Director/Coscreenwriter: Ryan Coogler
By Roderick Heath
The hype for Black Panther was rather daunting, to say the least. If you wanted to buy into Disney-Marvel’s carefully cultivated marketing hullabaloo and attendant word of social media mouth, you might reasonably expect Black Panther to singlehandedly reshape western history and count as a major act of social justice, every righteous minute spent watching it the moral equivalent of an aid dollar to Sierra Leone and a vote against Donald Trump. It is true that after seventeen films and billions upon billions of dollars reaped at the box office, Disney-Marvel have finally dared to put some of their fortune towards making a film with a black superhero front and centre, two decades after Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998). More noteworthy, it’s a film with a mostly black cast and a black director, a work carefully tailored to fit our oh-so-woke times. Blockbuster land has now been colonised by personnel forged in the new black independent cinema, which is genuinely cool and stirring, but which also carries the wince-inducing hint that a lot of viewers will feel relieved from any urge to actually watch some of that new black independent cinema, particularly at a time when the Marvel creed feels close to the last true religion in terms of moviegoer appeal, beloved for its ability to generate revenue by making variations on the same two films over and over again.
Ryan Coogler made his name with Fruitvale Station (2013), a piercingly realistic depiction of the last days of police shooting victim Oscar Grant. Surprisingly for such an earnest-seeming young tyro, he quickly revealed readiness, nay, eagerness to go Hollywood, but also seemed determined to try and bend Tinseltown’s gravity to suit himself. He next took on Creed (2015), a generation-change take on the storied Rocky franchise. A lot of people really loved that one, but it left me only mildly buzzed. It badly lacked the kind of melodramatic, frankly plebeian zest the genre has long prized. I didn’t particularly care about poor little rich boy Adonis Creed, who seemed better defined by all the things Coogler didn’t want him to be than a really galvanising protagonist. Coogler’s filming was flashy, but like many contemporary filmmakers, he he had me wondering if he deployed long-take shooting in some of his boxing scenes to avoid constructing a proper editing rhythm for action scenes, a suspicion borne out when he reduced the climactic fight to an extended montage. I rather guiltily enjoyed Antoine Fuqua’s near-simultaneous Southpaw more: it was shamelessly manipulative and corny, but as such understood the essence of the boxing movie intuitively. Nor is Coogler the first black director to helm a superhero franchise. Apparently I was perhaps the only person who liked Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films from the mid-’00s. Story never got any props for those because he never tried to make his movies cool, but they were genuine in their comic book inspiration precisely because they were broad, naive, and accurate in their cinematic adaptation of the flatly illustrative on-the-page style.
Still, my reservations about Coogler’s evolving talents weren’t urgent, and I looked forward to Black Panther with measured expectations, chiefly because I’ve long wanted to see a decent Afrofuturist film, a cinematic realisation of the kind of fantastic landscape Octavia Butler wrote about, Miles Davis would spread across his album covers, and Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, and Sun Ra used to compose in mind. Black Panther delivers this, as far as it goes. Although mentioned in some of the earlier Marvel entries and glimpsed briefly at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016), this is the first time the remote, landlocked, self-sufficient African nation of Wakanda has been depicted in any depth. The nation hosts a sprawl of supertechnology enabled by the Wakandans’ control of the rare and endlessly exploitable metal vibranium, long the McGuffin enabling the Marvel universe. The conceit here is that although Wakanda entered and surpassed the general state of modernity far earlier than the rest of the world, it’s remained a very tribal society with primeval rituals of leadership and social relations, and has prospered at the cost of remaining sealed off from the outside world, neither troubled by neighbours and empires nor doing anything to help.
The history of Wakanda is explored at the outset in the regulation quasi-mythical narrated prologue, exploring the landing of a vibranium meteorite in the territory, and the rise of the first Black Panther, a warrior-king with superhuman strength imbued by a flowering plant mutated by the vibranium and a suit forged with that metal. The latest Black Panther is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), inheriting suit and throne from his father T’Chaka (John Kani), who was assassinated in Civil War. T’Challa has to pass through various obliged rituals before he takes the crown, including a challenge for the right to rule that’s a pure test of martial strength. He gains one challenger, M’Baku (Winston Duke), chieftain of the Jabari, one of the Wakandan tribes that remains aloof to the rest of the nation, living in high mountains, and manages a narrow victory over the hulking and vehement foe. T’Challa is then free to pursue more urgent matters. Nefarious character Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), stole an amount of vibranium from Wakanda in conspiracy with T’Chaka’s brother, Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), and after losing that trove to superhero enemies, seeks a new source of the ore to market. He works with a former American soldier, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), to steal a misidentified Wakandan relic, a war axe with a vibranium head, from a London museum.
Klaue tries to sell the axe head on the black market, attracting interest from the CIA, with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), another Civil War alumnus who’s aware of T’Challa’s secret identity, leading the buying team in a South Korean nightclub. The Wakandans want to punish Klaue for his transgressions, which include killing the father of one of T’Challa’s tribal chiefs, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). T’Challa and his most trusted companions, Amazonian chief bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), arrive to foil Klaue’s sale. They capture him after a careening street chase and deliver him into Ross’s hands. Klaue is soon rescued by his allies, but then learns he’s a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Erik is actually N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu, and intends to claim the throne for himself as part of a plan to conquer the world with Wakandan technology. Erik, also dubbed “Killmonger” for his gleeful dispensing of death on the battlefield, kills Klaue and arrives to challenge T’Challa.
T’Challa and his world were created by the two grand-old creative forces of Marvel comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although the property has been augmented over the past fifty years by many writers of colour who have interrogated its ideas, including the undemocratic hierarchies of Wakanda. Like the X-Men, Black Panther and his universe was conjured to fill a gap in the market and appeal to kids and teens pining for greater representation and easy identification figures, but he also became the first African superhero with the lead role in a fixture franchise. The notion that an African country has achieved a great level of advancement entirely independent of western influence could be taken as a fun and clever inversion of racist cliché, and even more so in the late 1960s when the comic first appeared. But it also has overtones of the kind of lost kingdom seen in many a pulp novel and movie, the kind where strange mores rule and the outside world is seen through a distorting lens. When he first appeared on screen in Civil War, Black Panther was sleek, tough customer carrying a load of melancholic resolve well-conveyed by Boseman, an actor who so far in his career has proven near-infinitely malleable. Here he is finally arrested into stolidity in dutifully embodying a hero whose heavy lifting of character was already disposed of in that movie. Like too many movie heroes, he threatens to disappear at the heart of his own vehicle.
Coogler tethers the remote and haughty Wakandan abode with the mean streets of Los Angeles using an introductory sequence taking place in 1992, the year of the LA riots. N’Jobu lived there as one of Wakanda’s international spies with his pal, James (Denzel Whitaker), plotting violent revolutionary action, only to receive a surprise visit from T’Chaka, alerted to his brother’s joining forces with Klaue, and also revealing that James is actually Zuri, another Wakandan sent to keep an eye on N’Jobu. N’Jobu’s attempt to kill James in a spasm of rage instead provoked T’Chaka to slay his brother and abandon his young nephew to grow up in American ghettos. Coogler suggests some visual wit in the way he parlays young Erik’s glimpse of the glowing Wakandan hovercraft that portends his father’s death and the suggestion of an alien and inhospitable culture that reached down and changed his life, in a manner that hints at a police helicopter, a vision of authority as an anonymous assassin in the sky. The promise of a superhero film that unfolds in a Blaxploitation key is dangled tantalisingly, only to be snatched away, as Coogler and coscreenwriter Joe Robert Cole dodge both this mode and their own sociopolitical inferences by sticking almost entirely to Wakanda as a setting. Social relevance and metaphor are reduced to a series of placards inserted into what is otherwise a pseudo-hip Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy camp.
Wakanda’s big city, hidden behind holographic jungles, looks like just about every other CGI burg in a recent blockbuster, although the towering skyscrapers have some vaguely tribal hut-like features. Some sub-Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien forays into the Jabari territory with fancifully jutting statuary-structures are purveyed in fleeting fashion, but without any sense of real spectacle or discovery. Those demand a directorial touch attuned to the quality of awe, but the lack of it isn’t just Coogler’s: an authentic sense of the fantastical is an ore that’s proven rarer than vibranium for the Marvel imprimatur, apart from flashes in the Thor films. More enjoyable are the animal-like designs of their aircraft. But Coogler displays no gift for evoking place: his Africa is relentlessly manicured and depicted as an assemblage of culturally backdated accumulation of tropes out of an old Tarzan movie. The visions of the local culture, like the ritual singing and dancing before T’Challa’s challenge battle, are brightly hued and suitably exotic in a manner that suggests the kind of tourist-board kitschiness (or Disneyfied appropriation, a la The Lion King, 1994) one might expect Coogler to be taking aim at. I couldn’t help but start mentally quoting the Rifftrax lampooning team’s great ridiculing of the little-known Blaxploitation film The Guy From Harlem (1977), with their quips about “your native country of Africa.”
Nor has the Disney-Marvel imprimatur’s well-developed gift for redeploying successful blueprints been seriously revised. Just as Doctor Strange (2016) slightly rewrote the Iron Man (2008) template, so Black Panther is essentially the Thor films in cod-Bantu drag, complete with contests between jealous relatives over the throne, a grand but morally flawed patriarch, a hero briefly exiled and robbed of his powers, some star performers of the ‘80s and ‘90s cast as the old guard, and a final fight on a long, flat concourse. The older Zuri is played by Forrest Whitaker, who also helped produce Fruitvale Station, which gives an amusing subtext to the inevitable moment of oedipal trauma when Killmonger slays him. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda is played by Angela Bassett, still an incredibly striking presence and still incredibly wasted. Early in the film T’Challa goes out to fetch Nakia from her self-imposed mission to infiltrate and break people-smuggling rackets, and Nakia’s bold efforts to perform positive actions where her once and future lover wrestles with a tradition of detachment would make for an interesting schism if it was deployed with any dramatic weight at all. The separation of Wakanda from the everyday flow of modern African life entirely anesthetises any chance for commentary on the progress or lack of it in the post-colonial age; what few glimpses and hints are offered about the world beyond Wakanda ironically seem to bear out Trump’s opinion that they’re all shitholes desperately in need of some intervention from an abiding superpower. Or at least in Erik’s framing of them, which, as Ross cogently notes, perfectly reproduces that of his US military training.
It also verges on quasi-racist to present a vision of an African utopia that can develop to such a degree in one sector of its life, but whose social institutions remain utterly primitive, to the point where the country can be taken over by some random dude who turns up and beats up the reigning ruler, and everyone feels obligated to follow along. Of course, these are problems inherited from the source material and its roots in a different time, but I’m surprised no-one seems to have thought them through that hard in updating it all. The never-never quality to Wakanda doesn’t entirely retard the opportunity for a little commentary, it must be said. As a free-floating metaphor for the problem of first world responsibility, it retains some kick, particularly as Killmonger takes it over and attempts to turn it into an engine of world-correcting might-as-right. He intends to follow his father and Klaue’s original plan of sending weapons out around the world to spark international revolution, at once fulfilling a radical creed but also reproducing the guiding principles of the white man’s burden. But this is all entirely subsumed into the kind of lightly purveyed political inference the Marvel style has been leveraging for a while now with its not-quite War on Terror commentary. The franchise gets to subsume a patina of relevance whilst never quite challenging or offending anyone. The mentions of slavery and police brutality scattered throughout the film are bracing in their own right, but shouldn’t be congratulated as particularly radical, seeing as they’ve been long rendered into pop tropes by thirty years of hip-hop lyrics and movies, and won’t be considered even faintly controversial except to the most strident right-wing voices, who won’t be cueing up anyway.
Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to overemphasise this aspect of Black Panther, in a film that mostly wants to be a jaunty, entertaining piece of fantasy-action absurdity with just a light glazing of positive social import. And for the most part Coogler barrels along with a reasonable sense of fun and energy, if with very little originality and only a few fleeting moments of true style and wit of staging. The set-piece car chase sequence in the middle is well-done, distinguished less by the often-annoying camerawork and the seen-it-all-before backflips and smashes, than by little flourishes of Coogler’s humour, like having Nakia slide to a halt still strapped to her car seat with the rest of the car fallen to pieces about her, a gag straight out of an old Buster Keaton two-reeler. But my reservations about Coogler’s gifts as a formalist were confirmed by the preceding stab at one of those grandiose one-shot action sequences in the night club, where the camera movements and staging lack any sense of pictorial impact. Coogler seems more at home in the sequences of close-quarters combat in the challenge battles, which he stages on a shelf above a chasm, ribboning mists and thunderous waterfalls all around. There’s real visual drama and a sense of intimate violence in these battles, particularly as the challenge between T’Challa and Killmonger turns into a spectacle of brutality that leaves T’Challa’s family and comrades distraught at the sight of their great hero taken down by a psychopathic interloper.
A lot of Black Panther stoked contradictory responses in me. It’s yet another recent movie that manages to be too talky but where relatively little of substance is said, where the characterisations are stated rather than felt and their dramatic interrelationships fail to connect meaningfully. The cast’s general energy and comic timing alternates between charming and slightly tedious in parlaying dialogue that rocks on with a fast rhythm and yet which retards the dramatic weight, particularly with the proliferation of overripe Affreekahn accents. One of the reasons why Jordan feels particularly potent in the film is precisely because he’s free from this. His Killmonger speaks in precise, venomous articulations of anger. Jordan acts better than any actor since Toshiro Mifune with his teeth as he looks like he wants to take a bite out of everyone, and he brings basic melodramatic juice to a degree that feels unworthy of his standard-issue angry-usurper villain character: he deserves a more substantial film. We get Marvel beats that are becoming stultifying in their familiarity, like extracting humour from a hero who’s omnicompetent as an ass-kicker but awkward as a romancer, doomed to freeze “like an antelope in headlights” when he sees Nakia in the midst of battle. The last third in particular feels dashed off by Coogler, who can’t be bothered building much of a sequence around T’Challa’s recovery and restoration. Remember how well-done that was in Superman II (1980)? Ah, dear. The days of such storytelling patience are long gone.
Coogler offers some flashes of visual lustre here and there, particularly in the mystical sequences that seemed composed of one part Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) and one part Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), via some funny-mushroom colour tricks. But for the most part Black Panther is a remarkably dull-looking film, often underlit, generically designed, and failing utterly to capitalise on the expansiveness of the setting. Where Black Panther really works is in terms of the cadre surrounding T’Challa, which is, peculiarly, almost entirely female, in the form of Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye. Wright’s Shuri is one of the film’s best facets, filling the role of James Bond’s Q except in the key of a bratty little sister, a long-bow wish-fulfilment figure for the younger audience members who is nonetheless a source of real entertainment, lurching between patronising her brother and propelling his adventures with all her absurd inventiveness and outsized enthusiasm. She’s stuck with the job of healing Ross, who requires her special gifts when he’s shot taking a bullet meant for Nakia, an act of altruism that makes him the – heh heh – token white guy. Shuri reacts suspiciously towards the interloper at first but soon finds him receptive in fascination for her technological creations. Gurira’s Okoye gets one priceless comic moment when she has to wear a wig over her shaven pate to pass amongst nightclub patrons. Otherwise she’s expected to stand around and look badass, something well within Gurira’s range after years playing the katana-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead TV series.
It’s peculiar that Nyong’o, who, since capturing an Oscar as a still-fresh face in 12 Years a Slave (2013), still can’t find a part to match her aura as a total package after being wasted egregiously in the Star Wars revival. Here she’s trapped in the straight-arrow part as Nakia, who operates by an independent moral compass, a trait that’s interesting but with counts for little. She fulfils the role of Love Interest with some added action moves, but remains shoehorned in between the Tough Lady and Girl Genius, leaving her to join that roster of ill-served major female talents swept up in this franchise including Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Rachel McAdams, Hayley Atwell, Evangeline Lilly…but hey, they’re all getting a decent pay cheque. Meanwhile Freeman’s Ross gets to follow in the noble footsteps of Marlon Wayans in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) in landing the dullest of heroic jobs, piloting a plane sent out to go and shoot down…well, they’re not missiles or machines of destruction, but…planes carrying arms to be delivered to someone with the possibility of being used at some point. My god, the tension. Ross has to use Shuri’s remote piloting system to do it, so to introduce physical danger and tension he’s being threatened by some kind of hovering insectoid craft trying to blast its way through to him in Shuri’s lab and…yeah, just stick him in the plane next time.
The final battle sequence is cliché stuff that degenerates into a jumble of silliness, but at least it’s a wholehearted silliness that knows it, with armoured rhinoceroses charging into the fray and a sense of childlike giddiness to the sight of the three heroines launching at Killmonger. As with the fight between Gamora and Nebula in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there’s a flicker of an actual thrill in this. A postscript sees T’Challa opening a Wakandan outreach centre based in the building where his uncle died, flying in a Wakandan hovercraft to dazzle the local youth. I liked the nod to a long tradition of pedagogic righteousness in comic books that’s been largely missing from the great craze of adaptations of late. It’s also great to see Serkis relishing his part as second-fiddle bad guy, vibrating with suppressed energy and askew attitude, as when he sings Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” strapped to a chair. The best quality of Black Panther is that it feels genuine and unforced in its liking for its cast and honest in its desire to entertain. I’m sure for a lot of people the specific quality of Black Panther scarcely matters; the event itself carries a lot of import, and I hope at the very least its success provokes a new generation of black screen heroes. Personally, I’d love to see some more authentic African mythology brought to the screen. But in itself, Black Panther’s just another drop wrung from a rapidly drying sponge.