Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Creed

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington


Rocky is the classic underdog story. The reason it has struck a chord with so many viewers and has remained an American classic is because of what Rocky’s journey represents, both for himself and for the audience. The story of a bum who never thought he’d amount to anything being given a shot at the world title appeals to the ideal of a ‘nobody’ becoming a ‘somebody’ through hard work, endurance and heart. In many ways Rocky is the story of the American Dream. One of the challenges facing Creed is that it has to somehow tell that same story without repeating it. It has to be true to the spirit of the original film while still telling its own story in order to truly come into itself as a reboot of an iconic classic. Under Coogler’s direction Creed succeeds admirably both as a sequel and as its own movie and is more than a worthy successor to the Rocky franchise.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitamite son of the late Apollo Creed, the heavyweight world champion, who is adopted and raised by Apollo’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Growing up in the shadow of his father Adonis dreams of becoming a great fighter as well but wants to do so in his own name. Having grown up in a wealthy background though, nobody will give him the chance he needs because he’s never known what it’s like to fight out of necessity. Adonis travels to Philadelphia in order to track down his father’s former opponent and good friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) who is now retired and managing a restaurant named after his late wife. He also meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who also dreams of making a name for herself. When Rocky reluctantly agrees to take him under his wing, a life-changing opportunity is presented to them that could be the making or the unmaking of Adonis Creed.

What this film cleverly does through Adonis’ story is provide an underdog’s journey that is not a repeat of Rocky’s but is instead a parallel. Rocky was a poor, modest fighter who resigned himself to a life of unrealised dreams and potential until he was given an opportunity to show everyone what he could really do. Adonis has grown up with all the advantages that Rocky never had and is as aimless as Rocky was. Nobody will give him the chance to prove himself because nobody believes that he has what it takes. Adonis has to fight in order to prove that he isn’t what anyone else says he is and that the only person who can define him is himself. This is a battle that he has to fight both on and off the ring as he sets out to prove himself to the world. What makes this film work is that, much like how Adonis does not try to live off his father’s name, this film doesn’t try to live off Rocky’s name. It tries to tell its own story with its own character in its own way while still honouring its roots. Creed is a Rocky film in spirit but in everything else it is a Creed movie.

Michael B. Jordan is unstoppable in this film. The determination and grit he shows as Adonis is astonishing. We see that he admires the father that he never knew and tries to emulate him in his journey to become a fighter. He doesn’t want the Creed name to be what gets him there though, so this is something he has to accomplish as himself. Perhaps this because he doesn’t want his name to be the only part of him that people will ever see or maybe it’s because he feels that he has to earn the Creed name before he can wear it. All he knows is that fighting is what he has to do and no one is going to tell him otherwise. Stallone delivers a career best performance in his return as a retired Rocky Balboa. He plays him as a man who has truly lived a fighter’s life. He has known happiness and pain, love and loss, and success and failure, and he looks back at it all now without regret. When Adonis comes into his life and asks him to be his mentor, that’s when Rocky decides that perhaps he’s got one more fight left in him after all. Also worthy of praise is Bianca, a love-interest who isn’t just a love-interest (a rare species in films). She is a complete character with a personality, a story and a purpose.

The underdog story has been done to death in film and yet Creed manages to make it feel fresh and new. It had me rooting for Adonis every step of the way yet there was never a point when I thought that his victory was a sure thing. Just like in the original Rocky this film allows the viewer to really follow this character and to learn what this chance means to him. You feel the effort he puts in as he fights through blood, toil, sweat and tears to prove himself. Every hit he takes is a blow and every punch he lands is a victory. Creed is packed with powerful boxing matches and stunning training montages and possesses that raw intensity that Ryan Coogler is so good at capturing. This could have gone very badly very easily but, against all odds, Creed is a resounding triumph.

★★★★★

Fantastic Four

Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson

Director: Josh Trank

Writers: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, Josh Trank


People really don’t want to like this film. In the few days since it came out I was struck by how badly everyone was panning it. Most of the comments that I’ve seen have denounced this film as a travesty that ranks amongst the worst comic book films of recent memory. It’s one thing for a film to receive widespread negative criticism, but what really struck me was the aggressiveness of that criticism. People really hate this film. I’ll confess that I’ve never really been a fan of the Fantastic Four and that I’d be lying if I said I was optimistic about this film, but I was determined to give it a fair chance. A part of me did keep thinking that if a film receives this amount of backlash there probably is a reason, but at the very least I felt that it deserved the benefit of the doubt. Having now seen this film I must admit that I thought it was pretty weak. However, looking back at it now, I’m not convinced that Fantastic Four deserves all the hate it has thus far received.

The story follows Reed Richards (Miles Teller) whose greatest ambition is to uncover the secrets to teleportation. His brilliant mind and groundbreaking discoveries catch the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), the director of the Baxter Foundation, a research institute for young and brilliant minds. With the aid of Franklin’s smart and capable children Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and the furtive but equally intelligent Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed uses the considerable resources now at his disposal to complete the Quantum Gate. Upon its completion the group, along with Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) venture into a mysterious, parallel dimension where they get caught in a freak accident. In the aftermath Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben all discover that they have acquired special powers and must use them to deal with the consequences of their mishap.

Although I’m still kind of struggling to understand why people might be angered by this film, I can certainly understand why they’d be disappointed by it. Anyone who goes to see a superhero film does so for one very simple reason: to see awesome superheroes doing awesome superhero things. Yet by the time the titular superheroes actually acquire their powers, over half of the film’s runtime has already gone by. Thus the phase in which they learn to control their powers is almost completely glossed over and the climax is unceremoniously rushed. I think this film is more of a shame than anything because the first hour is actually quite promising and even kind of decent (with a few problems here and there). It’s only after the heroes gain their powers that the film falls apart completely. Based on what I’ve heard about the film’s turbulent production this can be probably be explained by the studio interference and the reshoots that led the film’s own director Josh Trank to denounce the film upon its release.

It really is a shame that Fantastic Four turned out the way it did because it did have the makings of a pretty decent flick. The first hour does an adequate job of establishing the main characters complete with personalities and motivations and was even able to include some clever ideas in the story. I liked how they worked in The Thing’s obligatory yet painfully childish catchphrase, I liked the idea that Reed and Victor essentially came up with the same ideas and theories independent of each other and I liked the little touches during the accident that determined each character’s individual superpower. I thought that the actors did well with what they were given and that the film did a reasonably good job of modernising the overall concept of the Fantastic Four. It was only the last 40 minutes after the characters gained their powers that the film lost me.

There were some problems prior to the film’s breaking point. The idea of Reed being discovered at a science fair was pretty weak, the motivation that drove the characters to venture into the parallel dimension was one of profound stupidity and Sue Storm, despite being quite a well-established character, is given little to nothing to do throughout the film. However as soon as the film reaches its bewildering time jump, it completely loses the plot. What follows is a messy sequence of flimsy and apathetic scenes that lead into an incredibly poor third act. The conflict between the heroes and the main villain doesn’t make any sense, the action is underwhelming and tedious and the film practically gallops through the climax without taking the time to build any tension or excitement. If the reshoots were the cause of this haphazard change in quality, it might explain why the actors are suddenly so lacking in life and energy. It’s as if the entire cast and crew gave up on this film halfway through.

All in all Fantastic Four is a poor film with conflicting visions and wasted potential, but I’m still not sure I understand why people are so unforgivingly contemptuous towards it. Maybe it’s because this film took itself more seriously than the previous ones and people were therefore expecting more from it, maybe it’s because the Marvel fatigue is starting to set in with the audience, or maybe there really is something truly terrible about this film that I’m just not seeing. Since I wasn’t a fan of the Fantastic Four in the first place it is possible that I’m simply more forgiving of this film’s missteps than the fans of the comic books are. For what it’s worth I think that Fantastic Four is better than the Tim Story films but I realise that’s not saying much. I don’t think it deserves the backlash it has received but at the end of the day it doesn’t have a lot going for it. It isn’t a film I would urge anyone to see; I’d only urge them not to dismiss it outright.

★★