Back in the late 70s, NBC ran a Martin Luther King miniseries with Paul Winfield. In one of the commercials (in that era, we couldn’t fast-forward them), two cute black grandmothers introduced their grandchildren to the glories of McDonald’s. I remember saying to my then-roommate, “This is what Dr. King was fighting for” – and I was only being halfway snarky. King of course fought for the right of black Americans to ascend as high as they could (though the presidency could then have barely been imagined), but also for the right of most others to simply live lives as ordinary/even banal as their white co-citizens.
Black Panther evoked a similar reaction in me. That a movie with a quite-dominant black cast, steeped in African culture, can become a worldwide blockbuster is a very good thing, and important commercially, sociologically…I’ll even say culturally. But you lose me (and, it seems, BJ) when you extend this to artistically. Because, that cultural patina removed, Black Panther is nothing more than a routine Marvel super-hero film – pressed, I’d say a less interesting one than Doctor Strange, and well below the level set by the original Iron Man, which inaugurated this flood-the-market-with-Marvel-characters era.
It’s not that there’s nothing good about it. People have mentioned the costumes, and I’d point to the Wakanda design as pretty impressive, as well. (The Academy design branch seems to have moved past nominating these films, but they might want to reconsider, here.) And I really enjoyed Letitia Wright’s sister character – she added much-needed humor to the piece. She and the M’Baku character were the only ones who made me laugh over the whole two hours…and this, to me, is the film’s real lack: it just wasn’t much fun. The Korean car chase was the only sequence that even gave me much of an action-movie high. The (extended) final battle had its moments, but not enough to justify the long lead-up. It’s possible, of course, for a comic book movie to succeed without being “fun” if it’s got enough heft – The Dark Knight, whatever its flaws, had a pretty well-realized crime wave storyline, and also enough character-depth to keep it aloft. I guess some think the betraying brother/abandoned child/vengeance plot, mixed with the African roots, gave this film similar weight, but I just found these story tropes hackneyed, without much twist. There was one idea I thought interesting and even witty: that, given the long history of black culture being appropriated, the only way for Wakanda to safeguard all its achievements was to pretend it didn’t have them – but there wasn’t enough made of that (and, in fact, by the end, it seemed they were ready to toss that element aside). I just didn’t think there was enough there there for the film to qualify as genuinely serious – even with a thoroughly over-qualified cast filling the roles. And, as I said, it didn’t provide enough laughs and thrills to offset this.
I may – like BJ -- just be the wrong audience for any film like this. I read a commenter at Awards Watch, who said you really had to have seen Civil War to understand what was going on. I thought, I’d better look the earlier film up – but then, I realized it was Captain America: Civil War, and I already HAD seen it. And, thinking back, I vaguely remembered an explosion at the UN, and I guess it was Boseman’s father who was killed…but none of this had stuck to my brain. This is not just the memory-fail of a no-longer-so-young guy – I can vividly recall details of scenes from movies I saw but once, decades ago. The difference is, I watched those earlier movies intently; I was so engaged with them, details burned themselves in my memory. In the Marvel movies, though, I don’t take any of stories seriously enough – don’t have the emotional involvement with them – for memories to be created. They’re all, in my view, disposable viewing, with recycled plots/character relationships there strictly to prop up visual whiz-bang. (I’m not making this argument as a stern realism-only taskmaster: I was a huge fan of the Spielberg fantasy pictures in the 70s/80s. But those films, too, engaged me emotionally -- and, for me, earned their outsize financial success by the immense pleasure they offered audiences.)
I don’t know what to think about Coogler. I liked Fruitvale Station, and, while I thought Creed was an utterly unnecessary movie, I found it (as Sabin more or less said of Blade Runner 2049) as good a movie as you’ll see from a director wasting his time. For me, Black Panther represents a step back – Creed was a better Rocky movie than Black Panther is a Marvel universe movie – but Coogler’s talent still remains apparent (his opening visuals for this film are impressive -- they prepared me for a much better movie than I got). With a billion dollars under his belt, he’s going to have freedom to go anywhere he wants now. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of choices he makes next.