Black Panther: Toeing the line between comic book film, cinematic essay on society

When is a movie just a movie, and when does it become something more?

These are the questions posed by reviews and think-pieces about the latest comic book film from Marvel Studios, “Black Panther,” a film that stands out for its predominately African American cast from African American director Ryan Coogler.

Viewed under the microscope of its place in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” veers far off on its own and doesn’t really set up May’s looming blockbuster “Avengers: Infinity War.”

More likely, Coogler’s standalone film intentionally yanks moviegoers in a completely different direction as a way to reflect social and cultural diversity within Hollywood, undoubtedly welcome and long overdue.

Racial identity plays a pivotal role within “Black Panther,” a semi-serious superhero adventure film whose events directly follow those of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Following the death of his father, T’Challa must take up the throne of King of Wakanda and the mantle of Black Panther while facing challenges from rival tribes and outsider threatening to overthrow a peaceful, secluded nation.

Chadwick Boseman never gets in the way of the film as T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the titular Black Panther. But the somber, monotone whisper Boseman breathes as T’Challa gives the character unintentional weakness that neither Boseman nor Coogler are able to overcome.

It’s a difficult performance to get behind, though audiences know that they should and the film’s deep, recognizable cast help push Black Panther to the side as secondary characters fight for screen time.

A film that features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as an one-note ally/former lover of T’Challa, Angela Bassett as his proud, yet abrasive mother and Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as uncle and spiritual guide dominates Boseman’s weakness from start to finish.

The strength of “Black Panther” ironically lies in its villainy with motion-capture pioneer Andy Serkis delivering a knockout performance in full frame as nefarious vigilante Ulysses Klawe.

Yet Coogler demonstrates his true directorial power with the perfect casting and collaboration with Michael B. Jordan, reteaming with his “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” star for the film’s most impactful, well-developed character.

As the antagonist Eric Killmonger, Jordan develops a depth of character rarely seen in comic book film and certainly an outlier for bad guys in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Killmonger’s inner pain and thirst for vengeance has real quantifiable stakes in a performance that seems far too exceptional for traditional comic book fare.

The best thing about “Black Panther” by a wide margin, Jordan outclasses Boseman and two Academy Award winners with ease, leaving audiences wanting more of the authentic villain than the reclusive, almost secondary hero the film gets its title from.

Coogler proves strongest as director and co-writer in the smaller, intimate moments as the large, action-packed sequences have a recycled, been there done that feel to them. When “Black Panther” leans into themes of racial identity and proper use of power, Coogler offers legitimate topics of conversation Americans need to have.
Somewhere along the way, however, this conflicts with the lighter superhero movie he’s tasked with making.

Without question, the social and political implications for the success of “Black Panther” far exceed its technical merits. There’s no exceptional artistry or bursts of creativity that separate Coogler’s film from the 17 previous installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Black Panther” is a quintessential superhero film, and an above-average one at that, but it isn’t a cinematic revelation.

In truth, there isn’t a large amount of difference between “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman,” 2017’s comic book movie of the moment, where engaged storytelling fell prey to predictable trope and over-reliance on computer-generated imagery in the third act.

There’s no debating that equality and inclusion in filmmaking of all kinds, blockbusters or otherwise, is a long-overdue step in the right direction for the future of cinema.

Stories need to be told from fresh perspectives regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. Yet at the same time, it’s important that we don’t oversell these advances as something more than they are because of how long overdue they are. There likely won’t, and shouldn’t be, serious awards consideration for Coogler’s film months from now, and that’s okay.

“Black Panther” is an above average superhero movie that deserves the critical and financial support it’s receiving.

Putting it in an elite echelon with films like “The Dark Knight” or “Logan” feels like a sizeable stretch, but moviegoers would be hard-pressed to find a better action adventure film this spring.

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