Movies don’t matter anymore. Maybe that’s too far – the pieces of a movie don’t matter anymore. For “Black Panther,” the latest addition to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” The Walt Disney Co. and Marvel Studios have brought on a gifted cast and crew, but ultimately I found myself asking to what end. I would’ve seen this movie for the same reason that I decorate a Christmas tree. A franchise film is now a holiday, an event. These events used to be rarer, but now we are at a point where they continue to happen even outside of our control. It’s really incredible, and I think the process is on no better display than with “Black Panther,” the movie that inspired a thousand blog posts and internet white boy tears months before its release. I don’t know if I’m happy or sad about this development in marketing, but it is clear that our freedom in what we watch has never been both greater and smaller.
Of course, the most innovative thing about “Black Panther” is that it is, at long last, a $200 million movie directed by a black man, about a black hero and set in a thriving Africa. To that end, it is a success. After 98 years, Hollywood is finally willing to throw big money behind black artists, provided that the film they make doesn’t break any cinematic rules. Or capitalist rules: the plot of the movie basically sets up a conflict between ethnonationalism, radical revolution and capitalist liberal charity and chooses to side with the capitalists. If this film had political courage, it would preach a message more radical than empowerment: it would preach revolution. If it had any artistic courage, it would take advantage of a great cast and fully realized world. It has neither, because neither can be politely sold as an event.
In case you aren’t caught up, “Panther” follows T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), a prince and the latest to carry the crown of the mythical warrior Black Panther as he ascends to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. These are the best scenes in the movie: Wakanda is a hyper advanced utopia that avoided colonization because it is located over the only supply of vibranium, an element with almost magical abilities and tenacity. It is sleek and gorgeous, one of those exciting sci-fi locations that makes the viewer stare in awe. Wakanda is different from these other cities because of its fantastic involvement of various African cultures. The scenes focusing on Wakanda and Wakandan life feel totally unique, which speaks to the almost complete absence of Africa in the cinematic canon. Through gorgeous costume design, makeup and language, director Ryan Coogler has effortlessly created what feels like a living, vibrant culture with history and life.
And then the movie starts. It strictly follows the groove that Marvel Studios seems to require their properties to follow, which means dialogue mostly based in exposition, a villainous plan that is needlessly complex, low stakes, bits of comedy that range from pretty funny to cringe-worthy, and of course, action scenes that are dark and confusing until they deliver a slow motion, jaw-dropping moment of CGI that spits in the face of physics. None of it is offensively bad, but none of it is great, and none of it is new (minus a refreshingly black cast). It doesn’t give talented actors like Boseman, or his co-stars, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Martin Freeman, much to do. These are talented people who have been consistently proving their talent time and time again, but in a movie like this they sit in front of a green screen and shout sci-fi words. It’s a shame that the movie being promoted as a game changer is so much more of the same.
Featured Photo: “Black Panther” breaks social barriers by featuring a mostly black cast. MARVEL STUDIOS