I saw Black Panther yesterday and it lived up to my high expectations, then handsomely exceeded them. All of the elements that are important to me in a superhero movie were done beautifully well, and there were some nice surprises, too. This is my review of it, and if you have seen the trailer, this is pretty-much spoiler free.
The lead performances were excellent, which was no surprise. I had already seen a couple of trailers, so I was not worried about the acting. I also tend to be forgiving on that point, with only truly miserable acting taking me out of the moment, but this was a Shakespearean group of players at the top of their game. They lent gravitas to the script when needed, and lifted it with humor when that was needed. All the players were a pleasure to watch.
Long-term readers of my blog will know my obsession with spaceships, see my spaceship top-ten post as evidence, and sci-fi vehicles in general, I even have a top-ten ranking of them on this site. The sci-fi accouterments of a movie; the spaceships, equipment, gadgets, and weapons, make a big different to me, and I’m less forgiving of bad concept and design work than I am of sub-par acting. Here too, Black Painter was great.
It looks like the team worked their asses off to match high-tech with an Afrofuturism aesthetic, and it worked. I’m particularly fond of the laboratory that the Shuri inhabits. As FiveThirtyEight.com explains: Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) is the sister of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the film’s titular character. She oversees the technological operations of the superscientific nation. If you’re comparing T’Challa to James Bond, she’s Q.
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What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet brings to light an ancient archeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy.
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Shuri's lab cum workshop is a very convincing imagining of the kind of cutting-edge research facility that might be built if a country like Wakanda, never subject to the brutalizing setbacks imposed by Imperialists and given the advantage of an almost magical alien alloy, actually existed. This mix is carried through into vehicles, shuttles, weapons, and even the nicely imagined hexagonal element displays. You have to see them in the movie to even know what I’m talking about, but they are great. As a sci-fi gadget nerd, I was very pleased with what I was looking at.
Most movie-goers, however, are going to be more interested in the actual story, and that works well, too. It is a nice mix of action and slower, more thoughtful stretches. There area bunch of tropes in the movie, it isn’t an introspective, art-house screenplay. TVTropes has an alphabetized list, but just to mention some of the tired old tropes used from the As of that list. It has: Alas, Poor Villain, Animal Motif, Arc Symbol, Arc Words, Arm Cannon, Artistic License – History, Asshole Victim, Awesome McCool Name, Awesome Moment of Crowning. Despite all this silliness, the story among the best superhero comic book screenplays yet written. It is up with what I consider the best of them, such as the first Captain America movie and Thor: Ragnarok.
Another area of great importance to me is the special effects, and this is one area where I have slight reservations. Marvel micromanage the special effects on their movies, making it the one area that the director of the movie has very little say on, so the special effects in Black Panther have the same pros and cons as pretty-much every other Marvel movie. This means that sometimes what we see is just too bouncy and quick to register well. The fights are more like watching the tennis ball in a tennis match than something with weight and gravity to it.
I’m guessing the SFX team want to capture the feeling of comics, where people and street furniture are thrown around, and where the heroes are able to react incredibly quickly, but the SFX team still have not quite worked out how that is done. Luckily for the SFX, Black Panther is not a “planet smasher” and instead, he has more “street level” powers, in the parlance of comic-book fight aficionados, and that helps the special effects.
There are moments where everyone’s bounciness, fast forward motion, and rubber limbs are hard to follow, but about 85% of the SFX is great, and that is high for a Marvel movie. They usually only get it about 75% right. Spider-Man is particularly hard to capture, with his spider senses making him react too fast, his leaping ability making him bounce too high, and his toughness makes him get up too soon. The SFX on Spider-Man movies is usually only about 50-50.
What they do get right is just excellent, for example there is one particular scene where Black Panther gets slammed. He is hit and starts to fly through the air, so far, so par for the Marvel SFX course, but then we switch to his point of view. We see through his eyes as the ground first moves away from him, then starts coming at him, and it comes at him fast. He’s yelling in pain and fear, and the viewer is allowed a moment to actually work out what is going on, and to realize that this is going to hurt. Then we cut back to seeing him from a distance as he smacks into a rock, which stops him dead. Then we go close to see his armor malfunction because of the damage it has just taken, which causes his helmet to retract, giving the actor a chance to sell the fact that he just took a big hit. It is one of the most painful looking smacks the SFX team have put on screen, and it gives me hope that they will, one day, perfect superhero SFX animation.
On a related note, the fight choreograph is great. It is a nice mix of John Wick style brutality, sixties Batman fun, and a thoughtful garnish of Afrofuturism. My favorite is the glowing Frisbee work done by the character played by Lupita Nyong'o. She goes out to take on the bad guy armed only with a couple of luminous kill rings after specifically telling people that she is a spy, not a warrior, and you assume she’s only going to last about a second, but with backup from Shuri, blasting him with sonic disruptors, you realize she is actually a credible threat to the guy.
The world building is good, too. I was pleasantly surprised that the Wakanda the movie created is so complex. I’m not expert enough to know if it was all already there in the comic books or not, but the movie presented a complex political system by showing and not telling, and that worked extremely well. The movie gives the impression of being set in a complex country with long traditions, but it provides the informations in digestible chunks, so that the viewer isn’t taken out of the story and action for too long. I wouldn’t want to actually live in Wakanda, by the way .Wakanda isn’t perfect, it is an isolationist monarchy, a dictatorship, and it has rigidly-defined gender roles, which is horrifying, but it is a beautiful thing to see it on screen in all its glory. The film’s comic-book portrayal of it is pitch perfect.
Was there stuff that wasn’t so great… sure, there is in any superhero movie. There is always stuff that flat-out just doesn’t make any sense. In one scene they chase down a convoy to the ends of the earth, then in the next scene thy don’t bother chasing just a single vehicle. There are quite a few similar moments of logical disconnect. Also. the action the movie wants to present is always just a little beyond what is possible even with state of the art SFX, but if you are a fan of the genre, this is about as perfect an example as you are likely to encounter. There are scenes that are actually moving, especially at the end, as the big bad’s motivation starts to become ever more clear, and ever more tragic.
My only real gripe is that, even though Marvel threw a lot of money at this movie, I wish they had spent even more money on it. More extras in the final fight scenes would have sold it a lot better, for example. But the director has wrung every last bang out of the buck provided by the studio, and for that, I am enormously grateful. My advice is go see it, it’s great.
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