Saturday, February 10, 2018


BLACK PANTHER comes to our screens freighted with the self-appointed weight of political history. It's as if action movies starring Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Wesley Snipes never happened. It's as if nuanced black action heroes like Lando Calrissian never happened.  This, we are told, is a watershed moment where a major franchise blockbuster not only stars a single male action hero, but a whole cast full of amazing black male and female talent.  I can't but agree - there's a qualitative leap when you have an entire film full of black actors, with African accents, with most of the action set in Africa.  This is all to the good, and it's great to see black representation go to that next stage, but I can't help but feel that that tide of goodwill toward the film - goodwill that I too shared - has clouded critical attitudes toward it.  I am hugely excited that such a project has come to our screens, but I think it would be patronising not to review it critically.  I sense in a lot of the excitement in the tweets since its preview screenings began, at best conflation between excitement that the project exists vs its content - and at worst virtue signalling.  Because let's be clear, this is an entirely disposable occasionally very funny, but often rather dull and overly complicated film.  And its titular character, as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (GET ON UP), is the least interesting thing about it.

The story has so many strands it's hard to know where to begin.  We have a thinly veiled version of Rwanda blessed with a rare metal called Vibranium which gives their king, Black Panther, extra-ordinary power, and the country futuristic technology.  The film takes from this premise the following concern:  

1) Should this tech be hidden to prevent its exploitation by others;
2) Shared with the world for good;
3) Or be used to get revenge and achieve domination over the rest of the world? 

Broadly speaking, Black Panther starts off believing the first, and this story is his coming of age story, a classical Greek tale of a son learning to confront his father's assumptions and become his own man.  His wariness is made credible by the existence of a nasty white South African thief called Ulysses Klaue, who's being chased down by a CIA agent called Everett Ross.   By contrast, and despite seeing all this, Black Panther's little sister Shuri, who is a tech genius, believes the tech should be shared, tradition thrown off, and modernity embraced.  Finally, Black Panther and Shuri have a cousin called Erik Killmonger, who as his name suggest with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is angry at being rejected by his family, the death of his father, and wants to overthrow Black Panther and use the Vibranium for evil.

Where the film works well is in its opening 45 minutes.  The prologue nicely sets up some of the mythology and origins of the Black Panther/T'Challa, and the emotional ties between father, uncle and son as well as the Panther and his love interest. The action is fast paced, we are introduced to the the man we think is the antagonist, and also the character who truly turns out to be the real threat.  And we get the surprise of two of the least well known members of the cast - Letitia Wright and Dalai Gurira - being by far the most charismatic and funny.  The problem is that after that we get a middle section that is extremely bogged down in all the intricacies of the cumbersome plot. And a final section that is your typical Marvel action set-piece with bad CGI.  Someone in the screening I attended, who evidently loved the film, shouted "Rewind!" as the credits rolled, and I just wanted to shout back "Edit!"  There's a decent 100 minute action movie struggling inside this over-blown 134 minute running time.

The problems for the film are worse than just a baggy script though. Chadwick Boseman is a charisma-less lead. Perhaps the most charisma-less lead since Henry Cavill's Superman.  And he plays the role not just with a South African accent, but with an almost pastiche version of a Nelson Mandela impression.  His entire acting range seems to be to bite his lip, and look concerned. He's acted off the screen by Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT) as W'Kabi, his fellow Wakandan, not to mention Michael B Jordan (CREED) as his troubled cousin Killmonger.  And that's before we even get to the women. Lupita N'yongo is anonymous as the love interest - an early attempt to rescue Boko Haram kidnapped women makes you think she's gonna be feisty, but no, she really is just there to look adoring and be supportive. And so she in turn is acted off the screen by Letitia Wright's smart, irreverent Shuri, and by the Black Panther's General Okoye (Danai Gurira). And to be honest - and I'm not gonna be popular for saying this, the entire bunch of them are outclassed by Andy Serkis cameo as the evil Klaue, and he seemed to be having far more fun on screen than I did in the cinema. 

The tragedy of this film is that having waited so long for a black-led ensemble action movie the result is so anodyne. Take a Bond-like villain here, a character that's like Q, your typical Marvel action scenes and tech, an indifferent score and special effects.... And then for no reason at all, chuck in a cataphract rhino and a cliche of tribal strife. The result is a film that isn't half as good as BLADE and middling by the standards of the MCU.

BLACK PANTHER has a running time of 134 minutes and is rated 12A for moderate violence, injury detail and a rude gesture. It goes on global release on Wednesday 14th February. 

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