2 out of 5
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
I can’t possibly claim to appreciate the cultural, social relevance of Black Panther. At a time when American politics – highlighting the most ignorant, racist, and sexist variant – are the butt of many unfortunately true-to-life jokes; when saddeningly frequent exposed instances and histories of abuse are encouraging many to try and become more aware of our limited, habitual points of view; we are at least getting slow, step-by-step attempts at breaking through decades (and more) of our ingrained biases. I’m a midwestern white kid. Sure, I’m Jewish by birth, but I never really felt any stigma from that. And I’d like to claim to be somewhat self-aware, but as we continue to inch open our eyes, it’s clear that that ‘awareness’ has always been in degrees, and I suffer from just as many ideological limitations as any news-highlighted creep-of-the-moment. I mean, I hope not that many, but again: it’s in degrees.
To read Odie Henderson’s review of Black Panther, I reiterate: I can’t possibly appreciate the subtext of a tentpole movie – a blockbuster – with a nigh-fully black cast that celebrates heritage without idealizing it in (I’d say) any particular white kid-eyed light. A blockbuster, and a Marvel one, no less, which nabs all the attention nowadays and also means you’re talking about a black superhero. It’s important. And it’s sad that it’s 2018 and that this matters.
And so I have to wonder, unfortunately, if we’re so desperate for signs of change of this nature that we associate that importance with quality. Because, alas, I did not find this movie to be very entertaining, or well-acted by its leads – Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan – or, from an effects perspective, to even look all that swell. I mentioned in my Last Jedi review that I might be moving into old fogey territory in which big ol’ moneymakin’ movies just don’t rock my socks anymore, but I feel like I can still weed out general “I like this” feelings from amidst explosions and CGI, and that feeling certainly did not surface here.
The plot is pretty perfunctory, excepting that we’re skipping past superhero origins: Black Panther – T’Challa, played by Boseman – comes from a long line of the same, king and protector of the hidden nation of Wakanda, having recently taken the throne and pantherness with the passing of his father. Some Wakandans – such as Panther’s ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) – wish to spread their nation’s secreted super-tech to better the world; some – T’Challa included – think the world is safer without these sources of power exposed. And then there are folks like Klaw and Killmonger (Andy Serkis and Jordan) who’d rather steal Wakanda’s fabled vibranium metal and give it to militants. There’s a lot of comic booky lore built in there, but the movie swoops through it: father passed away; mantle passed; threat introduced; battle sequence. The dialogue serving this stuff is parsed down to passable with a few fleeting moments during which T’Challa or Nakia or Killmonger hints at larger social issues.
It’s during those moments that the actors we know Boseman and Jordan are can be seen acting through their otherwise stiff character stand-ins. But for the majority of the film, I never felt these guys actually immerse in their characters, like they kept waiting for the material to suddenly resonate within them and it never did, and then moments later we have another grossly CGI’d fight scene. A lot of the side characters pull off the textbook banter more naturally: Serkis is full of energy; Nyong’o, and T’Challa’s guard, played by Danai Guirra, are fantastic; Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister is a standout; and Daniel Kaluuya redeems his (to me) rather hokey Get Out performance with a very grounded take on a fellow tribe leader in Wakanda.
But wrapping back around that, the story never really justifies how these characters interact. The rivalry between the leads carries no weight, nor do any of the character deaths (or near deaths), or betrayals, or last-minute saves. Wakanda itself – which, yes, is stuffed with fantastic costume concepts and set ideas – never feels defined. It’s concept art, splashed on the screen, with boatloads of floaty effects to add spaceships. Things that other Marvel flicks did well – computer-subtracted missing arms, digital costumes – just looked shoddy here, and I can only suppose that Coogler maybe struggled with the movie’s scope and so didn’t necessarily know how to distract us from those hiccups.
…You’ll note there are several surface complaints here mixed in with a core shoulder-shrug toward the movie’s story. And you’re right. As my attentions wandered due to a dearth of important stuff, I picked up on the less important stuff, which makes the movie seem worse than it is. Because it’s not bad, it’s just very, very typical, hiding behind some superhero stuff and some cool concepts, and some great supporting characters.
It’s important. But I sincerely hope we can take this step forward to produce a movie that’s both important and a better-than-average flick.