The Two Reviews: Black Panther (2018 Ryan Coogler)

Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Googler.
Featuring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia. Wright, Florence Kasumba, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, & Winston Duke.

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Black Panther is a great movie. It’s just fun. It’s stylish. I have listed most of the lead actors above, because all of them are outstanding and all of them add depth to the film. Even the ‘small’ characters are given meaningful roles and developed personalities in this Superhero film, which is set in the modern world. First of all, I am not crazy about Superhero films – I don’t mind them, I’m just not crazy about them. But The Dark Knight and now the Black Panther are both a notch above the ordinary. Good scripts, visual style, decent plots, tension – lots of tension – great villains and impressive action.

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The larger part of this film is set in Wakanda, a central African country, largely isolated from the rest of the world because they have the precious metal vibranium thanks to a large meteorite some centuries before. This metal has spurred their technology and provides them with powerful weapons of defence. Their king has the privilege of special powers and wears a suit of made from vibranium – at which times he is the ‘Black Panther’. The new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is strong, sensible and just. Interestingly, this film has two villains. You’d think that wouldn’t work, but it actually has a strong enough script to step it up from ‘bad’ to ‘determined vengeful darkness’. The first appears as the South African guns runner Ulysses Klaue – brilliantly played by Andy Serkis – who manages to steal some vibranium and cause havoc around the world. And the second is Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (a riveting performance by Michael B Jordan), a dark and powerful, but tragic nemesis of T’Challa. You might think this is all about the men. It isn’t. I am struggling to think of another film that has so many dynamic and charismatic female leads and supports. They are centre stage, both in the drama and in the action.

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Director Ryan Coogler and his team have created an aesthetically beautiful film, in which sets, scenes, costumes and the chiselled features of characters create a dynamic visual style. Wide-angle shots are used to great effect too. Special effects are better than most Superhero films, and there are some wonderfully light and comic moments in what is frequently a battleground film. But the real hallmark of this film is it narrative. Coogler and fellow scriptwriter Joe Robert Cole have clearly updated the Black Panther with comments on racial relations, seething anger from the young hat to an older generation that did not do more to make a better world, even comments of refugees and ‘building bridges, not creating barriers’. Because the ‘orphaned’ Killmonger was brought up in modern California, outside Wakanda (the idyllic ‘neverland’), the film easily slides between ‘what could be’ and what ‘actually is’ for the black majority.  There is a great scene where Killmonger says to T’Challa that he would rather die than live in bondage like the slaves before him.

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I should note here that there has been a rightwing campaign in the US to hack review sites and downgrade this film because this small group of haters dislike that it has a largely black cast and lots of women playing generals, advisors, scientists and powerful combatants – oh the horror!! These same nutters campaigned against the ‘politically correct’ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the female Ghostbusters (2016) and other films. Most people, however, have sensibly ignored these racists and haters. And Black Panther looks to soon be the most successful Superhero film to date, and one of the largest grossing films of any genre.

Anything I didn’t like? Well…it’s a touch violent. I think that is my only reservation, but it is not a big one; and most of the film is a nice balance of well-choreographed action, drama with touches of comic wit, and wrapped up in a wonderful visual style. Go and see it. Don’t take little kids, but older ones should be fine.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3.8/5

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Eighteen films in, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not appear to be slowing down. Has it even reached its climax yet? Is there more dazzle yet to come? Will it continue to push the boundaries for breaking Hollywood stereotypes in mainstream movies…? I don’t know. Probably, I guess. I have only ever watched a handful of the Marvel films and TV Shows – some have been fun (Deadpool, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy) and some have been clever (The Avengers, Jessica Jones), but at the end of the day, they are just big money-spinners. And in that, they have to appeal to the lowest common dominator (mainly Americans, or others around the world who have become acculturated by an American narrow-mindedness) as well as appealing to a wider and worldlier audience (which I welcome). I know that all sounds very cynical but I couldn’t help but conclude this by the end of Black Panther. Here was a movie with good ideas, a superb cast, a bagful of money to use on effects, a beautiful style and some of the best marketing opportunities of any film I have ever seen. Now I thought it used the marketing opportunities to admirable effect (it has been rightly championed around the world for its non-white and non-mainstream central cast – a ‘great cultural event’ as some have said), but unfortunately the story was bogged down by a very generic, and often silly, plot, and the moral messaging within the story was at times stale and cringe-worthy.

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Robin has given a summary of the plot above, so I will not repeat it here. Suffice to say that there were a lot of explosions, a lot of ridiculous fighting, a lot of gadgetry, a lot of impressive CGI and a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s outstanding music (and a bit of Amadou et Mariam thrown in too). The roles portrayed by Danai Gurira (a Wakanda General who takes no shit), Letitia Wright (Black Panther’s genius and hilarious sister), Michael B. Jordan (the baddie), Andy Serkis (the bad baddie) and Winston Duke (the guy who kept barking like a dog) were the most convincing and entertaining. I felt that Chadwick Boseman lacked charisma as the lead role, but this was probably more down to the fact that his character lacked any quirk, or if there was a hint of a quirk, it was never developed. Likewise with Lupita Nyong’o, whom I think is a magnificent actor, but here she wasn’t exactly dealt a joyous character – she’s mainly just the love interest. On the other hand, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and John Kani all brought reverence to their respective roles as the elders.

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As much as the plot was all a bit ridiculous (it is based on a comic-book after all), the subtle nods towards historical and contemporary racial divides in the world and the not-so-subtle, powerful embrace of Black African culture and imagination are what make Black Panther a truly special film. One wonders why it has taken so long for this to happen in a mainstream Hollywood movie…oh I forgot, America is still quite racist of course. But thankfully, the wheel is finally turning and hopefully, it won’t be so uncommon for us to witness an African woman (or a Chinese transgender woman for that matter) kicking ass in a Hollywood action movie anymore. I guess the problem I have about all this is the ‘kicking ass’ – in the end, these films appear to promote violence on a hyper-scale, regardless of the gender or the culture involved. Black Panther suggests that differences between rulers and would-be rulers should be settled with fights to the death, and if a defeat is to start wars, then so be it. At least if we fight, we can eventually come to a peaceful solution because the high moral messages of the ‘good’ side will always triumph over the divisive messages of the ‘evil’ side. That’s the way it works, right?

A load of nonsense really. But who am I to argue? One of the highest grossing films of all time obviously knows better.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3/5

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