Friday, February 23, 2018

Black Panther: With Great Power Comes Great Villainy

Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in "Black Panther"
Early in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s bold and thorny new film that is the eighteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the titular hero asks his young sister, Shuri, why she’s bothering to upgrade an already elegant technological system. Shuri—played by an impish, scene-stealing Letitia Wright—responds with huffy wisdom: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” The MCU has its faults—low-stakes storytelling, visual sameness, an exponentially swelling character base—but as mega-franchises go, it’s pretty good, churning out suitably entertaining products that are typically funny, professionally made, and well-acted. What’s gratifying about Black Panther is the way it operates within the MCU’s preestablished confines (the groaning Stan Lee cameo, the post-credits scenes) while simultaneously seeking to push beyond them. In raw terms, it isn’t the MCU’s best movie—its hero is too bland, its story too busy—but it may be its most interesting. And in an era where carefully packaged formula rules the cinematic roost, an interesting superhero movie is something to savor.

It also helps dispel the myth that personal filmmaking and corporate oversight are somehow incompatible. With Black Panther, Coogler continues to tackle the themes of racial strife, familial loyalty, and youthful conflict that animated his previous features, the heartfelt docudrama Fruitvale Station and the boisterous boxing picture Creed. But he has also made—and I mean this sincerely rather than pejoratively—a comic-book movie, complete with bright colors, complex mythology, and CGI-inflected rumbles. His estimable achievement is to weave these elements into a cohesive vision. Black Panther is packed with excitement and ideas, but it never feels choppy or overstuffed.

It also takes place in a number of appealing locations, a refreshing geographic versatility that continues Marvel’s recent willingness (as demonstrated in Thor: Ragnarok and the second Guardians of the Galaxy) to expand its environments beyond the yawning airport hangars and antiseptic office buildings that accommodate the Avengers films. The principal setting here is Wakanda, a fictional African nation ruled by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the somber ascending monarch whose father was assassinated in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda poses as a third-world country, but once you pierce the Rowling-esque veil that shrouds it from potential interlopers, you can discover a haven of industrial innovation and natural beauty that is part sleek metropolis, part verdant rainforest. With its spired towers and flowing waterfalls, it looks like a marvelous place. You might call it the very opposite of a shithole.

Shuri, tech maestro
But enough about politics. In terms of plotting, Black Panther draws from a variety of inspirations, mingling elements of Star Wars, Shakespeare, and James Bond. The latter’s influence is most prevalent during the film’s early stretch, which finds T’Challa traveling to a South Korean casino to hunt down Ulysses Klaue (a beefy Andy Serkis), an arms dealer with a mechanical limb and an anarchistic streak. Apart from the globe-trotting (the casino also recalls the Canto Bight interlude from The Last Jedi), several characters coyly parallel 007 counterparts; Shuri, who outfits T’Challa with his catlike superhero gear, makes for a charming Q—you can practically envision the scene where Shuri educates T’Challa on the gadgetry encased within his Panther suit being acted out by Desmond Llewelyn and Sean Connery—while Martin Freeman plays a sympathetic CIA agent who may as well be named Felix Leiter.

This is not to suggest that Coogler’s style is overly imitative. The casino sequence, which smoothly transitions from stealthy reconnaissance to noisy mayhem, is a model of chic action filmmaking, with a fluid tracking shot that glides up staircases and down balconies as bodies writhe and tumble and fall. That scene is followed by a preciously rare commodity: an exciting car chase. As a superhero, Black Panther’s powers aren’t especially noteworthy—he mostly jumps, deflects bullets with his spiffy suit, and every so often slashes something with his claws (made of a mythical, MacGuffiny substance called vibranium)—but Coogler brings some dynamism to the proceedings, only occasionally succumbing to the trap of  weightless special effects.

It's all in the necklace
He still can’t quite make his hero engrossing, at least not in a vacuum. The sense of mundanity surrounding T’Challa isn’t restricted to his abilities; frankly, the least interesting thing about Black Panther is Black Panther. Boseman does his best to imbue his pensive scion with the proper gravity, but he’s a bit stiff in the role, and he struggles to turn T’Challa into anything more than the archetypal stoic warrior. Perhaps for this reason, the tentative romance that purportedly simmers between T’Challa and his ex-girlfriend, the resistance warrior Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is unpersuasive, while the script’s sporadic attempts at humor often feel forced.

A flat protagonist would cripple most superhero movies, but Black Panther is not most superhero movies; in fact, it’s one of the few MCU pictures to feature a legitimately compelling villain. That would be Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, who is played with intelligence and ferocity by Michael B. Jordan, the immensely talented actor who anchored Coogler’s prior two features. Erik is—and here I should probably throw up an obligatory spoiler warning—T’Challa’s long-lost cousin, and he is in some ways a dark reflection of his kinsman’s sober nobility. While T’Challa was groomed as royalty in Wakanda, Erik grew up in Oakland, where he became a lethal paramilitary mercenary who freelanced for the CIA. But he has always remembered his roots, which is why the meat of Black Panther involves the battle between T’Challa and Erik for the Wakandan throne.

You'd think the hair would make him silly. It doesn't.
This sibling rivalry gives the film a sharp kick, in large part because the combatants feel equally weighted; whereas most comic-book heavies are replaceable bores with vague designs on world domination or destruction, Erik is a real threat who possesses his own well-defined agenda and ideology. Where T’Challa favors safety and restraint, Erik insists that Wakanda should wield its technological might to liberate oppressed African peoples across the world, and Black Panther explores the tension between their approaches with genuine curiosity and seriousness. It feels thrilling to watch a blockbuster with such a forceful political dimension, and while I’m not sure that all the pieces fall precisely into place, that fuzziness is arguably part of the point. This is a movie that is likely to provoke honest and thoughtful debate about a range of issues: the merits and drawbacks of tribalism, the value of foreign aid, the dichotomy between globalism and isolationism.

Speaking of isolation, one reason Black Panther has room for such internal complexity is that it’s largely disconnected from the rest of the MCU. (For this reason, the post-credits stinger feels especially pointless and shoehorned.) Perhaps taking a hint from the standalone success of DC’s Wonder Woman, Coogler and his co-screenwriter, Joe Robert Cole, make minimal effort to integrate their characters into the broader Marvel mythology. Their most audacious decision is to extend this narrowing to Black Panther himself; the movie’s best stretch is an extended passage where its nominal hero is sidelined, and it focuses instead on Erik’s fraught and bloody rise to dominance.

I mean, DAMN.
This may be a matter of character intrigue, or maybe it’s just a pleasure to watch Jordan work. Fury radiates off his body; every step and gesture exudes menace, while his line readings drip with malice. (Vocally, it may help that he’s unburdened with the “Wakandan” accent that occasionally trips up the other actors.) But there is whispered tenderness in his performance as well, as demonstrated in a bravura quasi-dream sequence that suggests Erik is driven by decency and sorrow as well as rage.

Eventually, Black Panther resumes its trajectory as a traditional Marvel movie, complete with the usual hectic climax. Here, Coogler does what he can to keep things stimulating, cross-cutting between multiple combat sequences with alacrity. The colors are bright, the music is lively (the score is by Ludwig Göransson, with original songs from Kendrick Lamar), and the action is typically well-choreographed, especially when it involves Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), a bald legionnaire with red-and-gold armor and a perpetually twirling spear. All the same, the movie’s set pieces, while robust, are generally more serviceable than exhilarating

That isn’t exactly a complaint, and besides, Black Panther’s action isn’t particularly integral to its success. What makes the movie memorable is its commitment to its characters and its themes, which come across not as empty gestures of token topicality but as earnest and important lines of inquiry. Late in the film, a mortally wounded man dismisses the notion of imprisonment, declaring that he’d rather die than live in bondage, and comparing himself to his ancestors who jumped from ships to a watery grave in the Atlantic. It’s a stunning assertion of pride and identity, all the more remarkable for appearing in a commercially conscious franchise feature. And it raises a tantalizing possibility: that Marvel movies just might be able to fight the power, even if they also resemble it.

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