Black Panther Review: Bold, Fresh, Thoughtful, And Somehow Still Marvel

Black Panther Review: Bold, Fresh, Thoughtful, And Somehow Still Marvel

Black Panther is a movie that Marvel needed to make. It’s one that they wanted to make. It’s one that we all saw coming and has been hyped to the peak of Disney’s marketing powers. However, it’s also a film that could have so easily gone wrong. After all, this is a black superhero given all the Marvel blockbuster trimmings and while there has been an outcry for diversity in this specific arena of the movie world, it’s also something that easily could have been exploitative. After all, much like Blade, Black Panther was pulled out of the background of the Marvel comic book universe in the 70s when Blackspoitation cinema was all the rage, and while the book generally strived to treat the superhero and his world respectfully, it would have been easy for the feature film version to drop the ball and feel like a crass commercialization. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Kevin Feige was smart enough to put Ryan Coogler in charge and he delivered one of the best Marvel movies to date.

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Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

At this stage of the game, part of what’s so refreshing about Black Panther is how it’s able to feel like a complete film unto itself without much Marvel crossover distraction. The studio got that out of the way by introducing the character in Civil War. He’s established with Cap, Iron Man, and the gang. Now he gets his own story. After a brief history lesson on the Black Panther legacy and the relationship between Wakanda and vibranium (sigh…I’ll always hate writing that word), Coogler plunges viewers into a vividly designed and carefully conceived world. The kingdom over which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) reigns is a hidden oasis of advanced technology and powerful warriors. The partner tribes are humbler (but at least led by brilliant character actors like Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and they still engage in ancient rituals and ceremonies that feel both respectful and delightfully fantastical in a very comic book way. It’s clear that a lot of time went into building and designing this world. It’s such a vibrant place that feels lived in with rich history yet is also the sort of place where ridiculous comic book technology and beat em’ ups can pop up in without sullying the integrity.

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Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

The larger than life and stylized characters also carry culturally symbolic weight. Coogler went out of his way to present powerful women of colour within the society like Danai Gurira’s intimidatingly badass warrior or Letitia Wright’s brilliant tech guru who is somewhere between Black Panther’s Q and partner in strategy (not to mention Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Bassett, each with their own important piece in the movie’s puzzle). There’s a clear and noble attempt on the part of co-writer/director Ryan Coopler to take the opportunity of making a Marvel blockbuster destined to pull in the eyes of audiences worldwide and use it as an opportunity to increase the representation in such pictures. It works and somehow does so without derailing or distracting from what is ultimately a glorious bit of superhero entertainment. Coogler just treats that entertainment as a vehicle to explore some issues bubbling up in the culture right now.

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Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

Obviously , Chadwick Boseman makes for a potent and powerful hero at the centre. He is, after all, one of the best actors of his generation. He plays T’Challa as a noble leader who struggles to uphold the legacy put upon him with grace, and plays Black Panther as the stone cold warrior king and superhero that’s made the character resonate for decades. He nails it and will certainly be in this role for quite some time. Thank god, because the hero could have easily been overshadowed by Michael B. Jordan in the hands of a lessor actor. Jordan is Ryan Coogler’s regular star and it initially felt odd that he would be downgraded to a side villain role after the duo’s smash success with Creed. It’s more complicated than that though. Not too much should be revealed except to say that he’s easily the best villain to stomp through the MCU since Loki. He’s also the first with a motivation that resonates. One that will speak to much of the audience and with a master plan that might even resonate were it not so psychotic (and ya know…dependent on heightened comic book realities). Jordan doesn’t steal the movie away because everyone is so damn good, but his character will be much discussed and the fact that Coogler was able to use the role to make Black Panther a statement as much as a superhero romp? Well, bravo. No one has quite done that in the MCU before.

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Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

The filmmaker does also keep his blockbuster on brand with the MCU while creating his own distinctly personal vision. Andy Serkis’ hysterically nutty arms dealer and Martin Freeman’s bumbling CIA agent return from previous Marvel adventures and actually suit this story, if anything their previous roles seem to exist only to limit the amount of set up required before Black Panther gets cooking. Of course, Marvel movies also need action and set pieces to go with their world-building and characterization. There’s plenty of that here and Ryan Coogler proves more than adapt at handling the boom-boom, punch-punch. There’s a stunner of a set piece in South Korea shot through the fluid long takes that the director favours that’s a pure adrenaline rush. That scene my favourite, but all the action beats deliver the goods, if only because Coogler and co. take the time to actually make viewers care about the people and stakes before things start blowing up. A simple distinction, but a pretty damn important one.

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Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, and Janeshia Adams-Ginyard in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

Oh sure, there are things to nitpick away at in Black Panther. It’s a little too long and sometimes over-burdened by the sheer volume of characters. There are certain MCU conventions that sit awkwardly with Coogler’s vision (especially the need for quips when there need not always be quips). But honestly, nitpicks are all that’s possible with this picture. Black Panther was not a character that was ever going to be easy for Marvel to adapt for the big screen, but somehow everything went so right that the movie just might be the finest representation of the character in any medium to date. Black Panther isn’t just another cog in the Marvel machine, it’s one of their strongest characters with a world that begs to be revisited. Hopefully after whatever massive destruction and changes that occur in the universe following Infinity War (and whatever nuttiness comes in the still untitled Avengers 4), Ryan Coogler and co. will be allowed back into Wakanda to play again. Now that the heavy lifting is over and this world is so beautifully established, it’s hard not to feel a sense of giddy excitement about where they could possibly go next. Now that’s a sequel worth making.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review – Star Wars Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review - Star Wars Strikes Back

JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens was, in its own way, a little miracle of a movie. After not even George Lucas himself could make audiences tingle with those special Star Wars feels that flooded through audiences after their first trip to a galaxy far far away, Abrams achieved the impossible by giving everyone a new canonical SW adventure that lived up to decades’ worth of hype.

Read moreStar Wars: The Last Jedi Review – Star Wars Strikes Back

War for the Planet of the Apes (Movie) Review – Subtle and Angry

War for the Planet of the Apes (Movie) Review - Subtle and Angry

The Planet of the Apes series has always been political. That was true even of the 1968 original—as beloved for its searing cultural commentary as it is for the campy fun and iconic twist ending. However, the most recent trilogy has proven to be surprisingly insightful even by Apes standards, and this concluding chapter War for the Planet of the Apes is easily the most thoughtful entry since the 70s. Somehow, a blockbuster that is the second sequel to a remake of a prequel to an almost 50-year-old movie might just be the most insightful film about contemporary times on screens today. Don’t believe the trailers (or even the title) that promise endless ape/human warfare. There’s actually comparatively little action here relative to the last Apes flick.

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Instead what director/co-writer Matt Reeves has crafted is a potent exploration of how bigotry, hatred, and violence are the most vile and damaging elements of humanity that will likely lead to our downfall. That he does so in a movie about talking CGI apes who ride horses and fire guns that’s also loosely connected to a Charlton Heston classic is something of a miracle. Anyone who thinks it’s impossible to create intelligent and personal stories for the summer blockbuster marketplace need only see War for the Planet of the Apes to be proven wrong. Hopefully this threequel is successful. Not to extend the franchise further, but to encourage more studios and filmmakers to take risks with tentpole properties. It shouldn’t have been possible for the ninth Planet Of The Apes movie to be the potently cynical critique of hate that we so desperately need right now. Yet here we are. Donald Trump is the president of the United States and War for the Planet of the Apes just might be a zeitgeist-capturing masterpiece. What a weird time to be alive.

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War for the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar (Andy Serkis) in an even more exhausted and exacerbated state than he was at the end of the last movie. The war between apes and humans keeps going and while the apes are winning, the constant death and violence has taken a toll on the leader. When a new human general (Woody Harrelson) leads an assassination attack that robs Caesar of some of his closest associates, the leader of the apes decides to head out to end the fight once and for all in an act of revenge. A few apes join him and on the journey Caesar gets even angrier and lonelier than before, plagued with visions of his former ape foe Koba and feeling like he’s becoming more like that rage-filled beast every day. It’s a journey into the soul that only gets worse once Caesar meets Harrelson’s psychotic Col. Kurtz-esque madman. Woody spouts out nasty philosophies that represent the worst of human nature, obsesses over building a wall, all the while convinced that this must end in bloodshed. Harrelson’s character quickly dabbles in some of the worst atrocities in the history of humanity and somewhere along the way the audience starts to wonder if humans losing this war is such a bad idea after all.

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There are some big ol’ impressive action sequences within War for the Planet of the Apes, but nothing near the apes-on-horseback blowout that wrapped up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The title is kind of a misdirect. This war isn’t about guns and battles; it’s a war of the soul and a condemnation of all of the worst aspects of human history. Director/co-writer Matt Reeves leans hard into the socio-political allegory at the heart of the series to deliver a thoroughly cynical vision of mankind that feels depressingly timely. That it all fits into a brilliant conclusion to this wonderful new Planet of the Apes trilogy is both a minor miracle and wholly appropriate. This haunting blockbuster driven by dread and unsettling atmosphere is everything the Apes series has ever striven to be and one that actually warrants being taken seriously. There’s a lot to chew on and consider, even within a special effects driven entertainment machine.

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The effects are somehow even more impressive than the groundbreaking work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis’ Caesar no longer feels like a just a stunning technical achievement, but a full-blooded character driven more by angst and personality than pixels. It’s an extraordinary cap to Serkis’ three-movie arc that just might wreck the stigma against awarding trophies to motion capture performances—he’s just that good. Woody Harrelson proves to be a strong sparring partner in this blockbuster that often feels more like a character-driven two-hander. He’s threatening and frightening, yet also pathetic. The stunt casting was rather inspired because while Harrelson is intimidating, he feels somewhat out of place. This is no grand leader, but a sad man thrust into power that is letting all of his worst impulses control him in desperation. There are other amusing characters like Steve Zahn’s strange talking ape comic relief that never quite understands the gravity of his situation, Amiah Miller’s important silent young girl, and Karin Konoval’s latest and greatest performance as the thoughtful orangutan Maurice. The images in the film might be stunning, but it’s the human performances that give them weight beyond the bitrate.

As dark and as cynical of a film as War for the Planet of the Apes often feels, there is some surprising hope baked into Matt Reeves’ vision. We may see the worst humanity can offer, but we also see glimmers of the compassion and empathy that defines us at out best (mostly embodied in Miller’s mysterious character). The film is not exactly a heart-warming romp, yet it is written in a thoughtful enough manner to avoid getting lost in doom and gloom. This might be the best of the current Planet of the Apes series and one of the finest entries in the whole franchise. If it all ends here, it’s an appropriate note to go out on and a perfect time to release it. Matt Reeves has done so much good with a franchise that many considered dead that it should give even the most defeated comic book fan some hope for his upcoming Bat-fleck flick. If he can do this with War for the Planet of the Apes,  he just might be the guy to save Batman from the hangover of Christopher Nolan leaving the franchise. That would be a miracle, but since he already pulled off two miracle movies in the Apes world, it’s not impossible to imagine he’ll do the same with good ol’ Batman. Bring it on.