Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.
We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.
This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.
The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?
Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.
Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.
Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.
Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.
Nate’s Grade: B
With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.
Nate’s Grade: B
The third in the Cornetto trilogy, the series of loving homages to genre films that end up transforming into those films, written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is so self-assured, so witty, and so stylish, but it’s also the best film Wright has done. While my heart will always bleed for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, it’s something of a revelation how everything comes together so magically in The World’s End. Every joke, every sight gag, every offhand reference, it somehow is all tied up together or has some greater narrative connection, like the names of the 12 pubs on a pub crawl reunion that discovers an alien invasion. The dialogue is packed with layered humor, with choice bon mots like, “That’s why I drink out of a crazy straw. Not so crazy now, huh?” and, “Or selective memory like that one guy… who? Oh yeah. Me.” Given the previous films, Shaun and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, I knew this would be a funny movie, but I was unprepared for how emotionally adept it is. The characters are given surprising depth and pain and anger, mostly stemming from Pegg’s screw-up alcoholic character desperately trying to relive the good times. The writing is so textured that the characters come across like actual people, and the twists and turns, while entertaining, are far more emotionally grounded than in any previous Wright movie. There is real pain and atonement for these fallible characters, which makes us root for them even more against the robot invaders. Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific again. The action is frenetic and inventive, the laughs are frequent, and the characters are so fully realized that The World’s End isn’t just the best film in a stellar, pop-culture savvy trilogy, it’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year.
Nate’s Grade: A
I would argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic has left the biggest impact on the world of popular culture over the past decade. It’s hard to remember a time when the multi-billion dollar trilogy, and winner of just about every Oscar dreamt up, was seen as a risky proposition. Would there be an audience for this kind of movie, let alone three of them? Well, ten years later, and mountains of money still being counted, this question has been put to rest. And so the discussion naturally veered to that other J.R.R. Tolkien book, the first one, The Hobbit. The production of it was held up for years with legal battles over who owned the rights and then with MGM’s bankruptcy. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie at this point. They knew the fortunes that would come. Jackson returned to direct The Hobbit, which was designed to be two movies but then late into filming was transformed into a trilogy. Now we have three Hobbit films because, quite simply, three movies equal more money. Everyone’s doing the whole elongated film franchise now, from Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games. Why give up the cash cow so easily? The first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, arrives this year, and you’ll probably relive whatever feelings were felt for Lord of the Rings. I know I did.
Sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a fastidious hobbit keeping to himself. Then one day the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits and brings with him a dozen dwarf guests. The dwarves, lead by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), are looking to reclaim their ancestral home, the Misty Mountain. The greedy dragon Smaug overtook the mountain many years ago (did you know dragons apparently lust for treasure like pirates?). The group needs a burglar, and hobbits are small and make minimal sound, making Bilbo an ideal candidate. Naturally Bilbo refuses the notion of a dangerous adventure, but then he changes his mind (what? It’s not going to be 8 more hours of Bilbo doing housework). Bilbo and the dwarves encounter elves, orcs, trolls, wizards, and all sorts of creatures as they make their way across Middle Earth to the Misty Mountain.
I was more excited for the Hobbit films when they were initially going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I thought that master of creepy crawlies would come up with something decidedly different, but alas it was not meant to be. Jackson hopped back in the director’s chair and provides a nice sense of continuity between the film franchises. The man knows this world like the back of his hand. He still has his great sense of visual grandeur, and often the movie is gorgeous to behold. The locations give the realm of Middle Earth such a better tangible feel than had he gone the George Lucas route and spent all his time with green screens. Even the more heavily-effects-laden sequences, like the underground orc lair, are rich, dense, terrific film locations you want to get lost in, absorbing every detail. From a technical standpoint, the film is never less than beautiful. Jackson also maintains a superior handling of action, knowing how to extend a set piece and build tension. The villains in The Hobbit might not be as meaty or memorable as they are in Lord of the Rings (a testy, one-handed albino orc feels like a lackluster heavy) but they provide enough credible danger. If you loved the Lord of the Rings films, and their fans are legion, then you’ll likely enjoy the first part of the prequel trilogy. If I had to rate the first chapter of The Hobbit, I’d say it’s closer to 2002’s Two Towers in overall quality, the film I liked the least in the Rings trilogy.
Now that we know there’s a healthy audience for these movies, I worry that Jackson has lost his sense of objectivity. There is no reason this movie needed to be as long as it is. There’s certainly no reason that a 300-page book, primarily aimed at children, needs to be padded out into three movies, each promising to be close to three hours in length (9 hours out of 300 pages = 1.8 pages per minute). Instead of the Jackson who nipped and tucked Tolkien’s gargantuan tomes, removing Tom Bombadill, now we have a Jackson who adds lengthy appearances of characters only briefly mentioned before in the book (kooky naturist wizard Radagast). There are also cameos from the Lord of the Rings cast to provide some further connective tissue. Now we have Bilbo and his gang visiting just about every single gnarly creature in Middle Earth, or so it seems. Now we have a quest that doesn’t even begin until close to an hour into the film. And that quest seems a lot less urgent; rather than, you know, saving the world, our characters are out to… reclaim a mountain for the dwarves. The drop in urgency makes the tale and its detours feel like dawdling. The concluding hour is fairly well paced, especially once Gollum shows his ugly mug, but the movie feels like it has precious little forward momentum. I don’t have high hopes for the future films. Fans of Tolkien’s works will likely just be thrilled to see every facet of their favorite story brought to startling life, so they won’t care about lag. At the conclusion of this movie, as our characters are dropped off by giant eagles, they look in the distance and see the Misty Mountain, their hope renewed. However I was yelling, “Get those eagles back! Why do you have to walk the whole way there?” Looks like even more long movies of walking lie ahead (cue Clerks II Rings vs. Star Wars clip).
This is also a far different film than the Lord of the Rings epics when it comes to tone. It’s far more childish and filled with comedy, also aimed at children. I don’t mean the term “childish” to see like a negative broadside, though that’s the connotation. The world of Middle Earth isn’t ensnared in the perils of Sauron just yet, so even though we got trolls and dragons and the like, the temperament is chippier. There are a lot more comic escapades here and it’s easier to accept when, you know, the world isn’t being threatened with an eternally evil malevolence. There’s a lot of bumbling and physical comedy at play, especially when the dwarves take over poor Bilbo’s home. Later on, there’s an orc king who has what is unmistakably a pair of testicles hanging below his chin. I mean you cannot possibly look at the image and interpret it as anything differently. You probably would never see something like that, for better or worse, in the Lord of the Rings films.
The biggest news for me with The Hobbit was Jackson filming at 48 frames per second (fps). It’s twice the rate of how we’ve perceived movies since the 1920s. It is a brave leap forward in technology. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to view The Hobbit in this exciting new format. Having come through the 48 fps experience, I’ll say that it has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it certainly breaks with the standard filmic look we’re so accustomed to, that dream-like state that’s removed from reality. Often the picture looks like it was recorded on video, giving the movie a stagy BBC feel to it. For some, this change will seem cheap or less grand. The biggest piece to get used to is that at 48 frames, everyone’s movements seem overly exaggerated. Everyone moves like they’ve had eight cups of coffee. It’s these hyper movements that make me think of that horrible TV feature on some HD TVs that plays down judder by amplifying movement, so everything looks like a video game cut scene. Your eyes may feel a bit more strained, as mine did after the three hours, trying to capture all the jostling movement. The 48 fps also has a tendency to blur quick motion, making it harder to pay attention to the particulars of action sequences.
Now, with that being said, I personally feel that the benefits far outweigh the detractions. The level of detail and clarity is outstanding. I felt immersed in this world. And with the 48 fps, it’s also the greatest theatrical 3D experience I’ve ever had. You feel like you’re literally inside the movie. When things fly at the screen you may just duck your head on instinct. The movie worked best when it could explore the different physical realms of Middle Earth. The underground orc world was magnificent to explore. There were several moments that made me gasp, taking my breath away at the level of detail. It takes a while to get used to and for your eyes to adjust, but I think the awkwardness dissipates and you’re left to gawk in awe with the effects and presentation. I doubt we’ll be seeing too many other films presented in this manner. Firstly, I think half the public is going to hate it. 48 fps really only works for films that necessitate a big canvas. You need a world that you want to be a part of, something to dazzle the senses, which means it will probably be best utilized with sci-fi and fantasy films. Hitchcock at 48 fps would certainly not be worth the extra frames.
Freeman (BBC’s brilliant Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a perfectly enjoyable lead. Bilbo is much more of that classic British nattering type, more comedic in nature than the sad burden of Frodo, and Freeman is naturally a skilled comedic actor. He doesn’t overdo any sort of hobbity nebbishness either, and when it comes to the dramatic parts he can sell those just as well. McKellen (X-Men) is as wonderful as ever as the wise yet playful wizard. The real breakout star of the movie is Armitage (BBC’s Robin Hood) as Thorin Oakensheild. The man has such gravitas to him, a commanding screen presence, and it helps when he has a completely badass slow-mo strut that burns into your memory how awesome the actor and character are (fun observation: at 48 fps, slow motion looks almost like “normal” movie speed). I anticipate Armitage to give the squealing fans of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) a new heartthrob to declare their loyalty.
Jackson’s return to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pretty much more of the same, though with a less urgent plot, a broader scope of comedy, and some extra technical wizardry. Watching it will pretty much rekindle whatever feelings you had for the duration of the Lord of the Rings pictures. If you know this stuff verbatim, you’ll happily take every second of detail. If you’re like me and enjoyed the films but didn’t tattoo them in your memory, then you’ll likely have a pleasant if occasionally tedious experience with The Hobbit. I’m fairly certain that Jackson could have judiciously sliced a solid 20-30 minutes out of this unexpected journey; maybe they have fewer journeys with every magical being this side of Middle Earth. Still, the film is grand and sprawling and spectacular to witness. If you were interested in the 48 fps presentation, I’d recommend it but know what you’re going in for. It will be a very different experience and one that you’ll need some adjustment time to properly attune to. Unless you’re a techie, I’d advise watching the movie in a standard 24 frame presentation and then seeking out the high frame rate for a second helping, already knowing what to expect from the plot. I plan on seeing the next two Hobbit films in the 48 fps presentation. Hopefully by that time, come December 2013, my eyes will have recovered.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m a big fan of the late Douglas Adams’ series, so going in I had a slate of expectations but also a working knowledge of this kooky universe. I really don’t think this film will work for anyone but the fans. The movie isn’t even structured like a screenplay, it has more of the novel’s loose loopy feel. Some things work wonderful, like the Vogons, giant marvelous looking puppets made by Jim Henson’s studio. The cast is mostly excellent (Alan Rickman steals the show as the voice of Marvin, a very depressed robot). The animated guide entries in the Hitchhiker’s book are colorful, stylistic, and witty. Somethings, however, don’t work at all. The additions to the story, an increased romantic angle between our lead Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Descehanel) as well as a flat happy ending that rewrites all the opening danger. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy occasionally serves up some juicy bits of wacky humor or visual fantasy (John Malkovich’s bit part is weird) but unless you were a fan of the book series, you’re really not going to be able to follow along or have any interest in keeping up.
Nate’s Grade: C+