Recently – within the last three months, let’s say – the latest entry in a blockbuster franchise with at least ten theatrical releases to its name (and a million more well on the way) was released. This new film received near-universal critical praise, with many viewers ecstatically describing it as a departure from previous installments in the series. Due to the talent of the young fellow behind the camera, an acclaimed up-and-coming auteur whose Christian name rhymes with “Brian,” it is more strikingly directed than many of its peers, although it still feels oddly limited compared to his more idiosyncratic past efforts. In fact, despite appearances to the contrary, a closer look reveals that the film is largely more of the same, lifting most of its themes and plot elements from its predecessors.
Excitingly, the film doesn’t adhere slavishly to the textbook structures that govern most blockbusters today. However, it doesn’t make particularly good use of this creative freedom, and at a length of well over two hours, it overstays its welcome, often struggling to balance its various moving parts. This is most keenly felt during a second act excursion to a casino, where a famous person makes a cameo appearance. Still, it’s a notable aesthetic accomplishment, creating a fantasy world that is colorful and frequently gorgeous, although it feels curiously limited in scope. Its conscientiously diverse cast includes Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o. Andy Serkis appears to be playing the main bad guy, but is unceremoniously killed off halfway through, paving the way for the real villain, an angry, sometimes masked young man who proclaims that he wants to “burn down” the tradition of the past.
Meanwhile, the hero or heroine wrestles with the shortcomings of the same tradition, particularly its isolationist qualities. He or she is privy to visions of a mentor figure’s checkered past, and is faced with the realization that the villain’s actions are a response to the mentor’s flaws. Along the way, parallels between the hero or heroine and the villain are heavily underlined, and in the end, they share a brief moment of connection before being separated by their differing ideologies. In the third act, the film falls back on the usual stuff – big, laborious action sequences with many participants that go on for a long time. The climactic battle takes place in and around a cave. One side makes use of armored quadruped transports. While the main fight takes place on the ground, there’s also a bit of aerial conflict that doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things.
The film’s coda is an emotional appeal involving anonymous children, a gesture towards some kind of nebulous hope for the future. In the end, the film has a much clearer vision of what it stands against than what it stands for, so it falls back on vague platitudes about “fighting for what we love.” The thoughtful viewer leaves the theater dissatisfied and more than a little bored.
Question: Did I just describe
(a) Rian Johnson’s 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi
(b) Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film Black Panther
“Well, Tim,” you’re thinking, “From your rating and the snide tone of the description above, it sounds like you didn’t like Black Panther very much. What gives? I thought you were that one guy on FilmFisher who actually likes superhero movies. Didn’t you write that long piece defending the second Avengers? Isn’t it your job to defend Marvel films and their ilk from the likes of that old spoilsport, Josh Gibbs?”
In fact, I do like some Marvel movies. In 2016, in addition to the aforementioned defense of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I wrote positive reviews of Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. I stand by most of what I said then. 2017, however, was not kind to the franchise. Between the mean-spirited befuddlement of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and the disposable fun of Thor: Ragnarok, my goodwill waned; what remained was more or less snuffed out by the contemptible soullessness of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Black Panther, while not as artistically bankrupt as those films, continues the trend, revealing the limitations of the Marvel ethos, working retroactively to set the earlier films in an ultimately hollow context. In my review of Age of Ultron, I wrote about “the weakness of Marvel’s storytelling philosophy” thus: “By making everything human, it robs the world of the divine. If this is unsatisfying, perhaps it should be; perhaps it is better to feel the absence of transcendence than to wrongly locate it where it is not.”
I have this against Marvel: it has stopped feeling the absence.
Black Panther is directed by the very talented Ryan Coogler, whose excellent Creed is far better and more emotionally involving than any Rocky spin-off has a right to be. Working with cinematographer Rachel Morrison, he invests Black Panther with a number of striking images. This is almost certainly the studio’s most aesthetically accomplished film; particularly impressive is Coogler’s vision of the purple-hued afterlife where characters commune with their ancestors. The titular feline-themed superhero is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), king of the fictitious nation of Wakanda, which harbors the world’s only store of the coveted mineral Vibranium. Wakanda is a technologically advanced utopia that has hidden away from the rest of the world for centuries, and the crux of T’Challa’s dilemma as a new king is whether to open its borders or continue in the isolationist footsteps of his fathers. The nature of Vibranium is less clear. It is apparently indestructible, though the multitudes of things that blow up in Black Panther suggest the Wakandans use many other building materials. It can be conjured out of thin air to form suits of armor, weapons, miniature replicas of things. In fact, it seems to have rather magical properties, but this is the materialistic Marvel universe, and characters pointedly insist that it’s all simply very advanced technology. Indeed, anything spiritual is markedly absent from these films; even Doctor Strange, a film about a “sorcerer” learning “mystic arts,” only partly avoided this sad demystification, describing magic as a means of “harnessing energy” from “other dimensions.” In Black Panther, Wakanda has a vaguely defined religion of some kind, involving the worship of a panther goddess and the veneration of ancestors, but our hero’s travels to the afterlife end with him renouncing all the nation’s previous patriarchs, screaming that they were wrong.
The plot revolves around T’Challa’s ascension to the throne of his recently deceased father, and the emergence of a usurper king. Indeed, the early stages of political intrigue promise some good faux-Shakespearean royal family drama; I was even willing to accept the rather silly contrivance that the ruler of the most advanced utopia in the world is chosen by single combat. Unfortunately, this promise doesn’t quite come to fruition, as the needlessly convoluted storyline loses its way among a cornucopia of characters and plotlines. In 2007, and for ten years since, people have complained that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 buckled under the weight of too many villains and subplots. Yet every Marvel movie released nowadays is just as overstuffed. The only difference is that none of the stuff it’s stuffed with is very interesting. “How long is the movie,” my father inquired of me, “Two hours and some change?”
“Yes,” I replied. “A lot of change.”
There’s something perversely ironic about the way Black Panther turns many of the typical Marvel movie’s weaknesses on their heads, and in so doing creates its own set of similarly critical weaknesses. Instead of constantly undercutting drama with humor, it drowns in self-seriousness. Instead of moving too quickly to breathe, it plods. The action scenes are not the good parts; it is here that Coogler’s otherwise great direction stumbles, as a nighttime car chase is rendered nearly incoherent. The exceptions come in scenes of single combat, which are directed with a vivid, tactile brutality that’s refreshing in this age of weightless CGI. Villains in these films are usually non-entities, but the most interesting character in Black Panther is the goofily named but compelling Erik Killmonger, played by the immensely accomplished Michael B. Jordan, who has been turning in excellent performances since he appeared in The Wire at the tender age of 15. Jordan has the kind of charismatic presence that is rarer among movie stars than you’d think, not to mention a certain animal magnetism. In one scene, Killmonger remarks that an artifact is “beautiful,” prompting the apparently smitten moviegoer sitting on my left to coo dreamily at the screen, “You’re beautiful.” As for the rest – Boseman had a fine, commanding supporting presence when he was introduced in the previous Captain America film, but he’s given little to work with here, and his performance wears thin accordingly. T’Challa has a whiz kid sister (Letitia Wright) who is Quirky and Endearing, a mother (Angela Bassett) who is, I guess, Stern and Regal, a love interest (Lupita Nyong’o) who is Compassionate but Independent. There are several more supporting characters whose relations are often unclear; for instance, two of them refer to each other as “my love” every now and then, but otherwise evince no hint of attraction or even familiarity. The cast is rounded out by a couple of Tolkien white men in the form of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis.
I suspect that the flat nature of these characters is due less to the cast of gifted actors, who have acquitted themselves very well in other films, and more to the writing, which largely positions them as humorless bores who are good at everything. This is indicative of a deeply disheartening trend in blockbuster filmmaking: the tendency to make characters devoid of flaws. We can see this without going too far afield by comparing Marvel’s recent output to their early films. In Iron Man, the conflict arose from Tony Stark’s moral failings and need to overcome and atone for them. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker is oddly perfect, and accordingly inhuman. He is good at everything; there are no flaws he needs to overcome, no lessons he needs to learn. There is a place for aspirational figures in fiction, figures who are in some sense superhumanly ideal, but what does it mean to aspire to be like this Peter Parker? Really, we probably just wish we were like him, which is to say we want to be comfortable, cool, charming, well-liked. On the other hand, to emulate Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is to be responsible, aware of one’s own faults, sacrificing one’s own happiness, often to the point of misery (misery, misery, that’s what you’ve chosen). Which of these sounds like wish-fulfillment, and which like virtue?
This kind of characterization is increasingly widespread. It has infected Pixar (compare the deeply human failings of Marlin in Finding Nemo to the smilingly flawless parents in Finding Dory). It has infected Star Wars (on the one hand, Luke; on the other, Rey). The problem is no longer internal, but external; the hero only needs to overcome the world, not the flesh or the devil. It takes the teeth out of storytelling, creating a vacuum where the soul ought to be, for the soul of fiction is found not in assurances that we are fine just the way we are, but in inspiring us to consider ourselves more thoroughly and hopefully change for the better. No one ever asks forgiveness in movies anymore. Why should they? The blame is always placed elsewhere.
One recent superhero movie avoided this problem with a surprisingly robust view of theodicy and human nature. In Wonder Woman, that rare modern comic book movie that is actually interesting, there is a personal devil who tempts man, but man himself also has the innate capacity for evil. In the end, disappointingly, that film also fell back on vague platitudes about “love,” but at least Diana’s declaration, “I believe in love,” is an appeal, however nebulous, to some sort of higher concept, an absolute that exists independent of human action. A Christian could, conceivably, interpret “love” in this sentence to refer to God who is love. The same is not true of the hollow, risibly subjective sentiment expressed by Black Panther and Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “I fight for what I love.” I can love anything, and indeed do love many bad things. I am more than capable of fighting for them. What of it?
Black Panther seeks to address weighty questions surrounding the fate of its fictional country, but for answers, all it has are good intentions. Different perspectives are presented by different characters, but they are rarely argued for. Tradition is rejected, but nothing substantive is offered to replace it. With no higher ideals to appeal to, characters can only argue based on feelings, actions, and results. One says that she can’t stand to see people suffering. Another says, “This is how it was always done.” Neither is ultimately proven wrong, except for the villain who wants to commit genocide, because at least we can all agree that’s bad. Wakanda, and the Marvel universe at large, exists in a state of teleological poverty. Without any vision of the good life to aspire to, the means become the ends. Good and evil, right and wrong, are never discussed outright; the only moral these movies can muster anymore is, “Help people.” Propagandistic films often present the opposing side as a straw man, but Black Panther is even less substantial than that: it is a battle between two straw men. “Build bridges, not barriers,” it preaches. This is a fine, admirable sentiment, but divorced from any larger context, it is swiftly revised to be less fine and less admirable: “We are all the same.” Which is to say, “No one thing is better than another thing, unless you disagree, in which case you are the worse thing.” The film wants to have its relativistic cake and eat it too, but first it must clear the table of those who disagree.
And so we come to the fatal problem of these movies. Marvel’s only ideology is that it has no ideology. The only value it champions is empathy. Empathy is a good thing; it is not the best thing. Empathy is not charity. Empathy is never enough. The suffering of the world will never be done away with, or even eased very much, by our merely human efforts. Problems of the soul are not solved by solutions for the body. Black Panther ends (twice!) with someone asking T’Challa a significant question. “Who are you?” “What do you have to offer?” In both cases, the film cuts away before he can give an answer. How dispiriting it is when a bad movie offers such a perfect metaphor for itself.