Black Panther Brings A Nation To Life

Director: Ryan Coogler  Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker  Running Time: 134 minutes

Get ready to fall in love with Wakanda – the fictional African nation of the Marvel Universe, a hidden technological utopia that serves as the backdrop for much of Black Panther. While not technically alive, it is perhaps the films single biggest star. Wakanda, as presented on screen, is a fully realized and lived-in world, with a sense of awe and wonder waiting around every corner. It is a place whose cultural significance is undeniable – expertly crafted and wonderfully depicted through every costume, character, and setting; a place that helps Black Panther look and feel completely fresh.

To say that this film is of great significance would be an understatement. Similar to last year’s Wonder Woman it represents a huge step forward in terms of diversity and onscreen representation, both in the superhero genre and pop culture as a whole. In that regard, the film is a rousing success. It matters. But it isn’t as perfect as the initial buzz would have you believe.

There’s a weightlessness to much of the action, both visually and dramatically, that feels at odds with the film’s more self-serious tone. The plot drags at times. And while there are many exciting and iconic characters in the film, Black Panther himself is perhaps the least engaging aspect.

Black Panther, otherwise known as King T’Challa, was a standout character when introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Played with a steady conviction by Chadwick Boseman, his stoic and mysterious nature worked brilliantly as a counterbalance to the other wisecracking characters in the franchise. He lent that film much of its heart and soul. Here in his own film, unfortunately, he comes across as being a little dull.

It’s hard to think of many memorable scenes for his character other than his introduction – making a brief quip before jumping out of a plane (which is all the more disappointing when you realize it’s really just a riff on Tony Stark doing the same in an earlier film). What doesn’t help is that his character says almost nothing while jumping around in his CGI panther suit, defying gravity and physics, leaving much of his combat feeling like soulless computer game cut-scenes (or, hate to say it, a bland Spider-Man clone minus the webs and wit.)

In contrast to many of Marvels recent entries, Black Panther is not a laugh a minute. That’s not to say that it fails at being funny – it can successfully crack a joke when it wants to, and there are more than a few welcome moments of levity. For the most part, however, the film is a surprisingly serious affair, placing the emphasis on story, theme, and character over quips and self-referential humor.

That may sound like a godsend to some – finally the serious “adult” comic book film they’ve been crying out for. But there’s a problem… The superhero genre isn’t really known for its deeply compelling plots. And while Black Panther aims to change that, there are points where, without the jokes to carry it through, the story and pacing begin to drag.

To its credit, there are a lot of great themes being explored in the film regarding cultural identity, legacy, and responsibility. Themes that are backed up through character and dialogue in a way few other Marvel films have managed to achieve past the usual brief lip-service. But, on a surface level, there’s a lot of repetition in Black Panther’s plot, with certain scenes being reused and revisited a few times too many. Watching characters embark on a vision quest, or fight for their honour at the top of a waterfall is exciting the first time we’re presented with it. The second or third time around – not so much.

Performances in the film are all top notch. Black Panther boasts an incredible cast of seasoned vets and newcomers alike. Danai Gurira’s fierce and stunning Okoye, the leader of the royal guard, and Letitia Wright’s plucky genius Shuri are particular standouts. Michael B. Jordan nails the role of Killmonger in what is undoubtedly Marvel’s best villain since Loki in Thor. Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett bring all their usual experience and gravitas, while the excellent Sterling K. Brown gets a solid extended cameo. Reprising his brief role from Age Of Ultron Andy Serkis is back, clearly having a lot of fun as the gleefully unhinged Ulysses Klaue, and Martin Freeman, reprising his role from Civil War, does what Martin Freeman does best. The list goes on. Seriously, everyone in this film just knocks it out of the park.

Director Ryan Coogler excels in the dramatic scenes. As mentioned above, he has no problem conveying the films deeper themes and socio-political aspects. When it comes to the action though, he aims high but doesn’t always succeed. The standout moments are a reasonably cool but somewhat unnecessary “one-shot” fight scene (achieved through the questionable use of CGI stunt doubles at select opportune moments), scenes of real hand to hand combat that echo his work on the outstanding Creed, and a genuinely thrilling car chase through the streets of Busan, South Korea.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the action fails to pack the memorable punches you’d hope for in a film of this scale. In what is becoming somewhat of a norm for Marvel films of late, as they move towards increasingly otherworldly settings, the effects are surprisingly hit and miss at times. Here that means moments of dodgy green screen work, an overabundance of weightless cartoon putty-people, and disturbingly jarring echoes of The Phantom Menace in one of the films climactic set pieces.

People have likened the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the most expensive TV series ever created.  And to be honest, it’s hard not to think of it that way. Black Panther even features the kind of pre-credits cold open that is primarily a staple of episodic storytelling, along with the usual post-credits tags setting up future installments.

So where does Black Panther fit in the larger whole? The answer is complicated.

Ideally, a film should be judged on its own merits rather than in the context of its peers. With superhero films though, that’s becoming increasingly impossible. The serialized structure is by design. Each film in the MCU is intended as an installment in a larger whole. What carries us through multiple installments a year is the sense of attachment we’ve built to the various characters and the excitement of seeing them crossover and interact.  Asking us to fully invest in a new player this late in the game is a risky move – one that doesn’t always entirely pay off.

To run with the TV show analogy it’s like giving the audience a completely stand-alone episode, with a character we barely know, right before the highly anticipated season finale. To further complicate matters, in a fairly bizarre scenario that has to be some kind of first, people around the world have watched and dissected the trailer for the next installment before even seeing this one. The recently released trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, the series’ grand finale, heavily features Wakanda and its inhabitants. It’s hard to feel invested in this film when you’re constantly being reminded of what comes next.

To be clear, this isn’t Black Panther’s fault, it’s certainly not director Ryan Cooglers fault, but it is an issue that’s going to be there in the heads of countless fans waiting for a link or a reference to the larger story they already know is just around the corner. It’s an unfortunate by-product of franchise marketing and hype. And it’s one that hurts the film as a standalone experience.

Franchise issues aside, is Black Panther a success? For the most part, yes. Is it the home run some may have hoped for? Probably not. But that’s ok. There seems to exist a mentality in today’s internet-fuelled film culture that a film is either amazing, crap, or just “bang average”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Films are not a zero-sum game. Unlike sport, they can’t be quantified in terms like “win, lose or draw”. To get all artsy about it here for a second, they are multifaceted, subjective experiences that are by and large a labor of love for the people who create them.

There’s certainly a lot of love went into making Black Panther, and there’s a lot to love about it as a result. While not everything in it’s 2hr 15min runtime quite hits its mark, the film gifts us with a bunch of diverse and kick-ass new icons to look up to. It puts Wakanda on the map, establishing it as a place that many of us will be eager to revisit. An exciting world filled with colorful inspiring characters, and a shining example of representation for a whole generation of film-goers. Even if nothing else in Black Panther worked, that alone would make it worthwhile.

Thankfully there’s a pretty solid film there to back it all up.

To quote the nation’s mantra – Wakanda Forever!

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Black Panther is in Irish cinemas from 13th February

About Kelan O'Reilly

An early addition to the Film In Dublin team. Kelan is a writer and musician living in Dublin. He has what some might call an unhealthy obsession with all things film related; others would likely agree.

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