20 February 2018

Black Panther review

I don't think it's going to come as a massive shock to anyone to learn that Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is worth seeing. Marvel Studios have been releasing films that are good at worst for so long now that it almost feels like a foregone conclusion, which means that the real question at this point is if each new instalment in this mega-franchise can meet the expectations set for it. In the case of Black Panther, those expectations are sky high thanks to the character's impressive debut in Captain America: Civil War and the fact it's written/directed by the brilliant Ryan Coogler - and unfortunately, I don't think it quite manages to meet them.

Don't get me wrong, it's without a doubt one of the stronger films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, introducing us to a ton of great new characters and telling an interesting, thematically complex story that I'm sure people will be analysing and talking about for a long time to come - but it's also Ryan Coogler's weakest movie by a fair margin, lacking the sense of craft and rich emotional substance that made both Fruitvale Station and Creed as deeply engaging as they are. It's a really good superhero film for sure, certainly one with more ambition and intelligence than most, but the realities of making a Disney-backed Marvel Studios film means that it's also ultimately *only* a really good superhero film, rather than the legitimately great piece of cinema it often feels close to becoming.

Set some time after the events of Captain America: Civil War, we follow T'Challa as he is officially crowned the King of the technologically advanced but also incredibly secretive African nation Wakanda following his father's death. But after Vibranium thief Ulysses Klaue (last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) resurfaces, T'Challa sets out to capture him alive and bring him back to Wakanda to face trial, a decision that ultimately results in an outsider named Erik "Killmonger" Stevens challenging T'Challa's right to the throne. The main ideological difference between the two of them? Killmonger has witnessed the injustice that black people have had to deal with while Wakanda stood idly by, whereas T'Challa is less sure that Wakanda should be getting involved in the affairs of other countries.

It's a politically charged, thematically rich and almost Shakesperean tale of royalty, family and legacy that would be interesting regardless of where it was set, but it's only made all the more compelling by Black Panther's ability to sell us on Wakanda as a place worth caring about. This more than anything else is Black Panther's most impressive feat - it takes mere minutes for Wakanda to feel like a tangible location with its own history, culture and place in the larger world around it, and that means that every plot beat regarding its future lands with a far greater impact than it otherwise would've. It'd be easy to think this is thanks to how Black Panther explicitly frames its story around the idea of what Wakanda's place in the larger world should be, and that's definitely part of it - but it's also thanks to some simply phenomenal production design, bringing an aesthetic called Afrofuturism to the screen that both breathes life into this world and makes Wakanda feel quite unlike any place you've ever seen in a film before.

It's certainly a far cry from the Thor franchise's inability to make people care about Asgard in any meaningful way, and that's not the only way in which Black Panther feels like Marvel Studios addressing some of the most common criticisms levelled against them. With the exception of scenes that are overly reliant on CGI (he might be a great director, but Coogler's inexperience with films of this size really shows here), Black Panther is quite easily one of the best looking films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date thanks to Rachel Morrison's vibrant and colourful cinematography, and Ludwig Göransson's constantly evolving score certainly feels more prominent in Black Panther than previous Marvel Studios scores have in their respective films. But the most obvious improvement comes in the form of dual villains Klaue and Killmonger - while I've never really agreed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been harmed by putting more work into its protagonists than its antagonists, it's also hard to deny that these two are a big step-up from the vast majority of superhero film bad guys, a combination of great writing and larger-than-life performances that see both Andy Serkis and Michael B. Jordan stealing pretty much any scene they're in.

But more important than any of that is how Black Panther addresses criticisms made of not just this franchise but blockbuster film-making at large is in terms of representation, and I don't just mean when it comes to race (although that is going to be hugely important for a lot of people and I don't mean to undermine that in any way). If Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok was a small step forwards for female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is an enormous leap - it seems to me that there are just as many well-written and interesting female characters here than there are in pretty much the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined. You've got Wakanda's all-female special forces group the Dora Milaje; Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia, a Wakandan spy who isn't afraid to stand up for what she believes in; Danai Gurira's incredibly badass Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje; and of course Letitia Wright's Shuri, T'Challa's genius younger sister and the Q to his Bond. Take note, other superhero movies: this is how you write what are traditionally referred to as "strong female characters", not just by making them physically capable but by ensuring that they have actual personalities and a real purpose within the story too.

The only problem with the amount of great characters contained within Black Panther (and I'd be remiss if I didn't add Winston Duke's charismatic and intimidating M'Baku to that list) is that it means T'Challa himself ends up feeling a little less interesting here than he was in Captain America: Civil War, but that's a pretty good problem to have all things considered. More pressing as an actual problem is Black Panther's incredibly disappointing CGI - at times it's amongst the worst I've seen in a modern big budget blockbuster, all but entirely ruining what would have otherwise been a really good finale and leaving something of a bitter taste in the mouth. Between this and Thor: Ragnarok's inconsistent-at-best green screen work, I'm genuinely worried that Marvel Studios think they can half get away with skimping out on the visual effects budget. They can't - Black Panther looks really, really bad whenever it is forced to resort to CGI characters fighting in CGI locations, to the point where it pulls you out of the film entirely. Naturally then, Black Panther's action is at its best when it's trying to be a more grounded spy-film, and at its worst when it remembers that it's meant to be a large scale superhero movie.

But more frustrating than any of that that is how often you can virtually see Ryan Coogler's vision for what Black Panther could have been grinding up against Marvel Studios' almost assembly line approach to movie making, a problem not felt this strongly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, Black Panther has a lot to say about how colonialism has impacted the world at large, and it's great to see a huge piece of blockbuster film-making like this contain such a strong and complex message - but it also feels like the film's basic structure was locked in place long before Coogler came on board and he was only able to do what he wanted as long as it still ultimately fit into or around that structure. It's like handing Picasso a colouring book - sure, the end result might be beautiful, but imagine what he could've done with a blank piece of paper instead.

But maybe at this point we need to simply accept that as being an unavoidable reality of the shared cinematic universe model, the other side to the continuity coin and, ultimately, a price worth paying when the result can still be this good. Black Panther might not be quite as impressive (or consistent) as Coogler's earlier films have been and yes, as a huge fan of his previous work that's a little disappointing - but it's still undeniably an intelligent, entertaining, mostly very well-made movie, and something of a watershed moment for blockbuster cinema too. The new best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? I don't think so. But it's definitely up there, an organic expansion of both the world these films exist in and, more importantly, the limits of what this particular franchise can be that we're going to be talking about for a long time to come.

4 stars

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