2020s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Nope (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).

That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.

New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.


That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.

Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.

At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.

Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.

The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.

This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.

How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.

To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.

Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien  itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.

As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.

On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on.  Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.

Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.

Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.

Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.

The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.

The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Black Panther (2018)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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