Thursday 8 March 2018

What's the colour of money?: "Black Panther"

For the poptimists among us - those dreamers who, even at this stage in the twenty-first century, sincerely believe movies and music might someday change the world for the better - Black Panther is naturally a very big and a very important thing. Here is a major studio blockbuster in which somewhere between 90-95% of the speaking roles are occupied by persons of colour, which promises to take the struggles of its African-American characters at least as seriously as Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy did the struggles of its blue- and green-skinned characters, and which offers both a multiplicity of identification points for its younger viewers and a leg-up to a writer-director (Ryan Coogler) whose first films - 2013's Fruitvale Station and 2015's Creed - proved him more than capable of delivering potent, crowdpleasing big pictures.

Turn down the cheerleading, however, and this might equally be claimed as clinching proof of its studio's New Coke model of production: that October's Thor: Ragnarok was a Marvel movie with added comic tang, that this one is the one with a little more melanin in the mix, and that are both are essentially the warm-up acts for incoming synergasm Infinity War, in which the Avengers will be joined in battle by the Guardians and Ant-Man and Doctor Strange and the surviving Grumbleweeds. (Winner stays on to play the Sugababes.) As it is, Black Panther's colossal box office will likely set a high bar for Infinity War to leap - a development that speaks not just to corporate wiliness, but to an audience's desperate need for something even vaguely new from their superhero stories. The questions we should be asking are a) how well is that need served here, and b) how new is Black Panther after all?

For starters, it turns out to be another origin story, a phrase that forever bodes ill, and leaves us facing up to yet another ninety-minute goodies-versus-baddies runaround with a 45-minute prologue in which our hero - good T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), recalled to the fictional African oasis of Wakanda after his father the King is killed in a terror attack at the UN - sources a mask to wear and a cave to work out of. For this, the blame can be placed squarely at the door of Christopher Nolan, and 2005's foot-dragging Batman Begins, with its morbid sixth-former's project to mansplain every last nut and bolt of a particular mythology. What's receded over the past decade-and-a-half of superhero dominance is that Hawksian notion of on-the-job training, and allowing an audience to discover a character's powers as he or she moves forwards into the world: if they remade Speed today, it would run to an extended first act in which the Sandy Bullock character undergoes mandatory driver instruction.

Still, Coogler has money to spend, some of which can be spent on distracting us. If we are going to have these expensively lengthy exercises in dress-up, let them all be dressed such as this. This is a film of great costumes (the designer is Ruth Carter), with the exception of the all-black bodysuit T'Challa eventually adopts in his guise of Black Panther, an ensemble so boringly basic it makes Peter Parker's homemade Spidey garb seem like some leftfield Gaultier imagining. Set against the eternally spiked form of warrior princess Okoya (Danai Gurira) or any of the haute Wakandan couture modelled by Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), the Black Panther outfit makes one long for a reboot that centres the film's vibrant women rather than the slightly dull, chest-beating men before them - T'Challa, and Michael B. Jordan's Hollywood Beyond-haired refusenik Killmonger - who always seem to be on the verge of tearing off their duds so as to engage in another scuffle in Wakanda's vast ceremonial fishpond.

What freshness and variety there is here can be almost exclusively attributed to the film's supporting players. Coogler casts his net admirably far and wide: he recruits Angela Bassett, two decades after Strange Days should have won her an Oscar, to play the Wakandan Queen, matches older hands (John Kani, Isaach de Bankolé) with bright young talent (Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya), and - typical of the broadly inclusive vibe - even encourages solid pro work from his token white guys, Andy Serkis all amusing old-school villainy as a South African mercenary, Martin Freeman downplaying nicely as the CIA wonk who realises he's secondary to the film's shows of black power. The problem lies with what they've been included in, which - for all its spears and tribal markings - never lets us see much in the way of narrative difference for long, and mostly seems content to recycle Big Movie tropes for the benefit of those paying millions currently seeking refuge in the Marvel comfort zone.

So we get: a gadgets whizz (Bond) followed by a casino visit (Bond, new Star Wars); a brotherly power struggle (Thor); the motivating death of a father/mentoring figure (everything); several double crosses intended to make a playground-level story appear more complex than it seems; and a wham-bam finale in which someone strives to steer a big spaceship through a narrow canyon (for Luke Skywalker or Poe Dameron, read Tim from The Office - though arguably Freeman is here to serve the same narrative function as Clark Gregg's Coulson did in the early Avengers movies). Even when Coogler finally cuts to the chase, his action scenes prove underwhelming, tossing on groovy forcefields and mechanical rhinos without allowing us to feel a single blow being struck, or the stakes being raised; it's mild peril as far as the manic camera can see, culminating in a final showdown, stretched across three locations, that's so diffuse nothing really matters. (Nothing in the filmmaking here matches the bouts in Creed, with their knockout one-two of technical ingenuity and emotional investment.)

What this leaves us with is a film that achieves equivalence with the middling moneymakers of the recent past without necessarily improving upon the basic formula: Black Panther is basically Black Thor, just as a soap opera like This Christmas was the black The Family Stone, just as Tyler Perry's Madea output in some way constitutes an African-American variant of Mrs. Brown's Boys. One is not noticeably more inventive than the other, and you'd be loopy to suggest two such mediocrities form a step in the right direction, let alone some giant leap forwards. I wish I could have joined those flying the flag and waving their pompoms for Coogler's film - I, too, want to believe - but all I could see was another of our most promising directors locking himself into the grim business of dollar-bill generation, with a film more likely to maintain any status quo than to overturn it.

Just as DC's ostensibly feminist blockbuster Wonder Woman helped line the pockets of executive producer (and longstanding Trump aide) Steve Mnuchin, all this African-American creativity is set to provide a nice spring bonus for shareholders who, were it not for the all-over tan one gets from holidaying in St. Bart's every winter, would be whiter than Bowie. You could, as many clearly have, cling to Black Panther as a repository of superficially stirring images - and I grant the possibility this might be one of those franchises, like Thor or Captain America, that gets either appreciably tauter or enjoyably looser the further it travels from its roots - but these first two hours looked very much to me like exactly the same impersonal, mass-produced and defanged product Marvel has been peddling for nigh-on a decade now. Perhaps it's not my place to ask, but someone should: what good does it do a tribe or its people to place its best warriors in the service of such blandly corporate endeavours?

Black Panther is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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