the biggest structural problems, besides the redundancy, which are that KM is sort of our viewpoint chatactet, perverse as that is, and exploring Wakanda through his eyes would be neat. It might also have freed up some time to pursue the GoT-style intrigue it wants to do, but can't. It might also present an opportunity to let KM use his precocious tech genius, honed at MIT, in any way other than lazy signaling that "this character is smart."

    P.S.: Speaking of viewpoint charactets, if all your token white good guy can do is inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, maybe he doesn't need to be here. Give the white audience some credit, Disney. If we're Nazis, we didn't but tickets in the first place.

    1. Yuck. Glad I mentioned I was writing this on my phone.