Skip to main content

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.


None of which matters to box office, which will far exceed anyone at the Mouse House’s wildest dreams by the looks of things, certainly putting the (relative) surprise successes of fellow less-than-sure-thing comic book properties Deadpool and Wonder Woman in the shade. Like those two, though, you’re rather left wondering where the great movie lay amid the overwhelming response. Ryan Coogler has penned all three of his features to date, but this one, on which he collaborated with Joe Robert Cole, seems to have escaped him. The basic premise is classically robust – a new king must defend his throne and land, overcoming challenges of confidence and interlopers – but too often the results are stodgy or under baked.


It’s actually surprising how ungainly the picture’s commentary is. Having set up a compare-and-contrast between “exiled” cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and (King) T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the soundbites of angry young Afghanistan veteran Erik, scorning the isolationist pose of Wakanda at the expense of black people everywhere (else) and out for revenge over the death of his daddy, quickly become tiresomely one-note. And that’s with Jordan giving it everything. While there’s fuel enough to make this a very different Marvel movie, it’s more defined by how remarkably formulaic it is; even the playful calling out of white oppression (“coloniser”) seems more manufactured than provocative, and you never quite know for sure, but I doubt Erik really wanted his last words to induce a collective groan.


I’ve read praise of how well Coogler and Cole provide for their wide cast, which may be true in terms of screen time, but only a few of them are allowed to become interesting along the way. Boseman’s been an arresting screen presence hitherto, but like Chris Evans, he comes a cropper when asked to play a simply not very interesting superhero. I had high hopes when T’Challa volunteered himself for a Bond-esque spy mission, complete with casino, but the sequence flickers and fades before devolving into an unenthused CGI-infused car chase. When T’Challa is thrown off a cliff by Erik, possibilities again presented themselves: of his struggle back from the brink. Instead, he’s merely revealed as having an ice-cold kip and requiring an herbal pick-me-up.


Lupita Nyong’o also suffers from underwriting, despite getting significant screen time (I’d hesitate to say she’s the love interest, but yeah, she is). Better served are Danai Gurira’s take-no-shit bodyguard Okoye and Daniel Kaluuya’s confidant W’Kabi, but too little is made of setting their relationship at odds over conflicting loyalties, particularly since this is parsed out during the de rigueur underwhelming Marvel third act battle (this one complete with daffy rhino riding). Forest Whitaker just seems to give up the will when showing up in blockbusters, for some reason (or perhaps it’s just that they’re not such great blockbusters). And I found Leittia Wright’s kid sister Q (Shuri) on the annoying side of cheeky. Which I shouldn’t have, as her performance is enthusiastic and upbeat, and a problem the picture has generally is that it’s severely lacking in playfulness or irreverence; it’s only really Andy Serkis bringing that side of the equation, for as long as he’s in the picture. Martin Freeman? Well, his American accent is better than Sherlock co-star Cumberbatch’s, but he might have the least interesting recurring Marvel role this side of Hawkeye.


Coogler did a great job with Creed, his graduation to studio pictures, but here he continually fails to make the most of the further step up in scale. One can almost sense he knows the comic book genre isn’t his forte. The effects are frequently not very special (in particular, some very ropey digital doubles that could have walked off the virtual set of The Matrix Reloaded), the action sequences are at best competent, but mostly fail to come alive or thrill – Ludwig Göransson’s distinctive score does its best, but can’t bridge the gap – the Wakandan politics are perfunctory and needed to be much more involved, grasping their sub-Shakespearian mettle for all it was worth to justify the time devoted to them; at times, it feels like you’re watching a rather inert ’50s or ‘60s costume epic – the vision quest/afterlife sequences are disappointingly lacking in imagination, both visually and thematically (since they seem to consist of spending quality time with one’s dead dad; they may as well be bumping into ghost Dumbledore at a spectral train station).


The ritual combat/coronation set is, as Tom Paulin would say, awful, especially so since it’s fakeness is rubbed in our faces when we revisit it; once can almost touch the polystyrene rock face when one isn’t staring into the unconvincing studio sky. It’s unfortunate too that he crowd throwing in oohs and aahs and rallying cries awkwardly punctures rather than fuels the tension in two of T’Challa’s most defining scenes. Wakanda is very colourful, in an Afro-chic fashion, but cinematographer Rachel Morrison only fitfully makes it come alive.


There are also some excruciatingly bad setups, such as Erik happening to be approached at the Museum of Great Britain (what, what, what? The where?) by a director he just happened to have the perspicacity to poison immediately prior, or Nakia very presciently choosing to take a look at the casino’s closed-circuit monitors at exactly the point Killmonger and Klau arrive.


There are bigger problems, though. Most of the interactions fail to click; there’s a lack of energy, engagement and depth of character. I much preferred the 1992 Oakland scenes with their respective parents to anything involving the main leads. Sterling K Brown as Erik’s father N’Jobu really needed a larger part (he stole the show in American Crime Story). The biggest issue with Black Panther is pacing, though. There are much less interesting Marvel films that have turned out better than this because they’ve flown along. Coogler never builds up a head of steam.


One area he does dive wholeheartedly into is the thorny problem of Wakanda’s isolationism. There was no way he could have avoided it coming up in critiques, so making it central to the motivation of the new generation of Wakandans is entirely appropriate, as well as encouraging a degree of topicality. Like the characterisation, though, the delivery is in so prosaic that T’Challa all but proclaims “I will not be like Trump”. That said, I’m curious to see how drastically the olive branches offered at the end of the movie alter the Marvel-verse. After all, Wakanda has seemingly awesome science that ultimately means no one need die (at least, until their bodies wear out), unless The Powers That Be intervene and mess things up in proliferating it to the rest of the world. All that Centauri tech doesn’t seem to have visibly altered the lives of the average person for the better, after all.


Indeed, Wakanda may be the most technologically advanced society, but it clearly leaves itself open to other questions over its running. Like Asgard, power is wielded by birthright or through violent challenge. Added to which, it’s an advance society with the equivalent of barcoding for everyone, which can’t be good. Generally, despite the layering in of tribal factions, there’s very little sense of how this place functions; it seems built on aesthetics, rather than logic. You can get away with that on Thor’s godlike plane(t), but I didn’t get much more from this than cool aircraft cruising over a retro-futuristic cityscape.


So yeah, I thought Black Panther was merely okay, which is nigh-on damning for a Marvel movie. The last one like that was Ant-Man and that at least had the toy train sequence. Doubtless Kevin Feige will be intent on securing Coogler’s services for the Black Panther 2, but I’d rather see him pursue something more attuned to his talents.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Well, in this case, the cats are going to kill the curious.

The Avengers 5.8: The Hidden Tiger
Another of the season's apparent run-on ideas, as the teaser depicts a character's point-of-view evisceration by aggressor unknown. Could this be the Winged Avenger at work? No, it's, as the title suggests, an attacker of the feline persuasion. If that's deeply unconvincing once revealed, returning director Sidney Havers makes the attacks themselves highly memorable, as the victims attempt to fend off claws or escape them in slow motion.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…