Sometimes a film receives universal approval, and I’m left wondering if everyone else saw the same film as me. Last year’s Logan was one such and, to a lesser extent, this year’s Black Panther is, also. Now, before you start writing those letters - I enjoyed it, it was fine; but it didn’t strike me as outstanding. Yet the response to the film has been euphoric and unprecedented. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 97%, which is the highest rate given any new Marvel film since the first one, Iron Man, back in 2008. It has also, now, become the highest grossing of all the Marvel films. So the critics love it and the audience loves it. Who am I, then, to gainsay?
Black Panther has been claimed as a cultural event of seismic proportions for black culture, mostly because, for the first time, viewers of colour can see superheroic spectacle featuring people who look just like them. The response has been so one-sided and, being the pasty white-boy that I am, I am so unqualified to have an opinion about that, I hesitate to air my reservations, even though they don’t really touch on the core issue of the film - it’s racial identity - instead, my concerns relate more to the familiarity of the story being told and the slow pace at which they are telling it.
So, before I begin, to be entirely clear - I enjoyed the film! I did! I went to see it again, just to double-check my response and, on both occasions, found it to be a perfectly adequate contribution to the burgeoning Marvel universe.
I liked the fact that Black Panther takes place entirely in Africa (apart from one shoot-out and car-chase in Korea, put there to appeal to the needs of the ever-more-important Far East audience). I particularly liked the fact that they didn’t feel the need to shoe-horn in any cameos from The Avengers.
|So compelling is the notion of an uncolonised African super-power, that travel agents here in the real world have been turning customers away who want to holiday there.
I loved the design of Wakanda, from its fashion, to its architecture, it has been diligently thought through. They have built an entire civilisation which takes its aesthetic cues from Africa. It has not been westernised at all, indeed, it has Africanised western notions like the skyscraper. It’s a beautiful thing. In the opening moments, when T’Challa flies over the city, it is a much science fiction location as the planets we see in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
I imagine the fashions, and particularly the face decorations, will have already entered the cosplay pantheon and, if last year’s response to Wonder Woman is anything to go by, I expect every black kid (and some who now want to be black) will be wearing Black Panther costumes at fancy dress parties!
The all-female Wakandan army - the Dora Milaje - ( or, those “Grace Jones looking chicks”) not only have a great look, they are a great idea! They are led by the ferocious Danai Gurira - who is even more impressive with a spear than she was, in The Walking Dead, with a sword. To have an army that is all female and all black in the era of #metoo and #time’sup is brilliant timing. Yet, they represent just one way that Wakanda is a contrarian nation.
I understand the politics of the film, and can see the appeal, to the ancestors of slaves, of an African super-power which has never been colonised. This is a fantasy, but one that speaks to the heart of black culture. Killmonger (Gawd, what an awful name ... Sorry, but it is), in his opening scene, points out that museums are full of artefacts that the West stole from their rightful owners. In this way, Black Panther is an unambiguously political film, moreso than any Marvel film to date.
The first problem I had with the film came with T’Challa’s coronation, which is a mix of ultra modern (the technology to stop the waterfall) and traditional (the whole having a fist-fight on a waterfall thing) and mystical (using magic herbs to take away the king’s super powers). This whole ceremony is repeated, later, when Kilmumble challenges for the throne. It is dramatically quite weak for the film to repeat itself like this, especially since the betrayal of M’Baku - the first challenger - is simply a red-herring. It would have been more dramatic, and less predictable, to combine these two narratives into one. Yes, it would have reduced the significance of M’Baku’s role, slightly, but it would have beefed up Kilwomble’s exponentially.
After the coronation, they bury their king, as you do, and he has a vision lifted bodily from Schrader’s Cat People (1982), featuring panthers in the trees. Then he gets to talk to his dead dad, like Thor did in last year’s Ragnarok, and like every hero gets to talk to every dead mentor, from Luke Skywalker to Frodo to Harry Potter. It’s okay, I get it; it’s the first time a black hero has been able to do this. Cool.
|Malcolm McDowell shows Nastassja Kinski his pussy, in 1982's Cat People.
|The chosen one has undead daddy issues in Black Panther. Use The Force, T'Challa.
Father does offer one brilliantly tooled nugget of advice: “It is hard for a good man to be king.” This is not only a great line, and a precursor of the dilemma that T’Challa is about to face, it also lays the foundation for the T’Challla’s discovery of his father’s mistake.
Nakia, T’Challa’s girlfriend (played by Lupita Nyong'o, taking a break from being mo-capped in Star Wars films) is his Jiminy Cricket - speaking for his conscience. Their first real conversation has her making her point with some fairly on-the-nose dialogue about why Wakanda should stop hiding behind its cloak of invisibility and use its power to help other nations. So, his first scene after he becomes king, she tells him what his character arc will be.
Interesting, when there is a case being made for a black Bond (and, let’s be honest, the success of this film has made that a far more credible possibility) that T’Challa gets equipped with his wonderful toys by his sister, the precocious Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) and her ‘design group’. He has, in other words, his very own Q Branch.
The showy pretend-it’s-all-one-shot fight is impressive, but that’s the way these things are done today, after two Kingsman films, one Atomic Blonde and an entire Birdman, there’s nothing surprising in it now. The car chase that follows it enjoys a lot of Fast and Furious type physics, although the virtual-reality auto-pilot thing is very desirable. There isn’t a gamer in the world who won’t be wishing for one of those of their very own!
But, of course, Klaue (played, once again, by Andy Serkis, taking a break from being mo-capped in Star Wars and Apes films), who is the subject of all this sturm und drang, isn’t the real villain, Killmuppet is, and he doesn’t step forward until we’re an hour in - basically, the half-way point. Then, when Klaue is done with as a distraction, he is just ignominiously disposed of; tossed away in the trash. Which is a shame, Serkis is far better than that and deserves better.
This, for me, really undermined that whole first hour - since what action there was, was all for nothing. The fight on the waterfall wasn’t necessary. The fight in the casino didn’t matter. The car chase through the streets of Busan was an attempt to capture the wrong villain. It’s a lot of wasted film time. All very well made and very diverting, but not, ultimately, germane to the plot.
Hang on, a minute. So, when Martin Freeman (who's taking a break from selling mobile phones), as Ross, gets shot whilst being all heroic, simply sticking a metal bead in his wound will stabilise him? Really? And how does that work, exactly? Magic? Vibranium pixies? Midi-clorians? Anyway, it works well enough to ensure that Everett Ross gets to stay in the film. Bilbo (or “coloniser”, as Shuri calls him) is very much the token white man from here on in. And I still can’t get used to Martin Freeman pretending to have an American accent.
And so, finally, attention shifts to the main antagonist - who we’ll refer to by his African name, if you don’t mind: N’Jadaka! The explanation of his motivation is well handled, and helps make him a fully-rounded villain - like Zemo in Civil War (2016) was, before him. King T’Chakka handled the matter badly in 1991 and King T’Challa will pay for it now.
|Hail to the king, baby.
N’Jadaka is played with total commitment by Michael B. Jordan. But this is not surprising, since he’s working again with Ryan Coogler, who gave him his big break in 2015’s Creed. Yes, he’d been working since he was a teen and, yes, he’d even played Johnny Storm in 2015’s ‘troubled’ Fantastic Four ... But it was the notices and accolades he got for Creed that have set him up for life. So, he was going to give his all for his friend, Coogler.
Although N’Jadaka is arrogant - he struts around like a gangsta rapper - and needlessly aggressive - having killed hundreds of innocents in his drive for revenge - he is, essentially, right. He was betrayed by T’Chakka, and Wakanda has abandoned the rest of the African people to slavery and civil war.
And so, finally, with N’Jadaka in the throne room throwing down his challenge, the story actually begins - at the end of act two! For me, the confrontation between the T’Challa and his new arch nemesis should have been at the end of act one - then we could have had the entire middle act of T’Challa with no powers, fighting back, while N’Jadaka plots to infiltrate the world - and actually does something about it. That would raise the stakes world-wide - it would make T’Challa’s defeat tragic, and make his inevitable resurrection more triumphant.
As it is, he’s out of the picture barely more than ten minutes.
Yes, my way of doing it, would have made the film more like Dark Knight Rises (2012). But that would be okay. I probably wouldn’t then mind the dénouement being two Black Panthers fighting each other, which is becoming the familiar superhero showdown - as we’ve seen variations of it in Superman III, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 1, 2 and 3, Ant-Man and, of course, Logan.
The final battle - between all the tribes of Wakanda, is suitably spectacular - and, especially when the armoured rhinos appeared (as if rhinos don’t have armour enough already), it reminded me of nothing so much as the Battle of Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King (2003). But, again, that’s fine, because I understand what’s going on here: Black Panther mixes together and - one might say - colonises a lot of generic properties - from Fast & Furious to Bond to Lord of the Rings, as well as visiting some of the more popular superhero tropes.
It’s a shame, given the huge strides into diversity that the film had made, that the film-makers then felt the need to have a gang of feisty women rescued by M’Baku and his mountain gorilla warriors - doing his best Han Solo impression. In this film, of all films, I would have liked to see the women rescue the men.
|M’Baku (Winston Duke) - He's the king of the swingers. He's not given much to do but, thankfully, he does it very well. Though, I'm not sure having black men dress as gorillas is entirely politically correct. It certainly wasn't in King Kong (1933).
So, when Black Panther is different from the norm - it’s excellent. When it’s similar to the norm, it’s understandable and well handled. But it just misses its own point too much in the first half and then crams too much into the second half - to create any real human drama. And that’s a shame.
And, yes, I’m fully aware that Marvel, as they count their billion dollars of profit, must be sobbing themselves silly at my humble criticism.
Dir: Ryan Coogler
Script: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Dur: 134 mins