Review: Black Panther

Director Ryan Coogler creates a dazzling superhero movie with a deep revolutionary and racial debate

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It was always going to be a risk from Marvel to produce a film surrounding a minor superhero and with an almost entirely black cast, but it is one that certainly pays off. Not only does Black Panther boldly stand shoulder to shoulder with the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it feels distinct enough from those previous that it can serve as a stand-alone film.

When T’Chaka is killed in a terrorist attack, his son T’Challa inherits the throne. His nation of Wakanda is hyper-advanced by fortune of a mineral-rich meteorite hitting their land thousands of years prior. To protect themselves from the outside world they don the disguise of an impoverished third-world country. When a rebellious Wakandan tries to take the throne and through it take revenge for an age of discrimination against his race, T’Challa must risk his life to defend peace.

Whilst T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the titular character in the film, he is surrounded by strong female characters. The key difference between the women here and in other Hollywood blockbusters though is the importance they have in the story. Lupita Nyongo’o plays the King’s most trusted spy, Letitia Wright his wickedly intelligent sister and, in arguably the best performance of them all, Danai Gurira takes on the role of Okoye, the warrior general. All three influence the direction of the plot and it was refreshing to see female leads who were well-written and not just used as flimsy love interests.

That same high quality of performance was shared amongst almost all of the cast with one major exception, Michael B. Jordan’s villain Erik. The character had a rich backstory yet, as is often the case with Marvel villains, he felt one-note and unexplored. Jordan’s character had a tough upbringing in a poor American community before entering the army and getting the nickname ‘Kilmonger’, the sheer amount of detail glossed over could have easily become a film in its own right. Nevertheless, even with this scripting disadvantage, he squeezed every drop of life from his lines to be one of the best villains yet.

Black Panther is immediately striking in its unique aesthetic. Bold and colourful, it is unlike anything we have seen in the Marvel Universe before. In the Kingdom of Wakanda, for example, there is a dazzling mesh between traditional African and contemporary culture, a style contained within Afrofuturism. With roots in the 20th century in artists such as Sun Ra, Afrofuturism lays at the heart of the artistic vision for the film. It runs deeper than just clothing and architecture though, a critique of the African and African-American experience, one that is revisited multiple times throughout the film.

Accompanying the visual delight is a soundtrack featuring that same traditional-contemporary collaboration. Hip-hop visionary Kendrick Lemar creates and curates a collection of emotionally and politically charged tracks with artists such as SZA, Schoolboy Q, and Future. Ludwig Göransson, best known for working with Donald Glover on his Childish Gambino albums, composes a complementary score containing a vast array of unorthodox sounds. In fact, Göransson spent a month in Africa to ensure he could weave these authentic African elements in a way that wasn’t intrusive. Bringing all this together and you have one of the most innovative soundtracks ever seen in mainstream cinema.

In the end, despite the new representations and artistic style, Black Panther cannot escape what it truly is, a Marvel film. Therefore it must adhere to the formula, with a CGI packed climax where our hero overcomes the villain. Thor: Ragnarok and this shows that the creative reigns are loosening but the series needs to evolve to remain dominant after Infinity War. You can dress a man in different clothes but at the end of the day, he’s still the same man. Maybe the time has come for Marvel to cast someone else.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

By far the most inconsequential Marvel movie yet

Tom Holland stars in the third iteration of the Spider-Man character and the first within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is an increasing sense of fatigue with the over saturation of superhero films and this does not change with Homecoming. From the first scene it is made clear though that this is a smaller scale movie, one than looks up to the Avengers not down from their height. For that reason this is Marvel’s most realistic to date. The people are real and so are the stakes.

When the Avengers destroy parts of the city, it is the citizens that are left to clean up the damage. A whole industry has formed in the wake of these repeated disasters that without warning is suddenly taken away. Tony Stark’s latest venture Damage Control will now manage all salvage operations leaving Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew in New York jobless. Rather than back down and find employment elsewhere, he and his team steal a truckload of alien technology and use it to create hybrid weapons destined for the black market. In order to keep a steady flow of new scrap, Toomes tracks and hijacks Damage Control trucks. For 8 years his business has thrived, but after Spider-man stumbles upon some otherworldly weapons, their paths begin to cross.

From the offset it is clear that director Jon Watts is trying to innovate, to surprise the audience with something new, however using a brighter colour palette and a selection of musical cues does not change the fact that the skeleton of each film is the same. The villain is always forgettable yet well acted, here Keaton is formidable as Vulture but his motives are foggy. He wants to take revenge on the Avengers in their ivory towers but does so by selling weapons to thugs to buy himself an ivory tower for his family.

The action scenes although destructive are almost always aimless. As the ferry gets split in half part way through I should have been exhilarated, instead the whole sequence was a drag. In 2015’s Age of Ultron the entire fictional city of Sokovia is ripped from the Earth and rises into the sky, the end result in a series of ever more catastrophic events across multiple films. In cinema as in real life our empathy and interest towards conflict and disaster only extends so far before we become numb. I did not care about the ferry nor the people on it because I have seen it relentlessly in every Marvel film. What the viewer will not become numb to is good character development and clear motives, something that most superhero films, including this one, lack. Far too often brilliant actors are wasted in one-dimensional or bit roles, Tony Revolori, Donald Glover, Kenneth Choi and Hannibal Buress all fall into these categories.

Self promotion is another issue prevalent in the Marvel franchise. Every release will at some point reference its predecessors and advertise a few more. The deeper we go into the franchise the worse it gets. While this allows for more complex storylines that work across multiple films it alienates the average moviegoer. You would not be able to fully comprehend the events of Homecoming unless you had seen Civil War, and that was the build up of multiple films in itself. Suddenly you have 16 films you have to watch as a prerequisite for simply understanding the latest release. There are 3 more in post production as of writing with one more filming and multiple more in the works. As more time passes the issue will continue to get worse and diminishing returns is inevitable.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first indication that Marvel might deviate from its formulaic structure of producing films. The original elevator pitch for this would have been ‘High School drama’ yet the creative licence given to the writers never extends to a majority. It always has to be a superhero film first and foremost. If Marvel wants to remain relevant it has to evolve, to stop making the same movie in a different skin. Homecoming is a step in the right direction but for every one step forward they seem to take 2 steps back.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Who needs a headline, just listen to an 80’s song instead

Director James Gunn returns to the helm in the second entry about the escapades of the Guardians of the Galaxy. After the unexpected success that was the original, the audience’s expectations were very high. An overload of pop culture references could not cover up the flaws however and the result is a film that is inferior in almost every way.

My primary issue was the soundtrack. I want to make it clear that this only covers the licensed songs used in the film. Tyler Bates’ original soundtrack maintained the same impressive quality as last time, complementing the on-screen action seamlessly. The problem lies in the promotion for the film. Far more emphasis was put on the continuation of the Awesome Mixtape series than the Guardians of the Galaxy series. Whilst the integration of music was organic previously, this sadly did not continue. Some of the songs felt unnecessarily shoehorned in, others lacked the emotional punch the scene required and a couple, namely Cat Steven’s Father and Son spoon-fed the audience how they should feel in the scene, making it an incredibly emotionally narrow experience. Ultimately the film felt more like the music video to the Awesome Mixtape Volume 2 album.

It is hard to call the story of Guardians a story in the traditional sense, a soap opera would probably be the most apt comparison. All the main characters go off to pursue their own little emotional journeys reuniting in some grand finale. All we are missing is for Pratt and co to come out on stage and do it live. The opening scene is the galactic avengers fighting a giant octopus-like creature. Instead of keeping the camera on the battle we watch an adorable Baby Groot dancing to Mr. Blue Sky (arguably the only well implemented song throughout the film) while giving glimpses of what goes on behind him.

From this, you would imagine the core ideology of the movie is to feature action solely as a vehicle for the comedy elements. Immediately after this though the comedy is relegated to the cracks between each mini-film. In an attempt to hide the lacklustre writing there is an overabundance of pop culture references ranging from David Hasselhoff to Pac-Man. This felt like a cheap attempt to deceive the audience, making them believe the wave of nostalgia they are feeling for said reference is actually appreciation for the film.

Once you have left the theatre there is nothing to ponder, no ideas to mull over. You won’t notice any subtext you missed the first time. What you see is very much what you get. Whilst this is partially true for volume one it was at least a feel-good film that can be watched on a rainy day. Gunn tries to deliver so many emotional blows during the 138 minute runtime that, aside from the climax, they became repetitive, stale even. The only reason to watch this again is in anticipation of it’s sequel.

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The humour was the only aspect that built upon the existing foundations. Gunn does deserve high praise for this, especially the fact this is the first film since 1999’s The Iron Giant where Vin Diesel has not been utterly unbearable. Each character’s unique idiosyncrasies were developed further and all of the best scenes stemmed from this. My personal highlights include every scene involving Drax and an adorable scene where Baby Groot keeps fetching the wrong item to help an imprisoned Rocket and Yondu escape. The only comedic missteps came from Rocket. There are only so many times I can listen to Bradley Cooper yelling before it becomes worn out, but aside from this the humour does hit the mark.

Had it not been for the comedy elements this film would have been a huge drop in quality from the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is still a noticeable drop, but not enough to make any noticeable dent into Disney’s seemingly endless box office revenue stream.

In a preview screening of the film, James Gunn called it ‘a film about outcasts, for outcasts’. I disagree. This film represents the increasing commodification of geek culture. Things previously considered nerdy and would result in you being exiled form ‘popular’ circles are now mainstream. But not entirely. Pink Floyd and Nirvana are not widely popular, but the association to them is. While music sales of their albums may not have increased, t-shirt sales with their logo have skyrocketed.

Bringing this back to Guardians, I feel that most of the effort has gone into the branding rather than making a high quality film. Attempting to make it fashionable to like the 70’s/80’s ‘outcast’ music accompanying the film rather than the film itself. This is a smart tactical move by Disney. It won’t change the box office revenue. Fans of the genre, myself included will still want to see the next instalment. Their gain is in the merchandise and album sales, which will easily surpass the box office gross.

Leaving the theatre, my disappointment was palpable. I did not expect a cinematic masterpiece, but I hoped to lose myself in more outlandish adventures of the lovable misfits. Instead I simply lost interest.