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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WRONG

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Marvel’s first family has not had the cleanest track record at the cinemas. There was the unreleased 1994 version that is legendarily awful. Then there’s the 2005 film made amongst the popularity of Spider-Man and X-Men, which wasn’t necessarily good but by no means awful. Its sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, filled the role of “awful superhero movie” in 2007 (the same year as Spider-Man 3 and Ghost Rider, mind you). But with the superhero movie renaissance of the last seven years, Hollywood has been trying to take caped crusaders a bit more seriously at cinemas. With that, 20th Century Fox decided to take one more stab at making Stan Lee’s first superhero team a legitimate franchise. The results can be summed up in (fitting enough) four words: big swing, bigger miss.

Fantastic Four opens with the focus on young scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his assistant/buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) trying to build a teleporter. It garners the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who are also building a teleporter and need help finishing it. Reed is brought in to put everything together, along with Sue’s cocky brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Franklin’s former associate Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). The team succeeds in building the teleporter, but a government official (Tim Blake Nelson) wants to have some NASA specialists take it for a test run. The team says otherwise and uses the teleporter to travel to another dimension, where their interaction with the environment has some interesting (I refuse to say fantastic, since it’s too easy) side effects. Doom is lost in the other dimension, Reed can stretch his body to great lengths, Johnny turns into a human fire ball, Ben is a giant mass of rock and Sue can create force fields and become invisible. The group is kept under government watch as they develop their powers, but when Doom returns with wicked intentions, the team must band together and save the world.

I took a very long pause before writing this next paragraph, because I didn’t know where to begin with how WRONG this movie is. The writing, the direction, the pacing, the continuity, the acting, the energy, the action and pretty much everything else about Fantastic Four is WRONG. Every scene of this movie is rushed, as if the movie wants to get itself over with as much as the audience does. Pacing is chucked out the window at frame one with scenes given no time to breathe whatsoever and no connection between characters or the audience. That doesn’t help the dead-on-arrival dialogue, with no lightness or humor written into it. From the early scenes, with Reed and Ben meeting as kids and being nearly robotic in their delivery, that director Josh Trank (Chronicle) either doesn’t know how to direct actors or was on too tight a shooting schedule to fine-tune some scenes. Another take or two would’ve helped make the scenes feel natural, if only the actors in the movie looked emotionally invested in anything.

I’ve never before seen such a big-budget movie where nobody on-screen wants to be involved in this, and it’s even more disappointing because Fantastic Four has a stellar cast. Teller, Mara, Jordan and Bell have all done excellent jobs in better movies, but they don’t show any charisma or interest in the roles here. Most of the time it’s as if they’re all reading off of cue cards trying to get to the next scene. Nelson’s character is supposed to be the slimy government official, but he’s so small and wimpy that it’s almost funny. Kebbell tries to bring some sharp wit to his take on Doom, but when he becomes the supervillain, he’s just a guy in a mask saying ominous things, along with some superpowers that are undefined to the audience. On top of that, this is movie is about as subtle as someone bitch-slapping you with a brick. Literally, Sue calls Victor “Dr. Doom over here” out loud, Johnny’s welding helmet has flames on it and (spoiler) the ending has Ben saying how the whole situation is “fantastic,” giving Reed inspiration for the team name. You may slap your hand to your face in face-palm fashion so many times at this movie, it may give you a concussion. Even simple things, like the continuity of character appearances, are so poorly addressed. Sue goes from dirt blonde to platinum blonde between two scenes, Johnny goes from clean shaven to a thick black mustache (maybe Jordan was filming Creed and was called back for re shoots). I will say that the appearance of “The Thing” Ben Grimm is actually quite impressive and a great visual and vocal interpretation of the character, even with the CGI.

I’m not even sure who Fantastic Four was made for. It’s not for kids, because it’s taken too seriously and can be gruesome at times. It’s not for fans of the comic-book, since it tells the origin story a bit differently and fans will be so turned off by the new interpretation. I don’t even think this is for casual moviegoers, since there is nothing enjoyable about this. This movie is so dull, so stupid, so lifeless and so uninspired that I don’t think any of the producers even watched the final product before getting it out to the public. This movie was made for one reason and one reason only: Fox is running out of X-Men movies to make so they’re trying desperately to hold on to the coattails of the superhero movie boom. Hell, they lost the Star Wars franchise to Disney, how else are they going to keep up? Fantastic Four is an example why, even if it is from a formula that works, a movie should not be a bidding war between director and studio. If Josh Trank had full creative control (or a little bit) on this project, this could’ve been a creative take on the characters. But news reports over the months have shown how Fox organized re shoots and changes without Trank’s involvement, and that’s why this movie is such a mess. Great movies, especially big-budget franchises like The Avengers or Tim Burton’s Batman, work when there is a functioning cohesive relationship between filmmaker and studio. If one thing overtakes the other, it makes for a mess. Fantastic Four is not even a movie, it’s a studio squeezing whatever amount of potential profit they can out of their stock of superhero rights before the well dries up. So here’s to all the critics and fans clobbering this movie into the ground, as it deserves to be.
Final Verdict: 0.5 out of 4