A Marvel Fan and a Superhero Skeptic Debate 'Black Panther'

Is Ryan Coogler's film revolutionary enough?
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Is Ryan Coogler's film revolutionary enough?

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Black Panther]

The following is a conversation between two friends, and film lovers: Simon Abrams is a contributor to the The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog; and Steven Boone is a contributor to RogerEbert.com, and founder of Big Media Vandalism (look for his upcoming "Big Man Talk" on Black Panther, co-written with Odie Henderson). Abrams is an avid superhero fan while Boone hasn't enjoyed (or maybe even seen?) a superhero film since the third Sam Raimi Spider-Man film. This is a joke, but it's also probably truer than Boone will ever admit in public. There are a lot of spoilers ahead, as the writers assume that you have already seen Black Panther

Simon Abrams, Good and Terrible: When I was thinking of ways to write about Black Panther, I immediately knew I wanted to write something about it with you, Steven Boone. There were selfish reasons for this — you really don't write as much as you should, man. But there was also the immediate appeal of forcing you, somebody who is generally disinterested in superhero movies, to watch and evaluate a film that many are treating as a game-changer for the genre (such as it is). 

I'm a comics nerd since prepubescence, but even I've grown a little jaded with the recent spate of Marvel Studios films. There's a workman-like quality to their storytelling — especially during fight scenes and any moment that requires a crane shot or a pre-visualized sequence to convey joy or wonder — that always gets me down. Even recent titles like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 haven't done it for me. James Gunn and his team excelled at lighthearted, bratty action-adventure with the first one, but didn't stick any of the big emotional beats in their sequel. Just made me think that these films' creators should stick to what they do best: irreverent, upbeat spectaculars that never delve too deep into pseudo-serious space opera territory (i.e., can we cool it with the daddy issues, please?).

That said: Black Panther both is, and isn't fairly unique. Odie Henderson singles out many of the qualities that make the film stand out in his characteristically strong review for RogerEbert.com, wherein he specifically praises the costumes, acting and characterizations. 

But I'm also very much interested in K. Austin Collins's recent piece at The Ringer, where Collins writes about how to approach the film's various successes and merits: "We can do the whole song and dance of spelling out the basic reasons for the movie’s importance: what it means for Hollywood that a project of this size, with this budget and with a nearly all-black cast, can finally seem like a worthwhile risk for a major studio and the timely impact of a movie about a mythical African kingdom, a so-called 'shithole country,' to be released at this moment in our political history. The movie is a symbolic solution to issues that, when Black Panther was just a rumor, a dream getting tossed to and fro in a Marvel Studios boardroom, we didn’t think could grow so much more dire."

I also like this part of Collins's typically thoughtful piece: "It’s possible to love Black Panther but be conflicted, but still love it, but still be conflicted, all the while sharing in the unmitigated joy of its existence."

That's pretty much where I'm at with Black Panther right now. Listen, we're at a moment where the cultural dominance of these films has made it so that some film critics are understandably afraid of getting harassed by the genre's worst supporters. Remember when our mutual friend Keith Uhlich received death threats from angry nerds just because he hated The Dark Knight? I think about that a lot, to the point where I'm afraid that if we aren't sufficiently positive, we'll get some choice words from the peanut gallery, too (which is fine for you, because you're not on Twitter or Facebook, you jerk).

This is an admittedly overcomplicated way of setting the table because, while I don't want to lead with my reservations, or make grandiose claims like "This movie isn't revolutionary enough," I do think that superhero films and the way we talk about their politics, and aesthetic choices has become... well, it's often an unhealthy all-or-nothing proposal. Still, I hated the brutal violence in Black Panther, and want to talk with you about that, as well as about the choreography, and the politics of the film. I also loved Michel B. Jordan's performance, and greatly enjoyed watching a movie that, for the most part, felt like the singular vision of the director of Creed, a movie I love. 

So I'm looking at this thing as a product that's also got a little soul. As in many superhero and Western films before it, its creators question and then inevitably confirm their heroes' right to be powerful and independent. That, I think, is the main reason for this film's success: There's a sense of urgency here, albeit one whose political message doesn't have a neat application to real-world politics. (Did you get a load of that conservative screwball who said that the Black Panther is Trump, and that Killmonger is the "Black Lives Matter" movement? No, I'm not linking to that nonsense!) 

In other words: This is a story about a rebel whose cause is at least sympathetic enough to be recognizable. The burden that hangs on King T'Challa's shoulders looks heavier than the one on other Marvel characters — despite also revolving around questions of worthiness and exceptionalism — because it's about characters whose culture and actions are instantly recognizable. Ryan Coogler and his team mostly did a great job with this type of story because they invested enough personality and internal logic that you actually cared about the plot right up until it becomes a tedious creative-committee-controlled beat-em-up.

All that being said: What did you think of Black Panther? On what levels did it work for you and how did it fall short? I feel like we're similarly conflicted, despite both being generally up on the film. Is that fair?

Steven Boone, Exchange Student from Cameroon: Quite fair, brother!

I just saw an amazing early Ryan Coogler short, Locks, and it's apparent that from early on, this man knew what he wanted to say and how to say it. He cuts to the heart of the matter, with themes and characters more important than plot mechanics. That's tough to do without coming off crude or corny, but Coogler has a keen eye, a wily sense of narrative (shuffling perspectives and timelines more subtly and purposefully than Christopher Nolan), and his touch with actors is very fine. So it makes sense, in keeping with Marvel practice, that they'd hire him to handle the human heart of their latest cash barrel. Did I anticipate Black Panther breathlessly? No. I knew Marvel has a way of homogenizing even their most vibrant, personable products. But I was excited to see what Coogler could pull off within that framework, and he did not disappoint.

All the beautiful fabric is there. We have a cast stuffed with actors of great range and star presence, jewels in an Afro-Futurist setting. A friend of mine remarked that she has trouble getting through Mo' Better Blues because Denzel is just "too damn good-looking" in that flick. I had similar "trouble" every time Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett and Danai Gurira appeared onscreen. There is what feels like a historic quantity of African female gorgeousness here. In Imax, it left me more agog than any visual effect.

So the fabric is there. It's the stitching that turns watching these things into a chore. What is the stitching? The flow of images. The narrative currents largely determined by editing and sound mix. You wonder why I don't write so much about film these days, that's it right there: So many mainstream films have become a tiresome slog because they have no groove. Forget whatever they're about. The impersonal and prosaic way shots and scenes are assembled, for all the amazing new software and hardware applied to whatever individual "epic" stylistic flourish, are what unite most of the blockbusters in numbing, deafening mediocrity. I could put this on a rubber stamp for 90 percent of new reviews.

So Black Panther had a low hurdle to clear, in that respect. The action sequences are the same old stuff, lacking suspense or weight because it's just a bunch of... stuff happening at a uniformly relentless pace.

But as Hong Kong director Peter Chan once said about his own work, Coogler has a "little" film embedded within this behemoth, and it is grander than any of the effects. It's a rich conversation between Africans and African-Americans about our shared burdens, sins, traumas and destiny. It's about weighing how much of Europe and the West's influence we black folk should draw upon when we somehow get a shot at charting our own course free of duplicitous Western business interests (talk about fantasy!). Like Moonlight and Coogler's Locks, it's also about what we see when we look at black boys, and what becomes of black boys who never had an honest chance under a cruel gaze.

With the help of costume designer Ruth Carter, this movie's John Williams, Black Panther also sings of African style through the ages, in the way that, say, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows is really about the baroque spectacle of whiteness. Carter's shapes and colors are more sure-footed than this film's rush-hour approach to picture editing

It's just that the blending of all these stirring themes with Marvel's military industrial pit-fight elements sometimes goes over about as smoothly as Rosey Grier and Ray Milland's surgery in The Thing With Two Heads

Yes, our friend Keith, a white critic, will probably catch Afro-centric hell for pointing out the general pall of hyperviolent formula that keeps Black Panther mud-bound in places where it should be soaring. But such responses to a nuanced reading (pace Collins) of a complicated film are just as silly as the Dark Knight face-paint crowd. Group-think is the villain behind the scenes of every ambitious comic book movie.

As someone far more astute than I on both Black Panther, and great comics in general, where do you place this one in the canon? And tell me something about this "revolutionary" movie where the hero is bringing violent feudalism into the 21st century.

Abrams: At this point, the reader has realized that Boone is not the good cop to my bad cop. Instead, we are both mildly conflicted cops who live on the edge, subsisting on borrowed time, staking out the Lincoln Square Imax for days, never shaving, rarely sleeping, always living in a Pinto-filled Sargasso Sea of greasy Roy Rogers wrappers and Styrofoam coffee cups, sometimes listening to "Ebony and Ivory," etc. 

Anyway. Two things stand out most in your first post. The first is that great Peter Chan quote. I'm not sure that the "little film" buried in the big Marvel film are significantly different. This in turn dovetails with my second source of (minor) disagreement with you: The people with their knives out for Keith's review (which is quite good, and you should read here) are most likely comics nerds who think you have to pass a purity test to be critical or just have opinions about comic book movies. 

Is Black Panther revolutionary enough? That's a question that, in their eyes, can only be answered (usually with uncritical dismissal) by them. Who are we to judge Black Panther? We don't get it. We don't have the Don McGregor back issues in triplicate (I only borrowed Panther Quest from a friend), never read the Christopher Priest run on a monthly basis (actually, this one's untrue), and we sure haven't re-read Jack Kirby's original solo Black Panther issues enough (my trades have been gathering dust, it's true). So why do we get a vote? 

Fanboys: They're like you and me, only they love this one thing more than you and me, therefore they don't like you and me.

Still, you might wonder why I bring fanboys up at all. Mostly because Marvel Studios — and DC Entertainment, too — make one type of movie over and over again, and it's usually about a hero whose sense of security and/or home turf is threatened by outsiders who turn out to have been disenfranchised for one reason another. The villains — guys like the Vulture, Aldrich Killian, Yellowjacket, Obadiah Stane, Whiplash, Malekith, Hela, the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo and now Killmonger — think that they're the real successors to the throne, and are here to challenge our square-jawed hero's claims to legitimacy.  They exist solely to point out that the slippery slope that allows Marvel's heroes to act with impunity also permits their selfish vendettas to be carried out. If you can be a vigilante for good, why can't you abuse those same unchecked powers? Still, the bad guys in all of these cases are bad because, while they once had a semi-legitimate claim to power, they are almost always too brutal and cruel. They don't think of the greater good, but only their right to air petty grievances. They are unfit to bear the burden while men like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Ant-Man and T'Challa are. 

The formulaic nature of these films' narratives serves two purposes: 1) to make the stories as accessible to as general an audience as possible and 2) to flatter fanboys who, on some level, need to have their faith in their favorite characters confirmed over and over. Black Panther builds on Marvel's usual fan-flattering scaffold, but it does so very well. Because it's made by artists who are representing a community that wants to be recognized and celebrated. This movie works because there's a sense of urgency and passion that translates through the amazing costumes, across-the-board great cast and consistently thoughtful characterizations. I could at least superficially understand why everybody does what they do in this movie and that's a major gift when so many of superhero films feel like homogenized cookie-cutter crap, as you kinda put it.

Which brings me to a topic I'd like very much to pick your brain about: the violence in Black Panther. A lot of the action scenes in this film are, like the generalizations I incautiously deployed when outlining the average Marvel movie, very standard. I think that's not just a small shortcoming, but rather a quality that holds a very good film back from being a great film. Don't get me wrong: Coogler and his fight/stunt choreographers and second assistant directors arguably never really break the Marvel mold, but rather impressively build on it. But the one area that they deliver too much of the same ol', same ol'? The fight scenes. We talked about this after the film, but I wonder: What did you think of the action, fighting and chase scenes?

Boone:  Ah, I jumped the gun (or shark or turnstile) regarding what hostile mobs are coming for Keith. Phew, it's only comic book fanboys. He can send them running with one cauldron of hot tap water tossed from the second-floor window.

As for the action onscreen: The least important ingredient in action movies is violence, just as gore is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition in horror flicks. As Trump might say, a lot of people don't know this. The level of thrills and suspense depend on our emotional investment/sensory engagement, but both our investment/engagement and their payoff depend upon a steady, stealthy and sensitive hand at the flow of images.  Part of that flow is determined by action choreography; the rest by camera and picture/sound editing.

I say film editor-essayist Tony Zhao laid to rest the subject of why modern American mainstream films mostly suck at flow and waste vital screen energy (and consequently are in a never-ending tailspin of pre-vized hyperbolic virtual camerawork, CGI damage control and Hans Zimmer-esque Cosmic Fart music) in his Every Frame a Painting Masterpiece: How to Do Action Comedy.

Using Jackie Chan as an exemplar, he basically describes classical film editing technique — not as something we've lost (i.e., of merely sentimental value), but as a timeless implement, the basis of any scene that truly rocks.

So I could pick dozens of dazzling individual key poses from the action scenes in Black Panther, thanks to the soulful stylings of Coogler, Carter, production designer Hannah Beachler and DP Rachel Morrison. The bronze, brown and red majesty of the Dora Milaje snapping into formation for the final battle, for example. But these grand moments, filtered through editing that insists every moment be of equal weight, become flyweight. That we care at all is a testament to Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's script and the charismatic performances. That this film was edited by Michael Shawver, the same man who cut Coogler's immersive elegy Fruitvale Station and the propulsive Creed, suggests studio pressure to cram Panther into its present running time.

In the editing, not even the most tender and pivotal moments are given as much room to breathe as there is in this two-dudes-fighting-with axes scene in the silly Viking movie The 13th Warrior

Clearly because of the relatively uncharted MCU subject matter here, Marvel gave Coogler more leeway to make Black Panther the most personal and conceptually adventurous of all their films. Well, as you mentioned to me in conversation, maybe they should have also given him the reins of the second unit, and time to craft each action beat with a choreographer out to try something new. The shareholders could wait. Yes, I live in my own Wakandan fantasy, where its possible for these giant films to reach "the widest possible audience" by letting a soul filmmaker like Coogler attend to every single shot.

Also: This movie is obliterating box-office records, but they could've added another $200 million in repeat business if they'd shot in true anamorphic – the exact same movie as designed, just captured with anamorphic lenses. But the same goes for Mad Max: Fury Road. Facts.


Armchair Mogul

Abrams: Mr. Mogul: One reason, among many, that I love talking to you about movies is that you take a side swipe at Fury Road moments after praising The 13th Warrior. My man, as Aquaman apparently now says! [Please note: Simon loves Fury Road.]

Your emphasis on technique is much appreciated and thought-provoking. But I think it's important to go back to a key point in your argument: "The least important ingredient in action movies is violence, just as gore is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition in horror flicks." There's a lot to unpack here, and I think it speaks to the one element that I found most jarring about Black Panther. If we are to judge the film as something greater than Marvel's usual rebellion-without-a-cause narrative, then I think it's only fair that we talk about how different its action scenes are. This is mostly because the action scenes are the film's biggest source of spectacle. There's some promising grace notes here and there in Black Panther's action scenes, scenes that are thrilling for the way that actors are posed, and positioned before and during breaks in fighting. But for the most part, the action scenes are choreographed and shot in such a way that I was rarely thrilled by the action or movement itself. 

You've already covered a lot of that in your last salvo. What I want to discuss now is the potential differences in character that these fight scenes reveal. There's a brutality to the violence in Black Panther that's kind of unsettling. It can't just be dismissed as a function of amping up the villainous nature of guys like Killmonger and Klaue (Klaw, in the comics), either. Yes, Killmonger slits a woman's throat. He also murders two of his own accomplices: Klaue and his girlfriend. Black Panther's creators lean hard into the former death by using Klaue's corpse as a pivotal plot point: a bargaining chip that Killmonger uses to negotiate with Daniel Kaluuya's treacherous W'Kabi. 

But what about the stuff that Chadwick Boseman does as Black Panther? There are the numerous casualties that happen off-screen during the Korean car chase (he even cautions his sister that he's not worried about them). And the way that he stabs Killmonger right in the heart. And that scene where he fells a whole platoon of cannon fodder by jumping in the air, and causing a small earthquake with his Vibranium-enhanced/powered cat suit. It's kind of depressing, even though co-creator Jack Kirby always considered T'Challa's physical superiority to be one of his defining traits. After all, T'Challa was designed to be just as strong, if not stronger, than Captain America. 

Still, the blood-less excesses of Black Panther's fight scenes left me cold. These sequences are just as cynical as the fight scenes in Marvel's Netflix shows, especially Daredevil and The Punisher. But there are two reasons I'm more comfortable with the Netflix shows' cruelty. First: There's nothing hidden about that kind of brutality. On Netflix's Marvel shows, which are targeted at more "mature" audiences, the impact of violence is the main thing. This is true in Daredevil's first season, especially when Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk crushes a man's skull by repeatedly slamming it in a car door. Or in The Punisher's first season, where, in order to make Ben Barnes's evil mercenary Billy Russo the villain/property known as "Jigsaw," Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle smashes Russo's face three different ways into a broken carousel mirror. You cannot hide the juvenile nature of this stuff when your fight scenes climax with that much bloodletting.

The second reason speaks more to your points: The Netflix shows generally have better choreography. I know you think choreography is only part of what makes a great action scene. But man, too many modern action films don't realize that choreography is the soil that they need to cultivate to make great action films. If that foundation isn't there, nothing's going to happen! Philip Silvera, Daredevil's fight coordinator, really set the pace for the Netflix shows with his accomplished, dynamic brawling-style mixed martial arts choreography. That guy's work has a personality. 

By contrast, I don't see anything like that in Black Panther. And all those unnecessary extra camera setups, and cutting-ahead-of-the-action edits! What a headache.

But back to the bigger point: Black Panther is the ultimate Marvel Studios film, in the best and worst ways. It's got so much going for it, so many moments where the characters and their world draw you in, that I couldn't help but feel all the more upset that it didn't completely transcend its generic roots. Thought that's probably a naive hope. 

Still, you're not a Marvel guy, let alone a superhero guy. So, Mr. Mogul, what does Black Panther's gigundo box-office success mean for the future? Do you think we're going to get more adventurous films as a result, or at least films where more types of creators are allowed to play with the big companies' toys? Gimme your final thought, Jerry.

Boone: No, I'm not a Marvel guy but I was a Marvel kid, and I still remember when my elementary school handed out some educational edition of Marvel comics featuring Power Man. He's better known these days by his government name, Luke Cage. A black superhero of The People. In that late 70's incarnation, he looked like a fusion of Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. Even though Spider-Man was my favorite, and the only hero whose books I collected, it was a thrill to see a man roughly the color and stature of my father saving the day. The very next comic book I spent my coins on was a proper back issue of Power Man and Iron Fist.

Like our man Mr. Henderson, I love what Black Panther tells children, between the punches. A friend of mine, a confirmed Marvel maniac who happens to be black, took his three sons, ranging in age from 6 to 8, to see Black Panther, and all four walked out high on life. Each of these dudes represents two of the film's target demographics in one soul: African-American and Marvel acolyte. For them, the movie's major plot points resounded as part of the larger MCU master narrative, which, with Infinity War, is approaching closure after 10 years of origin stories and operatic confrontations. They had made the emotional investment in the MCU that I'd made in old standards like Star Wars and Star Trek. And now, their devotion is not only being rewarded, but recognized in a most intimate way.

Inclusion is one thing, recognition is another. One is an allowance, an indulgence, the other an admission of reality.

The corniest line in Nolan's Interstellar never fails to stir my sadness and dream life: "We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."  Traditionally in such sentiments, "we" has implicitly meant white people and the dirt was left to the brown folk.  That's the way we've been given to think about cultural differences along the color line. Earth and sky. It was a misrepresentation that denied not just history, and whole civilizations, but our basic common capacity to dream and feel. 

Black Panther fixes all that.

Nah, just playing. But this film does harness the Marvel enterprise for purposes Huey Newtown and Bobby Seale would respect (not to mention Marcus Garvey and Patrice Lumumba). The Black Panther Party for Self Defense sought to feed the children of its community nutritious food and knowledge. It attempted to build a new way forward on the foundation of young people who knew their history didn't begin in slavery or end in the ghetto. The United States government destroyed that.

For all its concessions to modern style, Black Panther is a very '60s movie whose hero may be royalty, but whose burdens and pitfalls are ultimately those of a Pan-African revolutionary. It leaves T'Challa and his genius sister right where Newton and Seale began: making plans to shepherd self-determination and innovation in America. 

Is it the greatest Marvel movie yet? Anyone who finds that question more pressing than the previous six sentences would probably consider Wakanda to be just another Neverland, like Avatar's Pandora. But some of us have been there.

  • Simon Abrams
  • Steven Boone