Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Director: Ryan Coogler
Notable Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

As the Marvel machine continues to march on, there were plenty of questions to whether a) it could survive a saturation of the market as superhero films became blockbuster tentpoles in damn near every quarter and dominate the summer release schedule and b) whether the continuation of these entries could maintain the high quality of mainstream appeal. As the hype around Black Panther continued to skyrocket in the weeks leading to its release, it would seem that the answers to both of these questions would be answered. Not only is Black Panther one of the biggest releases of Marvel’s slate according to box office figures (with a February release and not a blockbuster summer release date nonetheless), but it’s one of their highest rated films from both fans and critics. The film is bold by Marvel standards, adapting the formula of another massive franchise to help differentiate itself from the normal Marvel machine, and its balance between action/comic book mainstream appeal and its social/political commentary is damn near perfect. Not only is Black Panther a film to dismiss the initial questions posed, but it’s handedly one of Marvel’s best.

His full on arrival.
There’s a joke I read online once that stated cats on the outside are sweet and cuddly, demanding to be snuggled, but don’t be mistaken because they have razors attached to their feet. Not only is this true, but this somewhat silly online acknowledgment is also quite fitting to the balance in the narrative that Black Panther uses. On the surface, this film is somewhat cuddly and easy to embrace. It’s fully of fun gadgets, colorful characters, high speed spectacle driven action, and a sense of humanity to its humor, heart, and chemistry. This is a film that will appeal to those that are not looking further than being entertained. Sure, some of the CGI is spotty – and the action fan in me is disappointed that the final fight between Boseman’s Black Panther and the Jordan’s scarred villain is all CGI rubbery leaping around and not a real physical altercation similar to one brought to life earlier in the film, but it works to be entertaining and fun. Yet, there are parts of the film that cut deep like the razor blades attached to a cat’s feet. The film does not hesitate to attack a lot of social and political ideologies in its process of telling its outlandish comic book story. Isolationism, colonization, the struggle within and around a culture and its need to move forward that collides with losing tradition, the in-fighting of a country torn by globalization, and the dismissal by the rest of the world that African countries have nothing to add to global conversations. There are layers and layers of critiques and analysis within the body of this work that truly inspire more conversation than just what scenes in the film “were cool.” Black Panther, thanks to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, works as both a blockbuster and as a film with a message underneath it. Impressive, to say the least.

They should have given Marrese Crump a role.
In the attempts to continually refresh its line-up, the Marvel franchise has been using various sub-genres within their formulas to spice things up and add dynamics. Some work better than others and it was expected that Black Panther would use specific genre tropes from something unique to give it a slightly different tone. However, it certainly was unexpected that the film would use the James Bond franchise as its basis to develop these new tones. Not only does the film follow a lot of the James Bond formula (the use of Black Panther’s sister Shuri as the Q for the film or the inclusion of a casino sequence for part of its globe-trotting plot) but it almost rigidly sticks to it. As a huge fan of the Bond franchise, this was a welcome surprise and gives the film a familiar, but unique glace to add to the Marvel universe. Not to mention, why not use another massive worldwide successful formula to recreate?

Beyond the strong narrative complexity and balance of the film, Black Panther is also expertly crafted. Now it was previously mentioned that the film does have some spotty CGI sequences and there are other smaller moments of nit-picky issues that I have with the editing of the action or some of the smaller details of the world building, but almost all of that is negated by the impressive things it does accomplish in its foundational strengths. The script is paced with cat like grace, the dialogue finds the perfect balance of being fun and layered, and the casting is spot on. Coogler showcases his strength as a director with the dramatic material and that’s key to giving the foundation such a strong quality. However, I feel that even beyond all of this it’s the casting in this film that works so well. Boseman reprises his role with charm, grace, and a kingly presence (thanks to his fantastic accent, that surely helps) and he’s surrounded by a slew of powerful secondary characters and stars. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya all vie for some of the best supporting characters that any film could ask for, but the true scene stealing performance comes from Michael B. Jordan as the film’s villain, Killmonger. With an overly energetic Andy Serkis as his henchman, Jordan simply commands the film and completely tosses away the notion that most Marvel cinematic villains have been thinly guised rubbish in the past. He portrays it as a layered and almost prophetic character and with his innate charm, he crafts one of the more truly powerful villains in mainstream cinema in years. Black Panther has a lot of fantastic performances going for it, but the one that is worth the price of admission is most definitely Jordan’s.

He always lands on his feet...or car. 
Questions may remain about the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the massive box office devouring and upcoming Avengers: Infinity War looms on the horizon, but Black Panther does its damned finest to dispel them. It’s a film with a strong sense of balance between its commentaries and the pure entertainment of an action infused blockbuster, it uses its James Bond inspired narrative structure to push the tropes in some fun new directions, and it’s executed with a remarkable eye for maximizing its strengths which is anchored by its phenomenal cast.

Haters will continue to hate what the MCU has to offer, but with the charm and intentions of Black Panther, it’s easy to let them be drowned out by a film that’s not afraid to be both cuddly and show its claws.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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