Black Panther [IMAX/3D]
Black Panther was one of the most unique superhero film by Marvel. Was it the best? Not necessarily (that honour still belongs to The Avengers), but it definitely was unlike any other of the franchises in the MCU. Surprisingly, its closest cousin would be the first Thor film. Both films had a Shakespearan core amidst the political intrigue and a son learning how to lead. However, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther stood out - heads and shoulders above - from Kenneth Bragnah's Thor in that it was superhero feature that had decidedly minimum focus on the superhero power/features. Instead the strength of this film was its focus on truly well-defined characters anchored by strong performances of its actors, and its elegant dive into heavy themes of political and social responsibility, cultural identity and self vs country.
It definitely also helped that Black Panther did not look/feel/sound like a typical, cookie-cutter, MCU film. Coogler's directing filled the screen with a vibrant. kinetic energy that excited the story and propelled the narrative and his own team of trusted creatives helped tremendously to create a distinctive vision: from the beautiful sets (by production designer Hannah Beachler), the absolutely stunning cinematography (by Mudbound's Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison - a new favourite), an authentic and befitting score (by Ludwig Goransson), and sumptuous costume design (Ruth Carter).
Yes, the story by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, could have been tighter. There were a few unnecessary moments that dragged on for a minute or two longer than they should, however, those scenes do allow the film to breathe despite the changing of pace. But at least for once, in the MCU, we have a story line that made sense, a villain with an understandable motivation and no damn mystic cloud of obscure origin and power. Phew!
It was also a wise choice to not have many scenes/moments of superhero feats, but instead with the introduction - and audience's acceptance - of Vibranium, we ended up with more of a James Bond/Kingsman-esque spy thriller filled with gadgets. Oddly enough, that made it more grounded in reality, and together with the topical themes of race, culture and politics, helped to make the film a relatable experience.
Coogler's Creed experience showed here and his one-on-one fight scenes were tremendously exciting to watch. It felt visceral and fluid with a constant movement that never distracted. Coupled with Morrison's lensing, that first fight was truly memorable and the second one contrasted distinctively. There were only two big action sets and that felt sufficient. They were both cool and showed off enough of the world and Black Panther to be relevant, and neither overwhelmed the story. Although Coogler's directing of a large cast action scene was not as visually exciting as his smaller ones.
Nonetheless, again and again, it comes back to the point that this film had a true sense of voice and identity unlike previous MCU films. It brought something new to the franchise, much like how James Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy jolted the MCU with its comedy.
Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as our eponymous hero and he had the gravitas of a king, but also the uncertainty of a young prince thrust into a position by circumstances. He does have the screen charisma to command an audience's attention, but unfortunately his frequent scene partner was the luminous Lupita Nyong'o who acted circles around him with seemingly minimal effort. Although, at least, they had chemistry together.
That then brings us to the other truly great thing about this film. Its strong female cast and point of view. The triple threat of Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, were a total delight to watch. They were smart, strong and independent women unbeholden to the men. They were badassess kicking ass and stealing their scenes effortlessly. Gurira was brilliant but hopefully she does not get typecast in the future, but boy, does she rock! Wright, of Cucumber and Humans fame, has grown up and she thankfully she brought along her delightful British wit and comedy. Give me a show that pairs her Shuri up with Ben Wishaw's Q.
Michael B. Jordan was a great choice to cast opposite Boseman. Jordan was physically imposing and that physicality helped to induce fear and establish that our titular hero is not safe. On top of that, however, Jordan's scene with Sterling K. Brown showed a humanity beneath the veneer and helped shaped him beyond a one-dimensional being.
Martin Freeman was one of two main Caucasian actor, and he was funny. Although inevitably, he was given a hero-moment. They just could not avoid that, could they? The other white guy was Andy Serkis, and it is always odd seeing him out of mo-cap. He continued his story line from Avengers: Age of Ultron and was necessary as an audience surrogate into Wakanda.
Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Daniel Kaluuya rounded up the named main cast. Kaluuya was the only one miscast. This poorly written role - and honestly, not well acted too - ain't gonna do much for his Best Actor campaign.
Morrison's cinematography was simply gorgeous. And it does help that Coogler gets to create a brand new world and he has Africa as his playground. Stunning vistas, beautiful wide-angled shots mixed with a Tron-like epic fight, Blade Runner-esque setting and intimate, closed-up action sequences that showcased the action. Morrison is a cinematographer to watch out for.
Goransson's score had moments where it sounded almost like any other MCU films, but listening closely, you can hear the African beats and rhythms beneath the big soaring strings and bass. And the focus on the constant drumming and percussion over the one-on-one fights highlighted the tension of those scenes as well as pay homage to the authenticity of the story.
And as per usual, stay back for a mid-credits scene and a post-credit teaser.
Black Panther was a MCU gamble by Kevin Feige et al that paid off. So well. And perhaps with this in their pocket, Marvel will be more willing to allow its directors to have their own vision. Who still does not wonder how Edgar Wright's Ant Man would have been like (think Baby Driver meets Hot Fuzz...dream!).