Thursday, February 22, 2018

Setting a $404 million bar

I have to imagine that the phenomenon that immediately followed the phenomenon that was Black Panther's $404 million worldwide opening weekend was this phenomenon:

"Is that all?"

That being said by some audiences who saw the movie after the first weekend, but had heard about the first weekend and were extra pumped.

That was me, sort of. This is a good movie, but I'm not sure it's a whole lot more than that. Raking in that kind of cash made me think it would be a masterpiece, that it would spin my head, blow my mind, and fill me with emotion the way something like Wonder Woman did.

It didn't. And I heard one person walking out of my screening saying "Well that was pretty mediocre." And then another person whose first reaction was "But none of that explains where it fits in the timeline." (I know what timeline they're talking about. We saw T'Challa become king in Captain America: Civil War, and then go off to get involved with Iron Man and the rest of the guys. That part of the story is not at all touched on here, though presumably it was happening at about exactly the same time.)

I guess the point is, it was impossible for this movie ever to live up to the hype and that box office. And, it doesn't.

There are some cool things in this movie, but I was surprised by how few of the moments really felt transcendent or stuck with me. I shudder to think that it has anything to do with an inherent inability on my part to relate, because my God I hope it's not that. I like to think I can put myself in anybody's shoes, even if it's not entirely true; the goal of a critic is to divorce yourself from the exact demographic you inhabit, and view a movie through others' eyes. And, for example, the stuff that made me so emotional in Creed, Ryan Coogler's previous film, didn't have anything to do with Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. It was all about Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan, who also features here.

I just think it's not that great an example of storytelling. Especially when I know what Coogler is capable of.

The story ... well, there isn't really a story. Or the characters don't really have firmly established goals (except for the villain). It's much more satisfying if a movie's hero is striving for something, but T'Challa is not -- not really. He's staving off a challenge from Eric Killmonger (Jordan), as well as from another tribe's chieftain earlier on, but in terms of his own agency? There isn't a lot there. What functions as a driving narrative force is the quest to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice, but then that gets knee-capped halfway through, leaving not a lot that this movie is about.

I suppose it's about T'Challa's quest to realize his own destiny as a king, to make the tough decisions a king has to make, the decisions that a "nice guy" can't make. But that doesn't really happen. He kind of remains a nice guy, meaning his narrative arc is not all that satisfying.

The example of Wonder Woman seems to be instructive here too. If asked "What does Wonder Woman want?" the answer is obvious, because the movie tells you about a hundred times: she wants to kill the god of war. No two ways about it.

What does T'Challa want? To serve his people? To honor his father? These are rather nebulous goals. And I suppose it's okay for a reluctant hero to have goals that are not as well defined, but they should at least become clearer as the narrative moves forward.

I don't really want to go on nit-picking this movie, especially when there are things I loved about it, like each and every female character. The world was pretty fully realized, and Jordan was awesome.

I primarily wanted to talk about my expectation that there will be some backlash -- some Blacklash, if you will -- on this movie that will inevitably be viewed as some kind of racism, and may of course have that component to it as well. I'm here to say that this movie is just a lot more standard superhero stuff, a lot more infused with CGI, and a lot more good-but-not-great than that box office would indicate, and realizing/publicly acknowledging these things does not make you a racist.

What it represents = terrific. Its box office = fantastic, and it makes me exquisitely happy.

What it actually is = could have been better. That's all I'm saying.


Hannah Keefer said...

I didn't realize until maybe just now reading this that what I loved about this movie was, indeed, every female character and Michael B. Jordan. T'Challa's story really isn't that compelling, but he's surrounded by so many awesome side characters I kind of forgot that. That was enough to bring it to heights no other MCU movie has reached for me, but I get being a little disappointed.

Derek Armstrong said...

Yeah, I agree Hannah. Not about the unprecedented MCU heights, as I would put this closer to the middle of the pack, but about T'Challa being more of an observer in this movie. I suspect that's something they will correct in BP2, but if my impression of Captain America: Civil War is any indication, he could even demonstrate more agency as a side character in one of these other movies, like Infinity War.

And yay to the female characters. I will follow Danai Gurira anywhere!