****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars Popcorn Curve* Rating: 2.5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Unless you are a superhero fanatic, there is no reason to see this movie. If you really want to see it, don't feed the Disney beast, wait and watch it on Netflix or cable for free.
Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, is the story of T'Challa, a prince of the technologically superior African nation of Wakanda - who is also the superhero Black Panther, as he rises to the throne of his native land and struggles to keep his nation safe. The film stars Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa with supporting turns from Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong'o and Angela Bassett.
Black Panther is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which includes but is not limited to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and all of the Avengers film. What makes Black Panther noteworthy among the rest of the myriad of Marvel properties is that Black Panther is the first of the Marvel films to have a Black lead actor and a Black director.
As a White man, a member of the demographically dominant culture here in America, I am afforded the luxury of not caring about the race of a film's director or lead actor. The only thing I care about in regards to a film is its quality, not its diversity. I am mildly self-aware enough to understand that not everyone thinks like me or has the same perspective on the importance of quality in cinema.
With all of that said, I understand that my experience as a cinephile watching Black Panther is going to be very different from, say, a young African-American boy's experience of watching Black Panther. An example of which was told to me recently by a friend (who is White) who recounted taking his 8 year-old African-American son to see the film and as they left the theatre his son said to him, "I didn't think superheroes could be Black!"
That anecdote highlights the fact that Black Panther is undoubtedly culturally important and is a remarkable achievement for African-Americans in film, but sadly, that doesn't make Black Panther even remotely close to being a decent film. And while social/political importance and relevance might trump cinematic quality for other viewers, it does not for me.
Black Panther is bursting at the seams with all sorts of dramatic and cinematic potential, but like most of the Marvel superhero films, it never lives up to its robust source material. Stan Lee created the character Black Panther back in 1966, and it is a fascinating myth. The idea of Wakanda, an African nation that was never touched by colonialism or slavery, is so brilliant as to be ingenious. And naming a Black superhero Black Panther, after the revolutionary and iconic civil rights activists The Black Panthers (Members of the Black Panther Party), was another stroke of genius. Black Panther is not a terrible film, but it definitely is a disappointing one mostly because it only briefly skims the surface of the rich archetypal material percolating beneath its feet.
The biggest problem with Black Panther is also the reason that it is getting so much attention…namely that it is a Marvel/Disney movie. Marvel/Disney movies all make billions of dollars at the box office but they are also all pretty bland and derivative ventures in shameless self-promotion, and sadly, so is Black Panther.
Ryan Coogler is considered by some to be a great director, his Fruitvale Station is fantastic, but like every other director of a Marvel movie, he is handcuffed by the process and the system which churns out these movies from the money-hungry Disney assembly line. The bottom line is this, Black Panther is a pretty shoddy movie that fails because it is so suffocatingly claustrophobic and looks unconscionably cheap. To be fair to Black Panther, all Marvel movies are just as visually flat, dull and devoid of cinematic vibrancy as Black Panther. I don't know if the plethora of failings of Black Panther are entirely Ryan Coogler's fault or not, but I do know that if Ryan Coogler is a such a great filmmaker and artist, then why isn't he making movies that matter artistically and not swimming in the retread pool of Rocky films and Marvel movies.
The rich themes at the core of Black Panther, nationalism vs. neo-liberalism, the generational scars of colonialism and slavery, the psychological plight of African-Americans who live with a psychological/historical void, are only touched upon briefly and never with very much genuine insight. The debate over whether to fight for Black people across the globe, or to preserve the sanctity of Wakanda is the most fascinating and relevant discussion in the film in my opinion, but like all the other potentialities in the movie, it too gets short shrift.
The character that carries all the weight of these heavy issues is Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger is a potentially phenomenal character that is so ripe with archetypal and mythic meaning I was hoping we'd see much more of him in the film. The problem with Killmonger though, and why we probably see less of him than we should, is that Michael B. Jordan, for all of his acting capacity, is a huge disappointment because he is unable to harness the character's immense power. I remember the first time that I saw Michael B. Jordan, it was in an episode of Friday Night Lights, and I sat up and said, "who is that?" He reminded me of a young Denzel Washington back in the day when he was on the tv show St. Elsewhere. Jordan, like Denzel, oozed charisma and had an innate star quality about him that was undeniable. As the years have passed though, Jordan's growth as an actor seems to have been stunted and he has not evolved past being that charismatic but one-dimensional teenager.
The problem with Jordan's performance in Black Panther is that his voice scuttles the work his ridiculously sculpted body is meant to be doing. Jordan's voice is that of a child in a man's body, which results in Killmonger's menace and gravitas, which are vital to the narrative, being undermined. Jordan should be a palpably charismatic screen presence, but he ends up being rather wispy and inconsequential because his voice is too high pitched and not grounded in his belly, where he could connect with the character's (and his) rage. Killmonger should speak in a guttural, nearly primal growl that reflects the torment and suffering of those stolen from and locked out of the Garden of Eden (Africa/Wakanda), not in the high pitched whine of a petulant teenager preening and posing for effect.
Besides Jordan's voice being not grounded or connected, he also suffers mush mouth, which might be a result of the fake gold teeth he has to wear, that further disconnects Killmogner from his primal fury. Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Jordan is not confined by an African accent which can be emotionally limiting or stifling due to its vocal formality, but he is still unable to use this freedom to viscerally connect with the existential animosity that fuels Killmogner.
Jordan also fails to embue his character with a specific and detailed intentionality that would fill his silence and stillness, and focus his intensity. The result of Jordan's failure to create a vivid inner life for Killmonger is a dissipation of the character's volatile energy because it has nothing to contain it, which means it has nothing to enhance and increase it.
It was also odd to me that Killmonger is such a highly educated man, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and got graduate degrees from M.I.T., and yet Jordan has him speak in a watered down, ghettoized and not just casual but intentionally improper, American English that feels forced, posed and phony. At the end of the day, Killmonger is a character I wish could have been explored much more deeply and honestly, but due to Jordan's frivolous performance, it would need a different actor to play him, and a different movie in which to do it.
Chadwick Boseman stars in the film as T'Challa/Black Panther, and he suffers from an egregious charisma deficit. Boseman is a decent actor, but in a Marvel movie you need more than a decent actor, you need somebody to carry a movie for two hours, or in this case two hours and twenty minutes. Boseman is no Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and that is no crime as few actors are as skilled and charismatic as Downey…but Boseman isn't even as magnetic as that dead-eyed dope Chris Evans who plays Captain America…and that is a major problem.
I found Boseman to be intensely dull and devoid of any magnetism whosoever. In the story T'Challa and Lupita Nyong'o's character Nakia, are supposed to have a history and chemistry between them, but the scenes between them are so wooden and lifeless as to be comically stultifying. Boseman has a pleasant energy about him, of that there is no doubt, but he certainly doesn't have a compelling one.
The rest of the cast are all fine but none of them stand out. Nyong'o's Nakia feels under developed to me, as does Danai Gurirra as Okoyo, T'Challa's bodyguard. Angela Basset is always a compelling screen presence, as is Forest Whitaker, but both of them are not exactly doing much heavy lifting in the film.
Martin Freeman plays CIA officer Ross and feels entirely out of place. Were there no American actors available to play the American Ross? Because Freeman's butchered American accent is abysmal and is totally distracting. Not to mention the obvious, which is that a CIA officer being a "good guy" to any African peoples at anytime is such a fairy tale as to be absurd.
The audience clapped at the end of the screening I attended, but it feels to me like this was an entirely manufactured cultural moment where people think they are supposed to love this movie, so they choke on their disappointment and, like with Black Panther's super suit, they use the kinetic energy of that disappointment and turn it into vocal support for the film.
As these philistines clapped I wondered, did they watch the same movie I did? Did they see the shoddy and lethargic fight choreography? Did they notice the poor cinematography, especially in the night shots which lacked any coherent contrast or texture? Or how in the day shots there was not any use of shadow or light to propel the story or tell deeper dramatic truths? Did they not notice how thin and cinematically tinny the climactic battle scenes were and how subpar the special effects?
Reading headlines even before the film was released it was easy to see that the marketing machine at Marvel was already into hyper drive as Black Panther was declared not just a great super hero movie but one of the best movies of all time. Good grief…it reminded me of Wonder Woman last summer, which was held up as being akin to Citizen Kane because a woman directed it. I liked Wonder Woman but Citizen Kane it is not…that said, Wonder Woman is so vastly superior to Black Panther that in comparison it IS Citizen Kane. Neither Wonder Woman nor Black Panther are even in the same ballpark as Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which is a masterpiece, but they pale in comparison to last year's Logan, which is a terrific movie.
I was reminded of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, when I was finished watching Black Panther. The Last Jedi received the same sort of critical hype that Black Panther received before its release, all due to the fact that the film was a bastion of diversity. I attended a Christmas party this year and at the dinner table The Last Jedi came up and a woman asked me if I liked it and I said no, I thought it was junk. The woman was very distraught at my opinion which I voiced in front of many children, and so as to not make a scene in front of these impressionable youngsters she leaned in and sternly whispered to me in retort "yeah, but it had a really positive message". I bit my tongue, for what I wanted to say to her but didn't out of social delicacy was that I don't give a flying fuck if a movie has a "positive message". What I care about is cinema…that is it. I don't care who stars in a movie, or who wrote it or who directed it, I only care that it is at least good, if not great.
If you like a movie, like Black Panther, simply because it conforms to your preconceived social or political views, that is fine, but don't confuse that with the film's quality and don't confuse it with film criticism. It would be nice if film critics were professional enough to be able to discern between those things as well.
The woman who was horrified at my honest opinion of The Last Jedi, would no doubt be even more horrified by people who loved American Sniper because it had a "positive message" in their view. Me…I am going to tell you the truth about a movie…and the truth about The Last Jedi, and Black Panther and American Sniper for that matter, is that those movies are not good. You may "like" those movies because they conform to your belief system, but that STILL DOESN'T MAKE THEM GOOD!
The problem with film criticism today is that social/political views are overwhelming critic's judgment of cinema. This results in the "ground breaking" Black Panther benefitting from what I call the "leg up" program where cinematic standards are reduced in order to fulfill some sort of social/political requirement. This reduction in standards is how we end up with a mind-numbingly average popcorn movie like Get Out being considered an "Oscar worthy film" simply because it is written and directed by a Black man, Jordan Peele. If Get Out were written and directed by a White man, and were titled, oh…I don't know…Scream...would it be Oscar worthy? No, not in a millions years, because it simply is not that good…which is why it isn't an Oscar worthy film!
Look, again, let me reiterate this...I do not care about an actor's, writer's or director's race, gender, color, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation…I only care that they make a good movie. I am not sure, as I haven't spoken to anyone about the movie, but I think I may not be alone in my opinion of Black Panther, or The Last Jedi for that matter. I say that because I looked and saw that both films received incredibly high Rotten Tomato critical scores and a plethora of positive press, but when push came to shove, audiences seemed not to believe the hype and had much lower opinions of the movies than critics, which is odd as it is usually the other way around. For instance, Black Panther is currently at a 97% critical score at Rotten Tomatoes, but has a 77% audience score, which is an anomaly compared to any other film in the Marvel Universe. Other Marvel films all have critical scores and audience scores that are within just a few points of one another.
The Last Jedi is an even more telling example, as that film currently has a 91% critical rating but a dismal 48% audience score. It might be that people, unlike film critics, are judging these films critically for what they really are REGARDLESS of whether it conforms to their social/political beliefs, and the Rotten Tomatoes audience score reflects their disappointment at what is actually on the screen.
Film critics may think they are helping African-American artists with their paternalistic benevolence when it comes to judging Black film, but they aren't. What they are doing is lowering the standard for quality for Black film which will only hasten to alienate audiences who are only interested in seeing something good, not seeing something "important" and then pretending it is good.
Look, the reality is that Marvel movies in general are usually pretty awful, and Black Panther in particular is entirely underwhelming. Not only does Black Panther not live up to its enormous hype, it doesn't even live up to the low bar of Marvel movie standards, as I would place it in the bottom half of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the general vicinity of a film like Dr. Strange.
For me, the truth is I would rather watch a movie about the actual Black Panthers and how the FBI, which liberals have now grown to love, adore and trust, systematically infiltrated, decimated and assassinated the group and its revolutionary message into extinction. Unlike the actual Black Panthers, which were revolutionary in both thought and deed, Black Panther the movie may somewhere deep down be revolutionary in aspiration, but in deed is so mundane and banal as to be little more than a piece of distractionary establishment propaganda.
There were three White, sixty-something year-old women sitting near me at Black Panther who clapped once the movie ended and then, and I am not shitting you here, they literally clapped through the end credits for any and all of the Black actors and actresses as their image and name appeared on the screen, but only the Black ones. The silence for the White actors like Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman was deafening and frankly, hysterically funny to me. These women, who no doubt have never seen a Marvel movie in their lives, were partaking in a form of cheap "woke" grace with their ovation for Black Panther, and honestly, I find it utterly appalling. (These same woman were probably among the throng of dopes who cheered at the end of the truly abysmal The Post because it pushed all the proper Establishment Democrat Party buttons.)
If these White women want to "do" something "woke", they shouldn't cheer at a shitty superhero movie because it has a Black cast and director…instead they should sift through the bullshit they are being continuously fed on a daily basis by the mainstream media and understand how they are being manipulated into seeing oppressive entities, like the FBI for example, as American heroes. Instead of virtue signaling their "wokeness" to strangers in a theatre, why not go educate themselves about genuine American heroes like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, or the Black Panther Party free breakfast program that J. Edgar Hoover once described as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the nation". Or go read about the charismatic young Black Panther Fred Hampton who was assassinated in Chicago by the Chicago police, the assault led by Sgt. Daniel Groth, who admitted under oath that his team of heavily armed cops executed their attack on Hampton at the behest of the FBI. (and as an aside go read about Groth's connection with the curious case of Thomas Arthur Vallee, a heavily armed, disgruntled former Marine who had previously been stationed at a U2 base in Japan (just like another three named disgruntled former Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald) who was living in Chicago and who worked at a factory that overlooked the motorcade route that JFK was supposed to take in Chicago just weeks before he was killed in Dallas…it is a fascinating tale that James W. Douglass' touches upon in his great book JFK and the Unspeakable)
Regardless of whether you look into the real Black Panthers or not, what you shouldn't do is waste your money going to see Disney's Black Panther, and then post on Facebook about how #woke you are. The Mickey Mouse corporate monster ain't "woke", and he ain't going hungry and he sure as shit doesn't doesn't need your hard earned money, so trust me when I tell you that this movie is definitely not worth your time and effort. But if you do go and see it, all I ask of you is that you try to honestly judge the film for what it actually is, and not for the movie that you desperately want and hope it to be.
*The Popcorn Curve judges a film based on its entertainment merits as a franchise/blockbuster movie, as opposed to my regular rating which judges a film solely on its cinematic merits.