When your movie opens in Oakland you automatically enlist this inherent cool factor that appeals to this child of the eighties, especially considering I've watched The Defiant Ones, Straight Outta Compton, and Boyz n the Hood in the last week. Opening the film with a brief history of the fictional nation of Wakanda, its origins, and how the Black Panther came to be a symbol for the monarchy that reigned over it and a hero to the people who resided within it director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) then drops us into this unsuspecting setting of Oakland, California in the early nineties where we are served a series of events that establish the basis for what will fulfill the drama that occurs in Marvel Studios' Black Panther. This is a smart move on the parts of both Coogler the director and Coogler the co-writer who, along with Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), roots the beginning of his film in the zeitgeist of hip-hop; when rap was finding its footing and when the world began to take notice of what was being said within the genre. This is most definitely intentional as Coogler no doubt means to draw the comparison so as to confirm any doubt that Black Panther isn't a movement within itself. Though there have been black super hero movies before (in this analogy Blade would be your Sugarhill Gang) Black Panther is more than a defining moment as there has never been anything this explicitly black in or about a super hero movie before. Black Panther doesn't just star an African-American in the lead role as the titular hero, but it is about black culture, about black heritage, and conveys the highs and lows, the good and bad of this world of which I have no rightful place to really speak and so I will trust that when the many black people I do know who have seen the film say it is a real *moment* for their culture and for society in general I will trust that it indeed is. On the other hand, the question is how does Black Panther rank in terms of being a piece of entertainment despite Coogler inherently making this about more than just entertaining the masses? Well, it's another in a long line of reliable if not completely singular Marvel movies that tend to only break the mold every once in a while. Granted, Marvel has been on something of a hot streak lately mixing up the genres of which inspire their fare (2017 was especially strong) and Black Panther is no different in this regard as it, by default of its source material, feels fresher than anything the genre has had to offer in some time even if the potential of all the positive factors going on within the film never seem to be fully realized.

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), and Shuri (Letitia Wright) ready themselves for battle in Black Panther.
© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios
As Black Panther is the next in a series of Marvel Studios pictures one would expect the film to have strong ties to at least Captain America: Civil War as it was that film that introduced audiences to Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa and his alter ego, Black Panther, but other than a few flashbacks to the death of his father, T'Chaka (John Kani), and the presence of arch nemesis Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who showed up in Avengers: Age of Ultron a few years back, Black Panther is more or less (and by that I mean more) a standalone story surrounding that of the transition of both T'Challa from boy to man, from prince to king, and that of Wakanda's transition from being a country of closed borders and secrecy to that of sharing their gifts and discoveries with the outside world. What is presumably not too long after T'Challa has taken Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes back to Wakanda to give them safe refuge he and his right hand bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) venture outside the walls of Wakanda to retrieve Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) a Wakandan spy on mission in another area of Africa as well as being T'Challa's ex-lover whom he wants present for his coronation as king. While Okoye is the ever-loyal soldier of Wakanda Nakia represents the voice in T'Challa's ear that is telling him times are changing and that it is time for Wakanda to change as well; time to stop hiding under their guise of being a third-world country and while not necessarily sharing with the world their advanced technology for the purposes of weaponry rather using their resources to assist in the aid of those suffering around them. This sense of internal conflict is made clear from the earliest moments in Black Panther as Wakanda is described as housing five tribes and in the ceremony where T'Challa is to be made king when spiritual leader Zuri (Forrest Whittaker) asks for any challengers to the throne the Jabari Tribe's leader, M'Baku (Winston Duke), makes a play for the crown in ritual combat. In showing us this, Coogler is building the world of Wakanda, immersing the audience in it, while at the same time drawing on events within this setting and highlighting their traditions so as to create palpable drama and the necessary thematic material that will further support the main conflict as it arises. Speaking of which, on the other side of the world we are introduced to one Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who is working with Klaue to steal a vibranium artifact from a London museum in order to sell on the black market. When made aware of Klaue's activity, T'Challa, his sister and tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), Okoye, and Nakia inadvertently team-up with CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to stop the deal, but Killmonger has bigger ambitions than simply fattening his bank account.

Speaking to the dramatic and thematic elements of Black Panther is to speak to the film's strongest elements. It is in these moments of pure, raw human emotion that bubble to the surface consistently throughout and in between the obligatory action sequences that Black Panther displays its greatest strengths. Though we are unsure the circumstances that are taking place in the opening sequence we can sense there is a feeling of great conflict and of drastic decisions. Fast-forward to the present day when T'Challa is getting set to take his father's place and we can again sense the apprehension in Boseman's performance as the titular hero who may not actually be as bold or as fearless as his previous appearance might have led us to believe. One of the most surprising threads in Black Panther is that of T'Challa not necessarily being afraid to take on the mantle of king, but more his fear of leading a life without the guiding light that was his father. It isn't the pressures that come along with filling this position, T'Challa still has the aid of his sister and mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), but it is more the fact he will have to move forward in life, making decisions that will no longer be guided by the man he could always look to for advice. These kinds of small feeling, but hugely impactful themes no doubt stem from Coogler's strong ties to his own father and the influence he had on him as a man and as a filmmaker and have thus manifested themselves in the form of the basis for the way in which T'Challa views the world and his sense of self. It is mid-way through the film when this picture, this belief that T'Challa has in his father is altered by a truth revealed via Killmonger's true identity and while our hero is forced to face the reality of the situation and the threat Killmonger poses it is the fact that T'Chaka might not have been all his son imagined him to be that hits T'Challa the hardest. Furthermore, Coogler doesn't make it easy on the audience to choose sides making Killmonger's agenda as compelling, deeply personal, and even understandable to a degree even if he goes about trying to accomplish what otherwise might be a justified end in unspeakable ways. Jordan's Killmonger has a right to be angry and a right to want to seek revenge against the Wakandan monarchy while Boseman's T'Challa is understanding of Killmonger's position and even agrees with the injustice of the actions Killmonger finds anger and rage within, but it is in the way the two express themselves and execute their ideas that the true heroes and their rightful legacies are defined; Coogler echoing a Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X type match of philosophies between our protagonist and antagonist. Black Panther's movement retains its importance and gravitas thanks to these deep-seeded themes and ideas that emerge through the film's somewhat unconventional structure despite the overall product devolving into a predictable mash-up of CGI non-wizardry.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is escorted to the throne room of Wakanda by W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya).
© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios
This brings me to the biggest complaint I have to lodge against Black Panther and it is unfortunate that it is completely out of the hands of Coogler and his crew of actors and department heads that contribute to a majority of what we feel coming across the screen. What is unfortunate is that the majority of what we see on screen is at fault for being the most underwhelming aspect of Black Panther and who is to blame is not a single person, but a conglomerate of people and reasons. First and foremost, it is the reliance on CGI that is the real issue here as a film, with a reported budget of $200 million (that's $30 million more than the first Guardians of the Galaxy), should not have special effects that look as unfinished and phony as Black Panther does. Much of this might have to do with the workload and insufficient number of people available to do such work in the multiple animation houses that bid on such projects for revenue, but there is also the fact that $200 million should maybe be spent more wisely by Marvel Studios on things such as real sets, practical effects, or at least a better sense of merging the practical with the CGI as early action sequences in Black Panther, namely the one where T'Challa extracts Nakia, feel tangible and raw as compared to the final, climactic battle between our titular hero and Killmonger that is like watching an actual video game on screen as the underground railroad setting (I see you, Coogler) as well as the two individuals the action is centered around are completely computer generated creations that possess no weight and no real life consequences as a result of the fact. The large battle going on outside on the plains of Wakanda is only marginally better for the more natural looking landscape, but the CGI rhinos and plastic-looking weapons that might as well be what are actually on the shelves of Wal-Mart's right now make what should feel epic instead feel rather cheap and therefore the audience, rather cheated. At least, I did. With the drama this rich and the thematic elements sky high one could only hope Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who shot the incredibly gorgeous Mudbound) might match as much with their visuals, but while Wakanda itself is fully realized and lived-in with the set and production designers more than excelling at the small parts of their jobs they were actually allowed to construct-not to mention the detail-oriented and jaw-dropping costume designs by Ruth E. Carter-the majority of Black Panther reveals the ugly truth of the over-reliance Marvel Studios has on computer generated effects (this was apparent in Thor Ragnarok as well) to the point it detracts from the overall experience of what could and should have been as monumental looking a film as it certainly feels like this is for a lot of people. That said, Black Panther does manage its large ensemble cast well-with Daniel Kaluuya deserving mention for his role as W'Kabi, Serkis going all-out in what can only be interpreted as a plea to let him do more work without sporting a mo-cap suit, and Jordan just oozing swagger with every move he makes. There is a lot to love here just as much as there is a lot you wish Coogler and co. might have fought for to make it that much better, but while the action is subpar the drama is fantastic and the movie's heart is absolutely in the right place which ultimately makes for an experience that is enthralling if not always visually is at least more often intellectually than not; a genuine rarity in blockbuster filmmaking these days. 

No comments:

Post a Comment