Step Into the Spotlight

Blasted internet hype machine.

 

Ok, so the world has been building up the buzz for Black Panther ever since Chadwick Boseman stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War two years ago (admittedly, I was one of them). I’d go so far as to say Black Panther was the best part of Civil War: great actor owning the role, exciting superhero debut and strong story arc. With the announcement of his own movie, the wheels started turning in the internet buzz contraption. And it’s amazing to see everyone get so excited for this, especially since people are slowly starting to not care about Marvel movies anymore (don’t deny it, it’s happening). So yes, writer/director Ryan Coogler getting his first real shot at breaking into big-budget Hollywood movie-making, Boseman assuredly getting the role that will make him as a bonafide star, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett in the same movie (and a MARVEL movie no less!) and a superhero protagonist that isn’t a cocky milquetoast smiling guy are all the reasons to get excited for this event. But notice how I said the “event” of the movie and not the actual movie itself.

 

Speaking of the movie: is this the best Marvel production to date? Nope. Is it the best superhero movie made so far? Not really. Is it a good movie? Oh yeah, most definitely.

 

Boseman returns as T’Challa, prince of the isolated but technologically-advanced civilization of Wakanda. After his father was killed in Civil War, T’Challa inherits the throne and the responsibilities of protecting his people from the corrupted evils of the outside world. He also occasionally dons a black bulletproof suit and hops around the world to stop evil and protect the secret of his home as the Black Panther. His mother (Bassett), sister (Letitia Wright) and military commander (Gurira) all support his belief in the traditions of Wakanda, but his ex girlfriend (Nyong’o) and fellow tribe leader (Kaluuya) want the world to know the truth about Wakanda and how it can help others in need. Conflicted over how to represent his people and still grieving over the loss of his father, T’Challa then faces Erik Killmonger (Jordan), an ex-military stud turned gun-for-hire who has a dark secret that could undo T’Challa’s legacy.

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I’m surely not the one to discuss the accuracy of the movie’s representation of culture, though judging from the glowing response by critics and audiences it’s safe to say there aren’t too many complaints. So let’s stick with the movie: it’s good. Damn good, in fact. Despite the stocked cast, the star of this movie is undoubtedly Ryan Coogler and his journey from indie darling (Fruitvale Station) to box-office upstart (Creed) to bonafide Hollywood director coming full circle. Coogler knows exactly what he’s doing both as a director and a writer. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) clearly understood they had to make another origins/introductory superhero movie and, stripped to its core, Black Panther follows that formula. What Coogler and Cole focus on and excel at in the final product are the details: the conflict inside of T’Challa, the debate over if Wakanda can save the world or be tainted by it, the questioning of loyalty and tradition and how to synchronize all that into another Marvel property. All of that works and is present throughout the movie, only taking a backseat into occasional misfires of comedic one-liners thrown in to keep the movie from being entirely serious.

 

That leaves Coogler’s directing talent, which is also solid if not leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe the size and scale of Black Panther, certainly the biggest movie Coogler has ever done, was a bit too much for Coogler to completely handle. Some of the early fight scenes in the movie are shot with too much shaky-cam, poor lighting and close-up shots, further leading to some choppy editing. There’s the sense that Coogler is as hyped about making the movie as he knows the audience will be, so he kept wanting to shoot the movie at the same brisk but fair pace the 134-minute final product is. But again, Coogler knows what he’s doing for most of the movie. He holds on his actors to let their chemistry with each other shine through or their presence alone hold scenes. And his action direction gets better as the movie goes on, especially in the grand climactic battle between the tribes of Wakanda. He also knows how to lead a movie team and create an awe-inspiring setting. Wakanda is one of the if not THE most striking and engrossing settings not just in a Marvel movie but in any kind of fantasy/action/adventure movie in a long time. The set designs, both practical and computer-generated, feel like they were made from the ground up and boom with color. Same goes for the costumes, hair and makeup that look as fantastical and unique as anything out of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And Coogler pulls everything together and lays it out just enough to make the audience want more but not distract from the main story.

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Especially not his fantastic cast. Boseman is OFFICIALLY a made man in Hollywood as he proves he can command a movie in the lead role. Stern but not stiff, focused but not overdoing it and compelling even when he’s victim to a “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” joke, Boseman is actually invested in the story and characters while also having the time of his life playing with swords and shields and wearing the Black Panther suit. He’s not distracted by the comic-book origins of the movie and seems legitimately passionate about this story of family and tradition. He’s not alone there as everyone from Kaluuya to Gurira to Andy Serkis to Wright to Winston Duke as a fellow tribe leader are all great in their own ways. Gurira, continuing her streak of ass-kicking lioness following The Walking Dead, is having an absolute blast with this big budget production swinging around a spear while Wright is arguably the most energetic and bubbly member of the cast. Jordan is a legitimately interesting character that just so happens to be a villain. If you thought Vulture was sympathetic in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you will be very conflicted over who to root for between his Killmonger and Boseman’s T’Challa. For all the challenges and questions that the audience could lob at Wakanda’s logic, Killmonger has them motivating his actions. Jordan is shakey with the character at first, but the more he builds his malice the more compelling he becomes.
So as an event, Black Panther is a monumental moment in culture that deserves every positive hashtag and packed screening it’s getting. Like Get Out and Coco did last year, hopefully Black Panther tells Hollywood that people are desperately wanting the next age of blockbusters to come forward and it doesn’t involve your average white male with little stubble and a crooked smile. With all of that said, all Black Panther had to be was a good movie and it is. It doesn’t match the incredible hype that’s been building, but how could it? No matter the context, this is still most definitely a Marvel product. It tries its hardest to make you forget that (sans the annoying end credits scene), but it is still a licensed item in the Disney/Marvel buffet and it follows that formula. But like I said, it’s about the detail that a strong creative mind like Coogler but into it. And for that, he and his team have earned their cultural zeitgeist.

3.5/4

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Marvel’s Collision Course

So……Captain America: Civil War may be both the best Marvel film to date and yet the dumbest. Sure, it has some of the best action and acting in Marvel Studios’ canon, but the motivation behind this epic showdown is just dimwitted enough to not have it be entirely erased from one’s conscious. The parts of a great Avengers-like spectacle are mostly there (hell, it’s easier to call this whole thing Avengers 3), but it has trouble coming together. It’s like trying to smash an Ferrari and a Lamborghini together to make a super car: you’re only getting a car wreck.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the kickoff to the MCU’s Phase Three of flicks. Meant as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Solider, the movie sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his fellow Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk) dealing with their greatest enemy to date: The United Nations! After realizing that the Avengers’ world-saving battles are causing too much collateral damage for comfort, the U.N. drafts a bill that requires the Avengers to go public and be monitored by the governments of the world. Some, like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) think the bill is necessary. Others, like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Steve think it’s too extreme. The one really pushing everyone to sign is Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), still riddled with guilt over the events in Sokovia and trying to compensate for his increasing lack of control over what happens to the Earth. Things get even more complicated when Cap’s buddy Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) is held responsible for a bombing at the U.N. meeting signing the bill into law. Steve believes his friend is innocent, but Tony is ordered to bring Barnes in. With that, the two Avengers and co. collide.

 

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Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Said company brings their A-game as Civil War may be the most emotionally driven Marvel movie to date. Downey Jr. in particular brings Stark to his most interesting arc in the films because he clearly doesn’t have it all together. Stark is dour, stressed and desperate to keep the Avengers together because he’s well aware that the danger has increased while he only knows how to make fancier Iron Man suits. The consequences of his actions are hitting him now more than ever and Downey makes it show. It makes Stark look incredibly flawed and all the more interesting. However, the MVP of the stacked line-up is one of the newcomers: Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up, 42) as Black Panther. Boseman proves himself worthy of the cast with a stern charisma and the unaltered morals of his character. There’s a real heart and passion to the way Boseman portrays the noble son of Wakanda trying to keep himself removed from the egos of the other heroes. It just adds to the anticipation of Panther’s upcoming solo movie and further establishes Boseman as a born movie star. The other ace is the film’s actual villain: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious BasterdsRush) as Zemo, a reserved and welcome break from giant robots and aliens to fight. And of course there’s the debut of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man, played with a pitch-perfect amount of teenaged geekiness by newcomer Tom Holland (The Impossible). Despite looking like Jamie Bell if he drank youth formula, Holland may be the most faithful interpretation of Spider-Man to date despite being in only ten minutes of the film. For those complaining that Holland comes off as too awkward or wimpy, guess what: that’s actually who Spider-Man is supposed to be (not a twenty-something Abercrombie model). It’s clear Holland’s presence is to tease a future Spider-Man movie, but the filmmakers wisely keep his appearance brief since he contributes nothing to the actual plot.

 

The rest of the cast all remember how to play their roles right and manage to fit into the picture just the right amount. Everyone else know they’re in a supporting role and they all manage to compliment the story. War Machine reminds Tony of the casualties of superhero war, Vision and Scarlett Witch are the overpowered outsiders trying to find their place on the team, and Black Panther and Hawkeye are the removed characters sticking to their own morals during the big fight. Strangely enough, the weakest element of the movie is the one that kicks the movie into gear. Without the political conspiracy story from The Winter Soldier, the Winter Solider/Captain America relationship is very uninteresting. The main story is the divide between the Avengers, but the movie gets in motion after Winter Solider comes into the movie and it feels mostly unnecessary. More so, Evans and Stan don’t show a lot of chemistry or connection together until the end of the film. Winter Solider kicks off a lot of the action in the movie, but every character besides Winter Solider are what make the scenes stand out. Martin Freeman stands out more despite him being in the movie almost the same length as Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo.

 

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(Left to right) Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in “Captain America: Civil War.” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Civil War is a darker affair than most Marvel movies, but not by much. Unlike that OTHER superhero showdown, Civil War doesn’t overdo the gloom and doom. There’s the overarching atmosphere of seriousness that occasionally gets broken by quips of comedy (some of it lands, some of it doesn’t). The thing is that Civil War looks more realized and alive. In fact, Civil War appears much more realistic and affective than Zack Snyder’s depressing vision. Under the direction of The Winter Solider directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the action set pieces combine fist-fights and effect-driven power play very well. There are some moments of shaky-cam and rapid editing, but the Russo brothers know when to make the audience pay attention. The final showdown between Iron Man, Winter Soldier and Captain America is surprisingly brutal with Iron Man using blinding rage as motivation and Cap just trying to protect his friend despite bleeding profusely from the mouth. The real main event is the advertised showdown at the airport between Team Iron Man and Team Cap. It’s gigantic, ridiculous, stupid yet incredibly pleasing to see everyone show off their powers against one another. Every time you’ve smashed action figures together and made sound effects to it as a kid has manifested onscreen. Whereas Marvel’s Daredevil had the most grounded and realistic fight scene, Civil War is at the opposite end of the spectrum with its over-the-top nature, but both represent the best Marvel has to offer. It might even be worth the price of admission alone.

But what keeps Civil War from matching the miracle that was 2012’s Avengers? Well for one, Marvel has a hard time keeping a straight face. They’re clearly going for a more serious tone but there are moments with serious dramatic heft that get interrupted with witty quips or Vision cooking in a pullover sweater (no, seriously). Sure it’s funny, but takes the audience out of the entire experience and creates near-tonal whiplash. The real problem is the entire main plot (or plots) of the movie. As mentioned, the entire involvement of Winter Solider in the movie feels shoehorned in and merely acts as a greater catalyst for Captain America’s involvement. He’s conflicted enough on the bill after the events of the opening action scene, so having Bucky be thrown in seems more like a distraction from the more interesting conflict between Tony and Steve. On top of that, it’s actually easy to pick a side on this battle. The main reason Tony backs the bill so heavily is a rather blunt scene where a woman blames her son’s death in Sokovia on Tony. Sure there have been many forms of collateral damage throughout the Avengers’ world-saving fights, but the alternative of keeping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes waiting for political red tape to let them save the world seems incredibly dumb. Tony’s motivations seems to be out of desperation rather than thought out logic, the same goes for those supporting the bill. It’s certainly something that political debate can be featured in a superhero movie where Paul Rudd laughs it up for yucks, but it’s not much of a debate to get invested in. If the choice is to let the Avengers do what they do and learn from their mistakes or tighten the leash on them in the hopes of possibly lessening the damage, I say AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! You know who doesn’t care about collateral damage? Thanos, Hydra and Zemo. You know who’s been proven to be hopelessly unprepared to fight these enemies? The entire human race. You’d think there’d be a thoughtful conversation about these issues, but the only way superheroes can solve problems is through punching, and that’s mostly what Civil War has to offer.

 

 

Taken as big, dumb blockbuster spectacle, Civil War comes so damn close to reaching the scale and emotional heft of The Avengers and that should be more than enough to recommend this movie. But it’s just too hard to ignore the fact that Marvel isn’t willing to pull the trigger on the Watchmen-like question of “who should superheroes answer to?”In fact the more I think about it, that big question is almost entirely tossed aside for Tony’s emotional breakdown and Steve’s buddy rescue, not to mention more Winter Soldier backstory that isn’t worthy of a subplot let alone a feature film. So like I said, Civil War is like a sports car demolition derby: it’s awesome to see these impeccably crafted works collide with each other, but the final product is a mess the more you look at it.

 

3 out of 4 stars