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New Release Review - BLACK PANTHER

BLACK PANTHER review
The ruler of a secretive African kingdom is forced to rethink his isolationist policy.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright

BLACK PANTHER poster


The 1990s didn't give us many superhero movies, but curiously most of the few we did get boasted black leads. In the decades since the collective heyday of Blade, Meteor Man, Spawn, Steel et al, the superhero genre has become overwhelmingly white (and of course, male), with only the Will Smith parody Hancock standing out. Now, having made his screen debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther gets his own movie, at a time when, spurred on by political figures and facilitated by the anonymity of social media, racism is rearing its ugly head in the public sphere in a manner not seen so explicitly in recent decades. It seems black audiences could use a screen hero.

And what a hero they get in Michael B. Jordan's Erik Stevens (aka 'Killmonger'). When we meet Stevens first he's schooling a whitesplaining London museum guide on the true origins of one of the many stolen African artifacts that adorn her place of employment. Next thing he's pulling off a heist, freeing the museum items from their colonial captivity. Wow, this is quite something. Has Marvel really made a superhero heist movie in which a black hero returns plundered pieces of African history to their rightful owners?


BLACK PANTHER

No, of course they haven't. Despite having what seems like good and righteous intentions to anyone but the staunchest defenders of colonialism, Stevens is posited as the villain here. He talks a lot about how two billion people who look like him are being mistreated by the world, and how he wants to help change their lives for the better. I still can't figure out why we're supposed to root against him.

The real 'hero', on the other hand, Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther is an isolationist monarch who lives in Wakanda, a futuristic city hidden behind a giant wall of invisibility. The Wakandans have developed technology vastly superior to that found anywhere else on earth, but they selfishly keep it to themselves. If Wakanda was populated by white folks, Trump would love this place!

Of course, this is the origin story of how Black Panther realises the error of his society's narcissistic ways, but we're left to ask the uncomfortable question of why it took this long. Assuming the Wakandans refused to intervene during the AIDS and famine crises that rocked their continent makes it incredibly difficult not to fall in line with Stevens, who plans to take over Wakanda and use its technology to actually better the lot of the African diaspora.


BLACK PANTHER

It doesn't help that Jordan's Stevens is a hundred times more charismatic than the wet blanket that is Boseman's Panther. Anyone who witnessed his turn as James Brown in the 2014 biopic Get On Up knows Boseman possesses the skill to captivate an audience, but the mopey character he's saddled with here has more in common with the dreary protagonists of DC movies (Wonder Woman excepted) than the wise-cracking heroes of the Marvel stable.

Thank the stars then for the film's excellent female supporting cast. Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira are far more engaging as Panther's amazonian bodyguards than their actual master is. The real star however is young British actress Letitia Wright, living up to the potential displayed in her breakout performance in last year's Urban Hymn as Shuri, Panther's techy teenage sister, who serves as the Q to his James Bond.


BLACK PANTHER

Speaking of 007, after a slow start, the film comes alive when the action moves to South Korea and the movie morphs into the black James Bond the internet has been clamouring for. Director Ryan Coogler repurposes the gripping one take fight from his Rocky sequel Creed as Panther and his girls lay siege to a casino, with cinematographer Rachel Morrison's camera gliding up and down flights to capture Coogler's expertly blocked action. Anyone who has seen Creed can identify this sequence as the work of Coogler, but the movie ends in the sort of pre-visualised by committee, overlong action climax that dogs every Marvel movie (save for Iron Man 3, in which Shane Black borrowed from Big Trouble in Little China to comment on the nature of such climaxes).

When Coogler is given a chance to flex his directorial muscles, and when its women take centre stage, Black Panther is a cut above the average superhero movie, but too much of its lengthy running time drags it down to the level of mediocrity the genre is synonymous with, leaving us to endure the sort of half-baked political drama George Lucas inflicted on Star Wars fans with his first two prequel films.

Black Panther is in UK/ROI cinemas February 13th.




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