Friday, February 16, 2018

‘Black Panther’ visually stuns, but suffers style over substance shortcomings

By Steve Crum
Leaving the screening of Black Panther, I felt nearly as let down as that time in 1973 when I first saw Ross Hunter’s musical version of Lost Horizon. In both cases, the hype far outweighed the film—despite big names, glitzy sets, gorgeous costumes, and production talent galore. For sure, anticipation and pre-sale tickets have escalated to epic proportions for Black Panther. Rotten Tomatoes has already (at this writing) deemed the film near perfect, based upon 100+ critics’ praises…and this was days before the film even officially opened. 
Unlike Lost Horizon, which was an immense box office dud, Black Panther is already projected to be one of the biggest superhero film opening weekends in Hollywood history. 
But for this Rotten Tomatoes critic, Panther turns out to be a mere puddy tat. I truly hate to say such, since I had hoped for so much more than what was delivered. The loyal fan base will no doubt think otherwise.

While the story itself is unique in its setting, the movie plays out in conventional Marvel fashion-- with nothing extraordinary or rousing in the mix this time. A major weakness of Black Panther is its numerous dimly lit scenes jammed with seemingly endless speeches. Seriously, I nearly nodded off from boredom. Director /screenwriter Ryan Coogler would have improved the pacing by trimming such sequences.
Based on the popular Marvel comic book character, which in 1966 led the way as the first superhero of African descent in comics, Black Panther is culturally important. Admittedly, I have never read the comic book, so this movie version is my introduction. The comic book’s legion of followers had the edge on me before the film even began. They knew the backstory. I did not. That meant relying solely on the movie to grasp the mystique of T’Challa, Black Panther’s not-so-secret ID. 
An opening narrative tells us that T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman with Ben Aflleck-like-Batman sternness) is the King of Wakanda, a technologically advanced city magically hidden in Africa. He gets his super strength by drinking a liquified herb. The elixir triggers a stylish black body suit and headpiece that identifies him as Black Panther. The drink also gives him cat-like acrobatic abilities. Those attributes are well displayed in an early-on, exciting car chase sequence. The storyline covers T'Challa's regal lineage in Africa. He heeds his call, and assumes his royal role. 
But all is not resolved. Conflicts arise from neighboring African tribes as well as smarmy arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, portrayed by the ubiquitous Andy Serkis. Then there is T’Challa’s greatest foe, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who vies to be king.  Expect extended battle sequences—man vs man, tribe vs tribe. (The armored rhinos is a unique plus.) Factor in Martin Freeman in a forgettable role as Everett K. Ross, a CIA agent and sidekick to T’Challa. 
Kudos to Angela Bassett as T’Challas’s Queen Mother, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leader of Wakanda’s all-female special forces squad, the Dora Milaje. 
Overall, Black Panther is a comic book movie that takes itself far too seriously. In that regard, the film suffers from endless posturing, particularly by T’Challa and Killmonger. We have learned to expect such in superhero movies, but not to this extreme. 
There is bound to be a sequel, and I trust it will fully live up to its hype. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: C+