Writing anything negative about Black Panther feels like blasphemy, in the biblical sense—like I might get stoned—so I’ve been loathe to write anything about the latest Disney/Marvel juggernaut. Candidly, I wasn’t all that taken with the movie. It’s top-tier MCU, sure, but that’s like being the best thing on the menu at Applebee’s. It’s nice to have Ryan Coogler behind the grill-top adding bits of flare to the Firecracker Shrimp Cavatappi!©, but it’s still Applebee’s. I suppose if you’ve never had Applebee’s, you’d think it’s great.
There are moments of flare in Black Panther, proof that Ryan Coogler is behind the grill-top. Those moments make the movie. Coogler’s past work walks the fine line between visceral danger and earnest sentimentality. Michael B. Jordan’s “Erik ‘Kilmonger,’” all swagger and conviction and deep-set pain birthed in abandonment and systemic prejudice and discrimination, is the locus of that gut/heart balance in Black Panther, just as Jordan was in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Creed before. Michael B. Jordan is so adept at expressing those poles, I found myself actively rooting for ‘Kilmonger’s’ plot by the end of film, not because I believed in it, but because I felt like the movie did.
Coogler’s work has also always dealt with the wider world’s perceptions of black people. (Watch his short film, Locks, to see this concern in its most condensed form.) In Black Panther, this bubbles up twice – once, when T’Challa is about to execute Klaue in public with a crowd around him holding camera phones recording the action. He’s stopped when his companions warn him about the image he is about to communicate to the world about who Wakandans are and what they do. Later, at the end of the film, Coogler films a young, nameless boy watching the regal T’Challa take off in his flying car. The sight appears to reprogram the boy’s imagination about what’s possible for black people. It’s a callback to the beginning of the film, when a young Erik ‘Kilmonger’ took the opposite message from a similar sight. ‘KIlmonger’ was abandoned, while this boy is seeing the arrival of something new.
Black Panther is also so smothered in CGI, it feels buffered from the reality that’s so pressing in Coogler’s other work. Coogler’s camera is locked down throughout Black Panther to frame this fake world. I missed the focused urgency of his other films. In two moments that urgency re-enters the frame – once when ‘Kilmonger’ is chasing Klaue through a junkyard and again at the end of the film when Coogler takes the camera into the midst of a blacktop basketball game just before T’Challa descends from the sky in Oakland.
Again, Black Panther is about a good a movie as Marvel has produced, but it saddens me to see Coogler’s bravura drenched in Disney/Marvel sauce. I felt similarly about Creed, an otherwise excellent movie weighed down by the perhaps-necessary-for-funding-reasons presence of Sylvester Stalone’s “Rocky,” like a heavy bag laid across young Adonis Creed’s bowed-up back. I’m glad Disney/Marvel is hiring and paying talented filmmakers to helm their franchises. I hope it results, as many hope, in these filmmakers being given the resources to tell the stories that come from their hearts instead of the ones that come from the needs of Disney’s quarterly earning reports. If I have to eat at Applebee’s, I’d rather eat Applebee’s food cooked by a fine chef, but I’m not going to pretend it’s good food. It’s just better than it has to be.
So see Black Panther. Celebrate it for all that is good about it and for all the good it represents, but watch Fruitvale Station too. Watch Ava Duvernay’s films that aren’t based on (excellent) children’s books. Watch the films made by the filmmakers associated with the Black Independent Cinema Movement. Go see Ryan Coogler’s next film, Wrong Answer, when it comes out. As announced, it will star Michael B. Jordan, and the screenplay is being written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It looks like the kind of film Coogler seems most interested in making. It’s certainly the kind of Ryan Coogler film I’m most interested in seeing.