Directed by: Ryan Coogler || Produced by: Kevin Feige
Screenplay by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole || Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Music by: Ludwig Goransson || Cinematography: Rachel Morrison || Edited by: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia Castello || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 134 minutes
The latest box office sensation from Walt Disney’s indomitable Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise (MCU, 2008-present) has also rivaled recent features Get Out (2017), Wonder Woman (2017), and Ghostbusters (2016) in terms of mainstream political discussion and on-screen cultural “pot-melding,” if you will. My own feelings about the direct impact of popular art on actual public policy aside, I’m always in the mood for novel artistic styles and filmmakers from different backgrounds, particularly within the mainstream. While yes, certain critics, liberal arts students, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem intent on focusing on film subject-matter over film craft, I am glad that recent diversifications of popular cinema are engaging a wider range of artistic styles, aesthetics, and auteur cultures.
Ryan Coogler, the film’s co-writer and director, is one of America’s most exciting young, up-and-coming filmmakers after the positive releases of Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). Marvel’s Black Panther (henceforth, BP) seemed almost tailor made for his profile, and indeed his leadership assured the film quality screenwriting, solid characterizations, and great acting direction. Coogler coaxed great performances from Michael B. Jordan in his first two films, as well as an Oscar nominated supporting performance from Sylvester Stallone in Creed; this trend continues with BP’s cast, lead by the suave Chadwick Boseman, female lead and love interest Lupita Nyong’o, a feisty, scene-stealing Letitia Wright as Boseman’s younger sister, a charismatic Andy Serkis as a big-time South African smuggler, and the aforementioned Jordan as the villainous Eric “Killmonger” Stevens.
These actors, along with the film’s general visual style (more on that in a moment) are the main selling points of BP. Boseman emotes well and never overacts despite the melodramatic narrative and flowery, Shakespearean dialogue, while his chemistry with Nyong’o, Jordan, and especially Wright are enjoyable. This is one of the better casts in a mainstream American movie of the past several years.
My other favorite aspect of BP is its general aesthetic; the much touted Afrofuturist visuals, complimented by the Afro-punk soundtrack, are memorable and remind me of the borderline psychedelic imagery and catchy ethnic music of the Baahubali (2015, 2017) films. BP is exploding with color from its set-design to its costumes to its makeup, and goes a long way toward distinguishing the standalone from the MCU’s often suffocating, overwhelming, bland house style. The soundtrack, a combination of Senegalese and South African elements courtesy of Ludwig Goransson, plus original music via writer-producer Kendrick Lamar, is perhaps the first memorable soundtrack in the entire MCU brand. This isn’t saying much in and of itself, given how forgettable so much of Marvel’s music is, but the soundtrack’s Afro-punk base contributes much to the film’s overarching identity, and in an organic way at that.
The story itself is above average fair with respect to both Marvel and general Hollywood tentpoles; on the one hand, it takes advantage of its melodramatic setup, involving autocratic rule, royal family political maneuvering, and emotional set-pieces. On the other hand, Boseman’s arc and his visible struggle with both his father’s legacy and that of his native country, the fictional east African nation of Wakanda, are intriguing. Themes of colonialism, isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, and ethnic solidarity are explored in detail and to the benefit of the larger story. I was surprised how well a Hollywood blockbuster not part of the recent Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy (2011, 2014, 2017) handled material this delicate, even with Coogler at the helm. That Jordan’s villain wins the philosophical argument by story’s end is even more significant.
Now, for the bad: BP continues the trend — not just the MCU trend, but the modern Hollywood blockbuster trend — of mediocre to poor pacing, an unnecessarily long running-time, and inconsistent political commentary. More surprising is Coogler’s noticeable struggle with choreographing and shooting action scenes, as well as the film’s inconsistent digital FX.
While I enjoyed most of the film’s story, including its borderline Bollywood-esque melodrama, BP feels bloated with an excess of supporting characters and subplots. Martin Freeman as a generic CIA agent didn’t do much for me in terms of both his performance and his character’s heavy-handed social commentary. Other minor characters, including Winston Drake, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett feel like characters “given things to do” in order to fill screen-time or for plot convenience.
Most disappointing for me were the film’s action sequences. Though I’ve grown accustomed to bland violence in mainstream Hollywood and especially within the MCU, I expected more grit from Coogler based on his work in Creed, as well as the admirable efforts he makes within BP to keep the action grounded and focused on close-quarters combat (CQC). The action suffers from a baffling number of sloppy CGI characterizations a la Blade II (2002), Daredevil (2003), or Spider-Man 3 (2007), particularly in the final showdown between Boseman and Jordan; Coogler also shoots much of the CQC in medium to close-up shots in scenes so dark I struggled to follow the choreography. BP also continues the modern superhero trend of characters who feel so powerful and impervious to harm that tension dissolves from most of the violence; at one point during a chase sequence, Danai Gurira states in an almost bored tone as a henchman unloads automatic fire into her and Nyong’o’s vibranium car, “Guns… how primitive.” Man, I’m really on the edge of my seat, now!
In the end, I enjoyed Black Pather a great deal for giving me the first worthwhile viewing of a Marvel Cinematic Universe installment since The Winter Soldier (2014). Ryan Coogler’s acting direction and effective screenwriting are as little surprise to me as the film’s so-so pacing and bloated length, while the film’s Afro-futurist visuals are as striking as Coogler’s lackluster action scenes; yet, Black Panther is strong enough that I’ll gladly take the good along with the bad. Ever since Age of Ultron (2015), I’ve cooled on the MCU and their McDonald’s-esque takeover of Hollywood, but this may be the film to get me excited again — even if just a little bit — for Infinity War (2018) later this year. This cat has claws.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ryan Coogler is not a perfect leader for this above-average superhero film, but he’s the right one. He guides his talented cast through effective melodrama, a strong narrative, and an identifiable audio-visual style. He’s made a film that stands out from the white-washed (… ahem), repetitive, formulaic… you know, Marvel-type franchise.
— However… nothing excites me less than mediocre to bad pacing, long running-times, and superfluous characters. Black Panther has all of those, as well as action scenes that look straight out of 2003.
? Letitia Wright: Did he freeze? Danai Gurira: Like an antelope in headlights!