"Black Panther" doesn't live up to the hype

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The 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the first to star a black superhero. In that regard, director Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" is a game-changer, a landmark of the superhero genre that's been more than 2 decades in the making.

The plot goes like this: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of Wakanda, but when he dons his leather all-Ebony suit, he's the Black Panther. Since this is Coogler, Michael B. Jordan has to be cast in some kind of role, so here the 31-year-old actor plays the villainous Erik Killmonger and he, quite frankly, steals the show from Boseman's rather stilted, uninteresting performance. Ditto Letitia Wright as T'Challa's very own "Q," Shuri.

Without a doubt this is a culturally important film, one with an important message to tell its audience. We learn that bad power leads to oppression, and good power leads to good oppression, but only if used properly and respectfully. Blind loyalty to a power structure keeps the system intact. Wakanda is, in essence, an African fantasy, one in which the continent is able to withstand white oppressors and consequentially has the power to build an empire off Vibranium, a natural resource that is more powerful than steel. 

Wakanda is hidden behind clouds and mountains, far from the evils of white colonizers, but any sort of imagination is left in the back seat when it comes to this emerald city onscreen. It's a missed opportunity on the part of Coogler because, after all, this is an MCU movie set in Africa! I wanted to see the savannas and the fantastic natural sights and beauties that come with this fascinating and colorful continent, but instead, there's an over-reliance on fake digital backgrounds rather than real on-set locations. This is detrimental to bringing any kind of humane connection or absorbingly artful feeling to the film, which quite frequently feels artificial and computerized rather than lived-in and three-dimensional.

The look of the film is beautifully rendered and was said to be inspired by the architecture and dress of African countries. Coogler even has time to bring innovation to the tiresome superhero genre with a few of the excellent single take shots he used in "Creed," which makes the film feel truly inspired and unique. But at the end of the day this is a Marvel movie and because of that, there are restrictions, and creative freedom is stalled in favor of business as usual. 

The plot is rather stagy but at times effective. After the murder of his father, T'Challa comes back home to Wakanda to become king. At the ceremony, he is challenged by Jabari Tribe leader M'Baku, and what ensues is a rather thrilling combat between the two, which ultimately has T'Challa prevailing and keeping the throne. Enter Killmonger, now an ex-U.S. black ops soldier hellbent on dethroning the king to ship Wakandan weapons, filled with Vibranium, to black operatives all around the world. His goal is for black people to fight and take control with the use of Wakandian firepower. The eventual ritual combat for the throne between T'Challa and Killmonger leads to the former's ousting and a new king being reigned into power. Thinking T'Challa is dead, Killmonger proceeds with his plans for a new world order. If you've seen "Hamlet" or even "The Lion King," you know what happens next. Cue the climatic battle, where a down and out T'Challa has to overcome a hellbent arch nemesis, a showdown that leads to final words, a Shakespearian death scene and a lesson being learned by all. It's a tale as old as time and "Black Panther" achingly sticks with the formula.

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If the men are at the center of the film's plot, the women in "Black Panther" are the actual highlights. There's Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T'Challa's widowed mother, Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, the one that got away for T'Challa, but most impressively Danai Gurira (of "The Walking Dead" fame) as Okoye, leader of the all-female Wakandan army. Every time she's onscreen she lights it up. With her head shaven, and a muscular physique, Okoye is the heart and soul of "Black Panther," even if Coogler doesn't know it.

The action staged is, at times, very shaky. There are a lot of fights in the movie, best of all a South Korean casino brawl where the CIA, mobsters and Wakandians all meet for a nastily rendered affair. In fact, the film's strong first half is the main attraction here, the introduction to this exotic, unknown Marvel world is aced by Coogler's excitement behind the camera. Too bad the film has to resort to business as usual in its second. 

Many of the shots in the film lack proper lighting. The screen is sometimes too darkly lit by Rachel Morrison (known for her excellent work in "Mudbound"), which makes some of the more frenetic sequences difficult to parse, and confusing to discern. Worst of all is the final fight which uses unremarkable CGI and strangely produced physics. The choreography in "Black Panther" is also all over the place. You don't always know what's happening at any given moment, which isn't helped at all by the fact the editing strips away any kind of flow to the action. 

What isn't rare for Marvel or DC movies are formulaic fight scenes, which have become a predictably repetitive trait over the course of the 18 film MCU saga. You know a final showdown is coming in every one of these films, so much so that the adrenaline just can't kick in anymore, and you feel numb or unpersuaded by what is supposed to feel thrilling and undeniably contentious. We all know the film will end with over-the-top action rather than any kind of worded drama, that's just the way these movies work. I would love to see a Marvel or DC movie end with a profoundly dramatic conclusion that strips away any action in favor of character. Of course, that will never happen, as these films have a blueprint that has now become all-too-familiar, yet still seems to be eaten up by mass audiences who favor the familiar instead of the risk-taking.

The film doesn't remotely come close to the tense and, yes, cinematic level of, say "The Winter Soldier," a film which drastically changed the mold for Marvel as first and foremost a film inspired by the '70s political thriller or even "Logan," a movie that tried to distance itself from the banal, predictable narrative structure of the superhero genre by infusing Western-like sensibilities and -- shock --adult-oriented moral dilemmas. Of course, cliches and predictability are hallmarks for most Marvel/DC movies, but one tends to check his or her brain at the door and does go along for the ride, hoping that some kind of satisfying experience will arise from the eye candy on screen. 

The problem with "Black Panther" is that there simply isn't all that much excitement to go around. Almost everything you expect to happen happens. There isn't anything memorable, no moment that sends your pulse pounding, your spine tingling. This is a straightforward telling of a story that on paper should not be straightforward at all or, at the very least, safe. Coogler's source material was Ta-Nehisi Coates' more recent "Black Panther" comics and to say they have been watered-down for mass entertainment would be an understatement. Coates' comics were firmly rooted in Afrofuturism and had a Shakespearian-influence in scope and tone. What we get instead in Coogler's film are the inner struggles of a monarchy trying to maintain any kind of power and tradition they might have.

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The lack of character development is a major flaw as well. There are no identifiable character arcs, T'Challa's past is barely touched upon, and even worse, the rest of the characters stay in their own little bubbles and never fully develop as anything but caricatures, which becomes an increasingly impenetrable venture. It doesn't help that the on-the-nose expository dialogue is frankly laughable and that Coogler tends to overly rely on flashbacks and predictable plotting all the way through his 135-minute film. Coogler forever reinvented the boxing genre in "Creed," but if he aims to do the same for the superhero genre he is sadly mistaken.
I saw "Black Panther" last Wednesday, and by then the reviews had all turned out to be raves. Its 97% Rotten Tomatoes score is indeed quite impressive, but I am here to tell you that film criticism as we know it is just not the same anymore. Critics these days try to speak as one, instead of as individual voices. If a single critic ends up being out of step with the majority, then watch out. I will be accused of not supporting the "cause" of "Black Panther" by writing this mixed review, but that's far from the truth. I am just trying to state an opinion which might be unpopular but is the essence of what a film critic is supposed to do: Be as critically honest as possible. 

The peer pressure that film critics put upon each other to uniformly agree and unite on a film like "Black Panther" because it's the right thing to do is detrimental, hell, self-destructive, for the future of the journalistic field. Will I be ridiculed, attacked, for this review? You bet I will. Twitter and social media have no mercy on contrariness. My job isn't necessarily to steer you away from watching a movie like "Black Panther," but to actually help you make your own judgment. If anything, RottenTomatoes has turned film criticism into a kind of groupthink that feels so sacrilegiously out of place with the job. It's an issue that is turning into a growing ethical problem in the field. In the case of "Black Panther," it fits into a current trend of film criticism that has writers putting politics and cultural sensitivities ahead of pure honesty. The word "masterpiece" has been thrown left and right towards this movie, but how can anyone conceivably believe that this by-the-books, formulaic film is just that?

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Sure, "Black Panther" is a groundbreaker that is as important as any movie will likely be this coming year, but is that really enough to bypass what I saw as glaring flaws in the film itself? I know how important it is to have the most powerful film franchise, Marvel, finally deliver a superhero movie with an almost entirely black cast at the forefront. I do, I really do. This is a time when a film like "Black Panther" should exist. Think of all the young black kids watching the movie who will see themselves as heroes, capable of doing just about anything that they set their minds to doing. It's a beautiful thing to think about. I remember a time in the not-too-distant past when diverse casts were just not a priority for tentpole franchises and Hollywood studios who feared the color of someone's skin could lead to poorer sales at the box-office. This obviously led to an abundance of racial discrimination that was and still is ever so present in the industry. A film like "Black Panther" means that that barrier can hopefully be slashed and we can move on to more diverse casting and a better understanding of the African-American experience onscreen. 

And so, with all that being said, it is then understandable to know that the mass marketing behind "Black Panther" has been pushed forward by the media, including film critics themselves, for a sort of "betterment of society." A noble cause no doubt.

Of course, just criticizing one aspect of a film these days can be wrongly seen as condemning this betterment of society. It's a mob mentality that endangers freedom of opinion, something that seems to be more and more at risk these days. The herd mentality is unfortunate but shouldn't deter any critic from his or her own ethicalI didn't think "Black Panther" was all that great a film, so be it, but I do understand its importance. Sometimes art and politics should really just be two separate entities, but there are many that refuse to do that. Post-Modernism and Political theory have snuck into film criticism and it looks like they're here to stay. [C+]

1 comment:

  1. How does a film with 97% on rotten tomatoes doesn't live up to the hype!