Review: 'Black Panther'

Thursday, February 15, 2018

I Dreamed of Africa

2018 / USA / 134 min. / Directed by Ryan Coogler / Opens in wide release on Feb. 16, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

The increasingly exasperating irony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that very few of the franchise’s theatrical films — which now number 18 and counting — are particularly cinematic. That is, the series seldom feels like it’s capitalizing on the true potential of the big screen as a medium for flashy, thrilling action and gonzo science-fictional world-building. Considered collectively, the most successful aspects of the MCU features are their charming characters and their deft blend of sincerity and cheekiness. Given the evocative superheroes in the studio’s lineup and limitless possibilities of digital wizardry, it’s a bit puzzling that Marvel has settled on such enjoyable but prosaic attributes as the bedrock of its franchise, rather than the sort of adjectives that once screamed from Silver Age comic covers: AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! ASTONISHING!!! It’s an unforgivable shortcoming that the power-packed Avengers films (2012 and 2015) boast not a single action set piece as inventive and mind-bending as the duo-dimensional alien-bazaar sequence in last year’s flawed but eye-popping Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets.

Occasionally, something genuinely amazing does break through the endless wisecracks, blunt pathos, and entertaining yet unmemorable action sequences that have come to characterize the MCU. Ant-Man (2015) cunningly employed its hero’s elastic size to deliver giddy nano-scale twists on the subgenre’s customary brawls, chases, and escapes. Doctor Strange (2016) envisioned the jaw-dropping mystical duels that would unfold if characters could fragment space, reverse time, and slip into alternate realities. The Guardians of the Galaxy features (2014 and 2017) and last year’s Thor: Ragnarok delivered on the visual promise of Marvel’s “cosmic” stories, giving vivid life to the sort of grand, gaudy, and downright goofy science-fiction settings that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Roger Dean album cover.

Black Panther, the latest feature in the MCU canon, is striking for similar reasons, as it lavishly realizes a world never previously seen in mainstream blockbuster cinema: an Afrofuturist utopia. Viewers of Captain America: Civil War (2016) may recall that the Black Panther is the alter ego of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the African nation Wakanda. As succinctly described in the new film’s animated prelude, the history of this fantastical realm has been dramatically shaped by a motherlode of the extraterrestrial metal vibranium, deposited eons ago by a meteoric impact. This substance not only altered the evolution of local flora and fauna but also allowed the native people to develop technology that was leaps and bounds beyond anything else on Earth. Isolated from the outside world behind an illusion of pastoral simplicity, Wakanda has secretly blossomed into the most advanced society on the planet, an African Shangri-La gracefully balanced between traditional tribal culture and bleeding-edge scientific wonders.

The mantle of the Black Panther — a warrior-god figure that is part shamanistic magic and part nanotech super-suit — has been passed from one Wakandan king to the next. Following the demise of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), during the events of Civil War, T’Challa has returned to Wakanda for his coronation. He stops on the way to dispatch some Nigerian human traffickers and pick up the resourceful Wakandan undercover agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. The fledgling king is welcomed by mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), spiritual mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), an engineering prodigy whose laboratory serves as a kind of Q Branch for the Black Panther.

The new monarch’s ascension to the throne, while an occasion for celebration, is not entirely smooth. The Jabari, a reclusive mountain tribe that has refused to embrace Wakanda’s vibranium-based modernism, utilize the succession as an opportunity to challenge T’Challa for his crown. What’s more, notorious South African arms dealer and wanted murderer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has recently resurfaced, allegedly to sell a stolen chunk of the country’s priceless mineral. The possibility of taking down one of Wakanda’s few national enemies presents an irresistible opportunity for T’Challa, Nakia, and the steel-willed Okoye (Danai Gurira), commander of the king’s royal guard, the Dora Milaje. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) — scion of Wakanda’s vigilant Border Tribe, loyal friend to T’Challa, and lover to Okoye — is also eager to see Klaue under the Panther’s claws, given that the the arms dealer slew his father. Naturally, complications ensue, albeit from an unexpected angle. Klaue’s crooked crew includes a black American named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-Navy SEAL turned criminal mercenary who has a secret connection to Wakanda and a massive, murderous chip on his shoulder. 

Cinephiles and Marvel enthusiasts who had hoped that Black Panther might be the first feature to break the broadly formulaic approach to plotting that has become a MCU calling card will unfortunately be disappointed. Besides being the franchise’s first black filmmaker, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) is unquestionably the Marvel director with the most artistically formidable pre-MCU filmography. However, far from injecting some novelty into Marvel’s cookie-cutter approach to plot, Coogler — who penned the film’s screenplay with Joe Robert Cole — saddles Black Panther with a regrettably pedestrian succession of fights, chases, betrayals, deaths, rescues, and “twists.” It’s all rather dispiritingly predictable. Viewers who have caught any of the previous MCU features — or, indeed, any Hollywood blockbuster in the past 20 years — will likely see every swerve coming from miles away. Which isn’t a Bad Thing per se, but superhero aficionados who crave narrative surprises at this late stage in the genre’s blockbuster reign will need to look elsewhere.

Within the confines of the film’s somewhat prosaic, obvious, and breathless plot, however, Coogler and his cast discover ways to tell a stimulating story about an array of themes, including, but not limited to, race, wealth, tradition, duty, and birthrights. If the “what” of T’Challa’s story is disappointingly standardized according to the MCU template, the “how” and “why” are pricklier and more engaging than the usual Marvel fare. Some of this is attributable to Coogler’s keen attunement to issues of colonialism, nationalism, philanthropy, and global inequality, all of which are touched on in Black Panther. (The film rarely slows down to engage with such matters in a more expansive manner, however; this is a breezy yet overstuffed MCU feature, after all.) Meanwhile, much of the film’s dramatic vigor can be credited to the unvarnished earnestness with which the screenplay engages with the story’s emotional beats. It’s an approach that is broadly consistent with the MCU playbook, but one that is significantly enlivened by Black Panther’s ridiculously overqualified ensemble cast and their palpable enthusiasm for the story's gleaming Afrocentrism. 

Boseman is characteristically magnetic in the title role, but, lamentably, T’Challa’s arc in this film is less compelling than his ancillary revenge-and-redemption subplot in Civil War. Ultimately, the new king is obliged to confront some ugly aspects of his father’s rule and to resolve whether Wakanda’s policy of strict isolationism will be maintained in the future. Otherwise, the challenges T’Challa faces in Black Panther are primarily stark physical threats to his person and his crown, which makes for some suitably rousing action set pieces but hardly allows for more complex emotional stakes. In the end, Black Panther falls victim to a common superhero-flick pitfall: the protagonist is the story’s least interesting figure.

Killmonger is afforded a more fascinating journey, one that is crucially grounded in his identity as a young African-American man. Bulked up to Special Forces proportions and dotted with ritual scars representing every life his character has taken, Jordan portrays Killmonger as a seething, prowling ball of resentments. The man’s hotheaded demeanor conceals a single-minded devotion to a deceptively simple villainous master plan, one that reveals both an enthrallment with and an antipathy toward the glorious African motherland that Wakanda represents. Given that Black Panther is pitched first and foremost at an American audience — and specifically at a black American audience that has been eagerly awaiting a majority-black superhero blockbuster — it’s intriguing that T’Challa’s nemesis is an African-American whose attitude toward his heritage is pugnaciously prideful but also ambivalent and troubled. Nor is it incidental that Killmonger was raised in Oakland, Calif.: a city with a history of racial tension, police brutality, and drug-related violence; the original epicenter of the Black Panther Party; and the backdrop for Coogler’s masterful Fruitvale Station (2013), which dramatized the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III (also played by Jordan) by BART police.

Due to the sizable cast — and the demands of world-building in such a rich and fanciful setting — Black Panther has little time to flesh out its secondary and tertiary characters in any meaningful way. The performers capably fill in the gaps where they can, but there’s only so much screenplay for them to work with. (The breathtaking makeup and costuming does much of the heavy lifting; more on that in a moment.) On balance, the standouts in the cast are the actors who lean into the bright, bold, slightly exaggerated atmosphere of the film’s source material: Gurira, instantly iconic as the fearless, honor-bound battle maiden Okoye; Wright, winningly balancing Shuri’s chill techno-swagger with her adolescent pluckiness; and Winston Duke, who is plainly having a blast portraying the menacing yet oddly amicable Jimbari chieftain M’Baku.

Like most of the MCU films, Black Panther doesn’t boast the kind of galvanic action set pieces that occasionally etch a superhero film in the annals of cinematic legend. There’s no corollary to Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land charge from last year. Still, the choreography and effects work are handled skillfully enough by Coogler, who cleverly uses each sequence to showcase distinct aspects of Wakanda’s traditional martial culture and futuristic military technology. The Dorja Milaje’s sonic spear-fighting style is one of the film’s distinct visual pleasures: The warrior women whirl about, thrusting and parrying, as their ornate crimson, silver, and gold armor flashes in the sun. Also stirring is a brawl at an underground casino in Busan, South Korea, a melee that is captured in a single, sustained shot before it spills out into a neon-streaked car chase through the city. If there’s a misfire to be found among the film’s action sequences, it’s in the film’s climactic throwdown. Coogler, like many directors before him, can’t solve the fundamental problem that arises when two nigh-invulnerable individuals attempt to beat the living crap out of each other: inevitable monotony.

Intriguingly, the director seems most engaged with the film’s action during a pair of scenes involving stripped-down ritual combat. Superpowers and vibranium gadgetry are eschewed in favor of vicious hand-to-hand fights between bare-chested men atop a towering waterfall. Recalling the boxing sequences in Creed (2015), the director exhibits an unmistakable affinity for the gladiatorial brutality of these ritualized duels, discovering the hidden grace in their bloody, sweaty rhythms.

Many of the complaints that one might justifiably lodge against Black Panther — the predictable plot, the reliance on Daddy Issues, the four-color characterization, the diverting but forgettable action — are the same that one might direct at any number of superhero films from the past two decades. To circle back to the unique qualities that make Black Panther so arresting, however, none of those films boasts the splendid, revelatory production design of Coogler’s feature. Indeed, Black Panther’s crew appears to have poured the lion’s share of their innovative energy into the look of the film, trusting that the scaffolding of a broadly familiar Marvel story would support the feature’s bracing design. In this, they are largely proven correct.

Crucially, Black Panther is not an example of style over substance but a case study in style as substance. Coogler and his crew are plainly cognizant of the radicalism implicit in a $200 million Afrofuturist action film with an almost entirely black cast, corporate entertainment or not. (From Disney, no less!) By going all-in on Black Panther’s dazzling design, the filmmakers have created a watershed feature in a genre that is not only overwhelmingly white but also prone to visual laziness. Simply put, Black Panther doesn’t look like any other film that has ever been made, certainly not on such a scale. The last superhero feature where the sheer design of the thing struck the pop-cinematic landscape like a thunderbolt was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and that film did not have the same political and cultural import as Black Panther.

Boseman’s status as the first black headliner in the MCU should not be undervalued, but what truly makes Coogler’s film so vital and invigorating is that it is unabashedly enamored with the aesthetic possibilities of a science-fiction setting centered on blackness. Black Panther is what one might get if Sun Ra’s Nubian space oddities were extruded and polished into a pan-African Fashion Week, with a touch of Apple Store gloss. Wakanda is at once wealthy, advanced, peaceful, and unmistakably African, and Coogler is positively enthusiastic about showcasing each of those attributes. The film's subtle revolution — the revolution that undergirds all Afrofuturist works, from Octavia Butler’s novels to Parliament-Funkadelic’s bizarre musical mythology — lies in the startling sight of black heroes who wield their own unplundered wealth and unthinkable technology. (Indeed, Black Panther featues an entire black nation built on such wealth and technology.) While an African techno-utopia untouched by colonialism might be a fantasy, Black Panther’s vibrant, exhilarating realization of that fantasy highlights the pitiful homogeneity of genre cinema’s existing landscape. Many of Black Panther’s characters hew to familiar archetypes previously inhabited by white heroes and villains, and while those archetypes are inherently well worn, Coogler’s film gives them fresh life simply by reimagining them in an effusively African context. (Shuri, incidentally, would make a wonderful successor to Tony Stark — hint, hint, Marvel.)

It’s not one aspect of Black Panther's visuals that ignites the imagination, but literally everything created by the film’s design team — production designer Hannah Bleacher, costume designer Ruth E. Cater, set decorator Jay Hart, and hair-department head Camille Friend, to name just a handful of the key individuals. Collectively, their awe-inspiring efforts add up to a film that is ludicrously dense with evocative detail: from the way that Wakada’s Golden City blends emirate-style skyscrapers with traditional Sahel materials; to the bold, geometric Wakandan script (reminiscent of Ge’ez, N’Ko, and Mandombe); to the little touches like the turquoise lip plate worn by Isaach De Bankolé in the role of a Wakandan elder. While the film at times shades into Power Rangers simplicity in its visual schemes — each Wakandan tribe prefers a single, distinctive color for their traditional garb — such simplicity has the effect of gratifyingly connecting Black Panther to its comic-book roots. In some exhilarating instances, the filmmakers find ingenious ways to marry traditional dress and ornamentation to the story’s sci-fi trappings. For example, when the Border Tribe is roused to battle, their Basotho-style woolen tribal blankets, which are draped over the arm and printed in exquisite patterns of blue and indigo, emit force fields that allows the garments to act as energy shields.

In short, Black Panther is a film that begs to be gawked at, with a new visual delight around virtually every corner. It’s the sort of work that seems destined to be studied by aspiring studio artists for decades to come. (The film’s marvelous hairstyles practically warrant their own making-of documentary.) While Black Panther offers more of the same with respect to its superhero plot, it’s a downright remarkable and innovative work in terms of its faces, places, and textures. This vitality ultimately makes up for the feature’s more banal mainstream blockbuster qualities and confirms that Coogler’s film truly is the trailblazing pop-cultural event that many observers — including innumerable African-American enthusiasts of the superhero genre — had hoped. In other words, Black Panther is, in its narrow but essential way, AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! and ASTONISHING!!!

Rating: B