Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

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Hail to the king

Wasn’t really planning to watch Black Panther. Afraid that this steady diet of tentpole superhero movies has nothing but replaced my enthusiasm for “something different” with disappointments and lowered expectations. But the hype and raves came overflowing that my Spider-sense started tingling.

Black Panther‘s box office success, just like Wonder Woman‘s last year, within the context of the superhero/comic book blockbusters, is sort of groundbreaking. It’s actually amazing—I won’t deny that. Nor am I going to elaborate on the said achievement here, because with so many rave reviews (initially 100% on RT, then came the few negative reviews, which eventually were met with backlash—it’s the internet, y’know) I’m pretty sure it has already been covered. A lot. So loud were the raves that some black dude has been wondering if majority of white geek dudes are being too lenient in their review for a movie that features an African king from a secret kingdom with advanced technology that’s both organic and alien. As if most reviews zoomed-in on the great things about the movie and zoomed-out when it comes to its flaws. That the critics seemed to have graded Black Panther on a curve—the Marvel grading curve.

In a little over two hours, Black Panther is able to tell a familiar story about family, politics, race, nationhood, and fighting for the oppressed, in a superhero frame that’s all wrapped in vibrant African color. The best thing about it is its narrative: the well fleshed-out characters and clear-cut central conflict. It’s like the first Thor movie actually. Wakanda minus its best-kept secret, is like Asgard. The rivalry between T’Challa and Erik Stevens, like that of Thor and Loki, only twice as compelling. Erik Stevens aka Killmonger also reminds me of Hela’s exiled heir to the throne, only with more humane than pure evil motivations and thus, he’s easily among Marvel’s memorable villains to date. And compared with other superhero/comic book movies that imbued its story with the topical, political and air of relevance—The Dark Knight, The Winter Soldier, X-MenBlack Panther has arguably the most cogent overall narrative.

Outside of that narrative, however, Black Panther isn’t nearly perfect as the ratings would have you believe. The CGI doesn’t always look top-notch (though that’s the least of its sins), some of the advance tech looks somewhat cheesy (as in Star Wars-cheesy, just like that fight between W’kabi’s army and the Dora Milaje reminding me of that battle in Naboo in Episode I, where Jar Jar Binks came to the rescue) and Wakanda felt more like a perfectly computer-generated backdrop than a real place, where both superpowered and ordinary people live. You don’t always get where exactly those wonderful places are. Are they inside or outside that magic shield? Where’s that place with waterfalls exactly? Where’s that place that looks like a market-place? (No worries, other Marvel movies have also been guilty of this: the shiny Asgard in Thor, the Kamar Taj in Doctor Strange, and I think it’s a problem inherent with using greenscreen, lots of CGI and having to do a lot in post-production. That said, Thor: Ragnarok (i.e., Sakaar) and the GotG movies (i.e., Xandar, Ego’s Planet) got this right.)

With the film’s cinematography, I thought a story about the royalty of a proud nation deserves something a little on the epic side, something a bit more grand, something that could distinguish a movie about the Wakandan King from, say, a movie about a high schooler Spider-Man. But most of the time, the movie seems to be rushing to tell its story, making its introduction to Wakanda instantly impressive and easily forgettable. The fight scenes also were less than memorable, mostly medium shots and cut too quickly. The results are not really nearly incoherent mess, but you sense that the fight choreography isn’t so amazing and the editing tries to hide the fact.

Also, I thought the part where they went to Korea was unnecessary (Why Korea? It could have been some place else) and the aerial fights involving a CIA agent, perfunctory, adding nothing to the movie.

Ideally, the second fight between T’Challa and Killmonger should have been better, or at least as good as the first, the ritual combat. It was, after all, a rematch between the two after T’Challa came back from the dead. It isn’t so much T’Challa claiming back the throne as he is trying to atone for the sins of his father. Rather, it was distracted, and like the other fight scenes, just routinely executed. You don’t feel what’s at stake, you don’t get into the hearts or heads of either T’Challa or Killmonger, you just see two Black Panthers fighting—until Killmonger’s poignant final moment, which ended the third act on high note and somehow saved Black Panther from becoming just another tentpole superhero movie. At least for me.

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