In the overstuffed but hugely enjoyable Captain America: Civil War we were introduced to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, who adopts his heroic mantle after the death of his father to wreak vengeance on the man responsible (thought at the time to be Cap’s ol’ mate Bucky, and thank god we cleared that up). The Panther cut a striking figure in his brief but instantly iconic turn, all sleek athleticism and stentorian pronouncements of honour and retribution, but that’s all surface razzle dazzle. Now, in his eponymous solo outing, we get to dig deeper into T’Challa, his world, and his meaning as symbol, and we are not left wanting – although we may be left somewhat exhausted.
He’s a difficult character to sum up, after all. What if Batman was an African king? What if James Bond was black? What if Tony Stark put his incredible technological prowess towards bettering the world instead of building armour? What if The Phantom wasn’t weighed down with a shedload of White Saviour nonsense? The Black Panther is vast; he contains multitudes. It’s perhaps a bit of overcompensation rooted in the character’s creation at the hands of comics giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1966; in making one of the very first black superheroes, they made him the best at everything – he’s a high tech magical ultra-rich super genius who wields massive political power to boot. Thankfully, over the years a multitude of creators, mostly African American, have managed to synthesise T’Challa’s hodge-podge of super-attributes and, more importantly, humanise him, culminating in this take by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed).
And so we have a man struggling with both his place in the world, and his country’s place in the world. The plot sees T’Challa returning to Wakanda to deal with the rites of succession following the murder of his father, T’Chaka (the great South African actor John Kani), and ascend to the throne – a task he feels no small trepidation for. T’Challa’s personal crisis, however, is well and truly overshadowed by our introduction to Wakanda – or should we say WAKANDA; the fictional country makes such an impact, it feels like it deserves all the capslock.
An absolute monarchy, Wakanda’s chief resource is the insanely valuable fictional metal Vibranium (Captain America’s shield is made out of it), not that anyone outside the nation’s borders would know about it. To the outside world, Wakanda is a third world country of little consequence on the global stage, but inside its borders? Flying cars! Towering skyscrapers! Holograms! Nanotech! The works. It’s an afrofuturist near-utopia, rendered in a stunningly vibrant sub-Saharan palate that’s like nothing else we’ve seen on screen before – a mix of traditional indigenous African cultures and the dizzying techno-mythic dreams of Jack Kirby.
Note the use of “near” to modify “utopia” though. Wakanda’s prosperity comes at a cost: absolute isolation and secrecy. There’s little diplomacy, no trade at all, no immigration, and the government is effectively a benevolent dictatorship, built on a deep foundation of tradition and inculcated loyalty. The chief concern of of the film is set up in a prologue flashback in which T’Chaka, in his role as the previous Black Panther, punishes a Wakandan operative gone rogue in America: what is Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world in general, and the African diaspora in particular? Is it just to prosper while you brothers and sisters suffer in American ghettos?
T’Challa’s military regent and right hand man, W’Kabi (Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya) counsels reforming the outside world by force, but traditionalist factions in Wakanda’s power structure prefer the status quo. The largely hypothetical debate gets forced to crisis when the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, a striking and, crucially, understandable antagonist) starts making his move. A special forces veteran and international terrorist, Killmonger knows more about Wakanda than any outsider should – enough to make his designs on the throne a reality by manipulating the culture’s rigid codes of honour and custom. With his kingdom taken from him, Black Panther must gather all his strength and… well, you know how it goes.
With its blend of mysticism and futurism and its concerns with dynastic power struggles, Black Panther resembles nothing so much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune, with T’Challa as the messianic changer of ways at the centre. That’s all macro, thematic stuff, though; Black Panther also sings in the more tangible details. It’s a film that feels alive, taking us into a culture and a situation that feels organic, lived-in and vital, stepping away from the now familiar Asian-by-way-of-Blade-Runner or boy-wasn’t-2001-a-heck-of-a-film visions of the futuristic that have dominated cinema for decades (and let’s not even go near Star Wars).
This includes the characters we meet, and the film does a bang-up job of introducing a packed ensemble, including Okoye (Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead), the fierce traditionalist leader of T’Challa’s personal guard; Shuri (Letitia Wright), his tech-genius teen sister, already a strong contender for breakout character; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) his ex- and no doubt future-girlfriend; political rival turned ally M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a fierce tribe who worship mountain gorillas; lorekeeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). And let us not forget the Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent caught up in all this malarkey, and Andy Serkis having an absolute ball as venal South African mercenary Ulysses Klaue.
They’re all deftly sketched and leave an impression regardless of their screen time, but the film is careful to keep its focus on the battle between Black Panther and Killmonger, and rightly so. Marvel has been justly criticised for defaulting to the “dark mirror” antagonist model too often, but it’s never been better handled than here. Killmonger is a monster, an unrepentant murderer, but his agenda makes sense in the context of his life: orphaned, raised in poverty on the street and then taken into the military like so many African American men before him, and then to be confronted with a black-run paradise he has been unequivocally denied access to, unless he takes it by force. He is, as T’Challa calls him at one point, a monster of their own making, and a remarkably sympathetic one, thanks in large to the charismatic performance from Jordan.
He’s perfectly countered by Boseman’s knowingly regal yet warm and thoughtful portrayal of T’Challa, a man raised in privilege and opulence who knows that the traditions that brought him to such a high position must change for the good of all – something Thor: Ragnarok tackled as well. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, the saying goes, and our hero is troubled by the notion that he must wear a crown at all – surely down the track we’ll be seeing a film dealing with the possibility of Wakandan free elections?
Which all sounds like Black Panther is a rather moribund treatise on globalism, colonialism, and privilege, but never fret, the action kicks well over the requisite amount of ass; indeed, the first act rather plods until we get to a top notch extended action setpiece when T’Challa and company head to South Korea on the trail of some stolen vibranium – a sequence that the 007 crew should be taking notes from, by the way. The whole shebang builds to an epic crescendo, effectively Wakandan civil war – there are Battle Rhinos, team, and you’d have to be pretty jaded not to want to see that. The action never quite hits the level of visceral engagement that Coogler’s boxing matches in Creed did, but perhaps that wasn’t the target; still, there are a couple of moments where the action defaults to “CGI things hitting each other” that rather lets the side down.
There are a couple of tone deaf line readings where the script tries to make its subtext just plain text that feel a little insulting, too, as though the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to pick up what it’s putting down, and one undercuts the power of the emotional climax a little. Which is to say that Black Panther is not flawless – it’s just very, very good. It’s a vision, and a remarkable one; perhaps the most complete on-screen encapsulation of the wild flights of imagination comics are capable of, grounded in astute, modern political sensibilities. See it, see it a couple of times, and marvel (heh) at the idea that, this far into the age of the cinematic super hero, we’re still seeing films this bold, striking and fun.
It is not for nothing that the religious practice of meditation uses concentration upon breathing to still the mind. It is the fundamental activity that is with us from birth until, er, our last breath. Without it we are literally snuffed out. In this touching British drama, the fight for breath and the fight for the dignity of an independent life are artfully fused. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Director Andy Serkis (yes, that Andy Serkis – the protean soul behind Gollum in Lord of the Rings) has his first go behind the camera, and a pretty decent job it is too. The film revolves around the somewhat unbelievable life of Robin Cavendish; it turns out to be the remarkable story of a remarkable man. For once the ‘true story’ element is not just a gesture, it stays with you all along the tortuous but uplifting journey.
Cavendish seems like a quintessential Englishman of a certain era. In the breezy set-up scenes in the 1960s we see him hitting an effortless six at a village cricket game and then snaring his lovely wife Diana (Claire Foy), all before bounding off to Africa to sell tea and make his fortune. In Kenya he plays the role of an imperial trader as effortlessly as he does everything else. It is a rosy-colonial view of Africa, but legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson (Tarantino’s go-to man) makes it look so damn good it is gobsmacking. Ironically, it is in this paradise that things go slightly, and then fully, ‘tits up’.
As usual these days, a film’s trailer will spoil things by showing you how the disease that Simon gets affects his life, and those around him. Without dwelling on that we can say that he shows a kind of heroism that would make most of us feel pusillanimous. Along the way he overcomes understandable despair and, in collaboration with his friends and physicians, makes life better for countless afflicted people both then and now.
Serkis knows better than to get in the way of such a story. He also gets great performances from his cast. Andrew Garfield (whose mixed English/American heritage enables him to pass easily as a stiff upper lipped Brit) manages to make the stereotypes work for him. With this, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, under his belt he seems to be cornering the market in exemplary heroism. Claire Foy (fresh from the TV series The Crown and very much on her way to full stardom) has a role equally close to being unbelievable but she plays so well with Garfield that you buy the whole thing. A couple of scenes that they have together are off the tearjerker scale but don’t kid yourself that you won’t be blubbing along with the rest of them.
Toward the final act of Andy Serkis’s directorial debut Breathe, polio sufferer Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) asks a room of medical professionals in 1970s Germany if he, a disabled person, is viewed as some kind of creature, or as a fellow human being who deserves the same opportunities, dignity and respect as an able bodied person. Robin’s speech not only gives a voice to the thematic focus of the film but also to the realisation that even though Western society has made great strides in the treatment and acceptance of disability in all its forms, there is still a long way to go in removing the stigma altogether. It is this kind of thematic consideration that gives Breathe, an otherwise typical crowd pleasing love story, an extra dimension of relevancy.
It’s the late 1950s and Robin has a very British meet-cute with Diana (Claire Foy) at a cricket match and they quickly fall in love and marry. Before long, Robin is whisking Diana away to Africa where he has a tea brokerage. Then shortly after Diana falls pregnant, Robin is diagnosed with polio and suddenly becomes bed-ridden and hooked up to a respirator, which is the only thing keeping him alive. Returning to Britain, Diana is determined to improve her husband’s quality of life and so begins the couple’s journey toward making innovations to alleviate Robin’s suffering, culminating in the “Cavendish Chair”, a wheelchair with a built in respirator which allowed those with polio to lead more active lives.
Produced by the Cavendish’s son Jonathan to chronicle the contribution his parents made to disability medicine, Breathe was the opening night gala screening for the London Film Festival and, as is usual with the festival’s opener, is an old fashioned period love story which has at its centre an important message about overcoming adversity. Without wallowing in misery porn however, screenwriter William Nicholson peppers the narrative with comedy, portraying Robin and Diana from a position of strength, as people who can find humour in even the direst of circumstances. One gathers this comes from Jonathan’s recollections of his parents, but the levity goes a long way not just in gaining insight into their characters but as a way for the audience to connect with Robin through his disability and not just because of it.
Known more as the greatest motion capture performer working today, it might come as a surprise that Andy Serkis would choose a film about disability innovation as his debut feature but it is worth mentioning that Serkis did play singer/songwriter and polio sufferer Ian Drury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll so he already has an affinity for the subject matter. Luckily, it appears that all that time spent hanging out with Peter Jackson, Matt Reeves, and JJ Abrams has rubbed off on the actor as Breathe is very well polished and put together, if a little pedestrian. It is a compelling story well told, but there is really not much going on under the hood that would elevate the material beyond the comfortably traditional biopic.
The central performances are well balanced, with Garfield and Foy imbuing their characters with enough personality to feel like the real people they are obviously based on and with enough chemistry together to feel their relationship is earned. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough, but the film never asks them to go beyond “British period drama” mode, particularly Hugh Bonneville who has probably shown up because he is required to appear in all British films by Royal Decree. The biggest performance opportunity, unfortunately, is a missed one, with Tom Hollander playing Diana’s twin brothers. Hollander is, as always, terrific, but is given so little to do other than hang around in the background and say a line here and there that it boggles the mind why Serkis didn’t just hire some real life twins.
Breathe brings humour to its worthy subject matter but still treats it with the respect it deserves, highlighting many themes that show how far we have come but also how far we still have to go in our relationship to disabled people as a society. It is a shame that the film isn’t quite as innovative as the people it is portraying and telegraphs its emotional moments heavily. At almost two hours it also begins to drag toward the end but the film still has important things to say right up until its final moments, particularly about the legal issues surrounding euthanasia, if only it found more of an engaging way to get there.
The Planet of the Apes redux has kind of been the quiet achiever of the modern blockbuster milieu, quietly chugging away, putting out pretty great sci-fi adventures every few years, and fading from public consciousness in between releases. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good, smart, and heartfelt origin story for the venerable Apes franchise (which already had one, to be fair, but these days genetic tomfoolery flies much better than time travel). 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes moved the timeline forward, putting us in a post-pandemic dystopia and setting the stage for the final installment: War for the Planet of the Apes.
Except we don’t really get a War, but more of a Running Skirmish, which would certainly make for a less enticing title, if a more accurate one. When we return to our simian apocalypse the nascent Ape Nation under noble chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) is fighting a guerrilla ‘gorilla’ war against a human army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson doing a kind of redneck Colonel Kurtz). When the Colonel kidnaps Caesar’s infant son, Cornelius (!), Caesar and a few of his closest companions, including the wise orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval); the loyal chimp, Rocket (Terry Notary); and the brave gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) head off on a rescue mission, while the rest of the tribe try to make it to a place of refuge far from the combative humans.
One of the key achievements and charms of the modern Apes series is the way it has made us as viewers completely believe in and empathise with non-human characters. Taking advantage of cutting edge CGI and motion capture technology, coupled with the staggering performance chops of Andy Serkis, the series has given us in Caesar perhaps the greatest non-human protagonist in film history, and put him in a world populated by creatures as believable and worthy of investment as himself.
But the thing is, that’s not enough – you have to give such a character something to do, and stakes that feel tangible. It’s enough now, three movies in, to marvel at the technical achievements of bringing Caesar and co. to life – if they weren’t “real” for us already, the whole exercise would be a wasted effort. For all that the “rescue the kid” plot is a sturdy workhorse, it’s not used to particularly good effect here; there’s precious little sense of urgency, and War just plods along, wallowing in its own sense of importance. We get plenty of (furry) navel gazing, some fine speechifying, and a ponderous sense of implacable destiny forcing us into conflict – but precious little action and, lest we forget, action is character.
It’s the little details that keep War alive, rather than the actual main plot. Along the way, Maurice adopts a mute human girl that he names Nova (Amiah Miller), which should give fans of the ’68 Planet of the Apes a little rill of pleasure. More interesting things are afoot in the human camp: for one thing, we have turncoat apes called “donkeys”, remnants of Koba’s rebels from the previous movie, working as scouts and labourers for the humans, in an echo of the Indian scouts of the Plains Wars; for another, there’s a second pandemic on the loose, one that renders humans mute and bestial, which pushes the scenario further towards what we saw in the ’68 Apes.
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t stop the overall film from feeling underwhelming. Other wrinkles, like Steve Zahn’s tiresome comic relief as Bad Ape, a circus monkey turned eccentric hermit, actively detract from proceedings – why are we hanging out with this guy when there’s a kidnapped kid to rescue, a budding civilisation to save, and an apocalyptic battle to be fought?
We do get that battle in the end, but it comes courtesy of a plot machination (one that would be ‘spoilerish’ to divulge) that feels counter to the stated themes that have come before, delivering spectacle but not a completely satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, War for the Planet of the Apes feels more like it’s ticking boxes to get to a foregone conclusion rather than arriving there organically. The film we get is serviceable enough, and it’s never not going to be fun seeing a chimp cavalry charge human infantry, or a gorilla act as the loader on a machine gun emplacement, there’s nothing really being done or said here that wasn’t already covered more effectively in the previous installment.