One doesn't expect too much from a superhero flick: clever violence, gadgets filled with next-gen whirring and purr, a bodice-clinging cape or two, and arresting villains lashed with wit and voluptuous plots. Ideally, there's even a charismatic hero or heroine whose unearthly powers, exercised in defense of honor and realm, inspire one to theoretical feats of civic-minded derring-do. It also shouldn't make you barf. In other words, mass-market cinema has a low bar to cross; a bar for children's playgrounds, and the perverts and midgets who frolic there; a bar with Pat Boone on the jukebox and three kinds of milk on tap.
But watching the runaway hit Black Panther I found myself gagging and enraged. The movie itself is so mediocre, joyless, and clichéd that it merits no more than a bored hiccup, let alone the klaxon-blaring, all-glands-on-deck vomit launch thundering in my torpedo tubes.
In retrospect the signs of colossal disappointment were obvious: a rousing 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; $404 million its first weekend, the third biggest opening in history; social media tweets and tremors proclaiming the movie a cultural, cinematic, and metaphysical sensation, a la the hula hoop, Russian bots, and Hillary Clinton, patron saint of women and rapist husbands.
Manohla Dargis of the NY Times gushed (apparently with a straight face): "A jolt of a movie, Black Panther creates wonder with great flair and feeling partly through something Hollywood rarely dreams of anymore: myth." Yes, Dargis lives in the dank wormy loam beneath the tombstone of ignorance that is the NY Times, but this is nonsense even by those vile standards. Actually, Ms. D, Hollywood does nothing these days but churn out rehashed, PC tripe about Good vs. Evil, Dark vs. Light, Wet vs. Damp, Genderless Vegan Baristas vs. AR-15-Wielding Pre-Pubes. It's fascinating that a major critic at a major newspaper can ignore the infinitely expanding Star Wars franchise, the Lord of the Rings, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, the Avengers, Batman, Thor, The Shape of Water, Captain America, James Bond, Mission Impossible, the Jason Bourne army of sequels and spin-offs, the Godfather trilogy, Blade Runner 2049, Star Trek, etc., etc.?
Another ludicrous review was from industry rag Empire, which remarked: "[Director] Ryan Coogler gives the Marvel template a bold auteurist twist with an African extravaganza that packs a muscular intensity and challenges as much as it exhilarates."
Complete bollocks. Bollocks piled on top of bollocks and injected with pure liquid bollocks.
The film's about as auteur as a 15-second TV ad shouting: "Zero percent-financing-no money-down-year-end Honda sale. Visit the Sales-A-Bration now!" El Greco who? Except the sales and hucksterism do last. Forever. Like toxic sludge spewing from Fukushima. Or the sound of leaf blowers in a suburban hellhole.
Here's an example of the "auteur" at work. Black Panther is about the high-tech wizardry of a blacks-only idyllic area/country called Wakanda. Despite being happy, wealthy and peaceful, the Wakandans raise giant rhino-beasts that can be armored and used in combat. Great idea, except it's a complete rip-off from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where villainous Orcs ride into the fray atop colossal bloodthirsty wolves called Wargs. The terrifying dog-beasts make sense in the context of Middle Earth, where arrows, swords and magic spells define state-of-the-art weaponry. But why would the advanced civilization of Wakanda, (with its pulse beam weapons, holographic camou, and space ships) depend on lumbering odd-toed ungulates in battle? They wouldn't. It's nonsense enough to make Kurosawa and Kubrick soylent green.
But in the empire of lame critics, The Atlantic's Christopher Orr somersaults to first place, stating: "The arguments Black Panther undertakes with itself are central to its architecture, a narrative spine that runs from the first scene to the last."
How much did this fool get bribed to write such lobotomized drivel? The film is a $200 million cartoon, not a steel-cage match between Heidegger and Socrates. Mr. Orr's so-called "arguments" are this: a new king must be appointed (and anointed) in a sophisticated space-age civilization hidden beneath the holographic veneer of the worst third world shithole on the planet (the film's premise, not mine). Not a queen, a king. Not a transgender MTV spokes-mammal with polyamorous nips the size of Pygmy babies and/or Watusi spearheads, but a king. Feminists, where art thou? It's enough to make Rachel Maddow switch to a straight razor to keep her stache in shape!
Needless to say, and keeping with the revolutionary nature of this myth-busting monstrosity, the new Wakanda lord's ascension requires hand-to-hand combat, a few Busby Berkeley-meets-Zulu dance numbers, faerie dust, a tree full of afterlife panthers, murder, death, a by-the-numbers car chase scene, a cardboard cut out of a space fighter dog fight, evil honkies, wise tribal elders, street scenes akin to a peaceful farmer's market run by benevolent Black Lives Matter functionaries, and a Korean mama-san casino scene. (Because, you know, we've never seen a roulette wheel or high stakes poker game in a studio movie before.)
The acting is also wooden and evocative of dust mites floating in a DMV lobby, save for the comparatively enjoyable arch villain, played by Michael B. Jordan from The Wire. Jordan's character goes by the subtle name of "Erik Killmonger." Fritz Lang is no doubt twisting with envy in his grave.
Speaking of lovingly-crafted PC scenes that strangle themselves in masturbatory cliché, the movie opens on kids playing basketball in Oakland. And like a fine example of Stalinist propaganda, it closes on the same patch of squalid asphalt, now fragrant with the possibility that the invisible kingdom of Wakanda will ride to the rescue on spaceships and horned beasts, to grow flowers in the urban desert. A noble aspiration, but told with all the subtlety and artifice of a half-built freeway onramp reaching, armless, towards the desperate embrace of L.A.'s exhaust-choked 405.
What makes Wakanda special and highly evolved? It has vast deposits of a super mineral called "Vibranium," which can power rockets, grow crops, provide endless clean energy, and also keep the kingdom hidden from whitey's prying eyes. A few years ago James Cameron used something called "Unobtanium" as the miracle tonic in a little blockbuster called Avatar. This is what passes in the mainstream for the work of an auteur these days.
Where's Superman when we need him?
So, like . . . two stars out of four?
More like a thimble of fish spittle out of an ocean of reality show tears.