Monday, March 26, 2018

‘Black Panther’: Box-office juggernaut isn’t Marvel’s best movie (review)

The numbers don’t lie. But don’t let the staggering box-office statistics for “Black Panther” lead you to believe it’s as great as the tremendous cash it’s bringing in.

Before the inevitable haters start sharpening their pitchforks and firing up their torches, let me be clear: I’m not saying “Black Panther” is a bad film.

Let me say that again because that’s important: I am in no way saying “Black Panther” is a bad film; I just am not as blown away as other fans and I certainly don’t think it’s one of the highest-quality releases by Marvel Studios.

In fact, I’d put it in the middle of the pack of the eighteen films. (Maybe this summer after “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is out, I will re-rank and briefly re-review all the Marvel Studios movies when it’s an even twenty flicks.)

But before I get to my long-overdue review of “Black Panther,” let’s talk some box office:
  • Ryan Coogler’s film is the first since “Avatar” in 2009 to top the weekend box office for five straight weekends. (Source: Associated Press) 
  • The five-week reign by “Black Panther” came to a stop by “Pacific Rim Rising” – but “Black Panther” now is the highest domestic-grossing superhero film of all-time. That puts it above “The Avengers,” which took in nearly $623.4 million. (Source: Box Office Mojo) 
  • “Black Panther” has pulled in about $630 million domestically and grossed nearly $1.24 billion overall. (Source: Box Office Mojo) 
  • Forbes.com predicts that “Black Panther” has enough “left in the tank” to make about another $100 million and if so, that would leave it on the 10th place on the all-time list between “Frozen” ($1.27 billion) and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” ($1.33 billion).
Now onto my way-long overdue review …

Not surprisingly, much of “Black Panther” deals with King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) facing the challenges of being the new ruler of Wakanda, especially the long-standing tradition of isolating itself from the rest of the world. From what I know of Black Panther from the comics and the outstanding animated series “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” the story stays true to most everything I’ve read.

Coogler makes an interesting choice to set the origins of his film in Oakland, Calif. from 1992. This is when T’Challa’s relative is killed and for some unknown reason, his son (who grows up to be Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Stevens aka Killmonger) is left in the United States.

The lack of logic of not bringing this child into Wakanda after T’Challa’s father is forced to kill the boy’s dad is baffling, but if that had happened, it wouldn’t set up Killmonger’s eventual coup of T’Challa.

The Black Panther-Killmonger scenario honestly is derivative on several levels. First, there’s the cliché of Killmonger fighting for the right to be king, as foreshadowed in a scene early in the movie.
The similarities between "The Lion King" and "Black Panther" are erie.

Secondly, “Black Panther” pretty much feels like “The Lion King in the Marvel Universe.”

But the biggest cliché and disappointment is that this the eighth time (!) in a Marvel Studios movie in which the hero’s nemesis is his doppelganger. And it doesn’t get much more obvious when Killmonger dons an updated Black Panther costume that T’Challa rejected. (Keen-eyed comics fans will recognize each outfit as ones that Black Panther has worn over the years, with the silver trimmed one being the most recognizable.)

To add insult to injury of this tired doppelganger story thread, Killmonger is T’Challa’s long-lost cousin and Marvel Studios did the hero vs. doppelganger fight much better seven times.

This is the rejected Black Panther costume that Erik Killmonger later claimed as his own.
Let’s count them all: Iron Man vs. Iron Monger in “Iron Man” (2008); the Hulk vs. Abomination in “The (not-so) Incredible Hulk” (2008); Iron Man vs. War Machine briefly in “Iron Man 2” (2010) and again later in the finale when the two pair up vs. Justin Hammer’s legion of remote-controlled armored warriors; Captain America vs. his hypnotized assassin best friend, Bucky Barnes in “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (2014); Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket in “Ant-Man” (2015): and most recently in 2016, Doctor Strange, Wong and the Ancient One vs. Kaecillius in “Doctor Strange.”

Iron Man is about to battle Col. Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes in his Mach II armor.
A milder disappointment is (spoiler alert!) Killmonger unexpectedly killing Ulysses Klaue, a nasty villain who should have gotten a longer shelf-life in future movies. (End spoiler)

The cinematography and costumes are outstanding. The African nation of Wakanda is a feast for the eyes, from the distinctive costumes and makeup worn by each tribe to the technology created by T’Challa’s feisty sister, Princess Shuri.

The suave Boseman has an onscreen presence that most actors long for. His best chemistry is with Letitia Wright, the delightful actress with a big grin who plays Shuri. Lupita Nyong’o plays T’Challa’s estranged girlfriend, but the story never properly sells a connection between the two actors so I never rooted for them to rekindle their romance – even by the closing minutes.

 As a white man, I can’t speak entirely to the triumph of seeing a mostly black cast onscreen in a comic-book blockbuster or the accuracy of how the Wakandan tribes are characterized.

But I can say – even being more of a Sam Wilson/Falcon fan who digs how ultra-cool T’Challa is – it’s well past time for the first black superhero to make his big-screen debut. And it’s exceptionally cool that Marvel selected a black man to tell that story.

All that being said, Coogler could have done much more to make his film much more of a meaty conversation piece on isolationism, integration, race relations and/or “the black experience” without ever making it preach-y or getting on a soapbox.

The thoroughly enjoyable “Black Panther” is the exception to Marvel movies in that it didn’t beg for a second viewing immediately after I watched it.

So until the Blu-ray release: “Wakanda forever”!
Grade: B

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