Sunday, November 25, 2018

LEARNING FROM THE PAST: "Creed II" Is A Crowd-Pleasing Legacy Film That Resoundingly Stands On Its Own.

“It is unfortunate that in most cases the sins of the father
fall on the son…people refuse to forgive and forget and heap past wrongs upon
innocent generations.”

-          E.A. Bucchianeri

“We are born with our father’s names. We are not
responsible for their failures. We are responsible
for what they made us believe in. That is our only obligation. And it is
even then a choice which we may sometimes be wise to ignore.”

-          Warren Eyster

Legacy; a weighted that comes to roost in all individuals at some point in their lives. It is measured in every walking step of life, either evolving or crumbling with every passing second even if it is not a conscious consideration until much later in life. It is either something we create, destroy, live up to, or live down. “Legacy” indeed weighs heavily in Creed II, and it is explored and examined in a surprisingly deep and affecting way.

Of course, first and foremost, the film is either 1) the latest installment of a cinematic legacy; begun way back with Rocky (1976); or 2) the second of its own franchise, working to live up to the promise the film Creed hinted at. Either way, this film is the result of those legacies and cannot but help to bear their burdens.

Creed II is the sequel to what is considered the most disposable of the Rocky films. Thirty years after the events of Rocky IV, we learn that Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has lost everything as a result of his defeat at the hands of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who returns to the role yet again and serves as a producer and screenwriter). Abandoned by both wife and country, he is an embittered-in-exile pariah whose only hope of redemption rests in his son Viktor, a heavyweight contender who is a match for his father in his prime. When Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally wins the heavyweight championship title, the Drago clan challenges him for it. For the Dragos, it’s a chance to restore honor to the family name.  For Adonis Creed, it is the opportunity to confront his legacy head on, bearing the face of the family that killed the father he never knew, Apollo (Carl Weathers, whose presence is felt in the film even though he is not).

One doesn't need to have seen the previous Rocky or Creed films to enjoy this one, as it's structured in such a way that a layperson can easily follow. By the same token, however, the film is dramatically bolstered by that cinematic history. While the film follows the tried-and-true Rocky formula to a certain extent, director Steven Caple, Jr., along with screenwriters Sascha Penn, Juel Taylor, and Stallone tweak it so that the end result feels fresh. But then, the Creed films as a whole are more Rocky and Rocky Balboa than Rocky II – V. The film is a raw and more human presentation, and not  just because of its “street” undertones. Caple's direction is filled with close ups, lending itself to an immediacy and intimacy that reaches the viewer on a more personal level. It’s rich in characterization and, though the fight ring choreography is engaging and brutal, the real conflicts are internal as each character wrestles not only with the legacy they leave behind, but that of the seeds they plant.

Furthermore, each character is broken in some fashion and are trying their best to make do with the pieces. Most impressive is that while they are the film’s antagonists, the Dragos are not villains. While Drago still harbors no remorse for killing Apollo, his failure has defined his life and has made a casualty of his son. Conversely, Viktor wants to redeem his father and his name. In fact, their inclusion in the proceedings make this film superior to the first Creed, as they provide a defined focus the first film lacked.

On the flip side, Rocky is yet-again estranged from his son Robert (Milo Vetimeglia) and has no desire to again cradle the broken body of a Creed. At the center of all this is Adonis, still trying to balance being his own man and living up to his father’s legacy, while wrestling with the prospect of history repeating itself, and all this even as he and his lover and partner Bianca (Tessa Thomspon) work to find their footing as a couple while maintaining their individuality.

The narrative borrows beats from Rocky II and III (especially the former) to push the story forward, yet they're tweaked so that they don’t come across as hackneyed rehash. The downside is that the pace slows considerably in the middle. But this is one of those cases were “slow” doesn’t equate to “uninteresting”. There’s no navel gazing here, but instead successful investment of character that makes the slower-paced moments bearable if not involving. When the action comes, it comes with an uncompromising in-your-face brutality that reminds us that violence is not a pretty, choreographed thing. Kudos to the sound department for engendering wince-inducing effects that the audience is made to viscerally experience with each punishing blow. Unlike Balboa, who was practically superhuman at the apex of the film series, the underdog Adonis is more flesh and bone here, and he is made vulnerable in body and spirit more affectingly than Stallone was. Jordan’s acting ability is nothing short of phenomenal given his ability to evince the vulnerability behind his tough fa├žade.

Yet this film is equally Stallone’s, wearing his second-go-around as a supporting character as comfortably as Rocky’s old hat and jacket. The weight of his years and legacy hang over Rocky’s still massive frame, a man who’s still trying to find his place in a world that is no longer his, and not wanting to see the mistakes of the past resurge. The moment when he comes to realize why Mickey walked away from the Clubber Lang challenge in Rocky III is nothing short of sublime. For all the knocks Stallone has gotten throughout his career, it’s easy to forget that he always considered himself an actor first and strived to live up to that designation. His old friend and sparring partner Lundgren is even more revelatory here. His Drago is, given his culture, upbringing, and circumstances, a hardened yet broken man. He says little, but his mannerisms speak volumes. There are two poignant scenes that strip the character down and subvert the audiences' sympathies. The same can be said for Florian Munteanu as the Viktor, the gargantuan wrecking machine…one who was not made so by cutting-edge Soviet sports science, but by the in-the-trenches grit and determination of his father. He, too, is not all that he seems, and his true motivation for wanting to take Creed down also flips the script sympathetically. 

Tessa Thompson, who continues to impress in both acting and her set of pipes, is equally compelling as Bianca. While hers is a supporting role, her character stands equal to that of Creed’s. Though she never played the part in the original films, Phylicia Rashad commands the Mary Anne Creed character (and the screen) as if she’s always played it, imbuing the character with the actress’ own innate dignity and grace. Rashad's Mary Anne celebrates the Creed legacy even as she is a casualty of it, and grounds the film with the perspective of a mother who stands to lose another one of her men,  but with the strength of steel herself for the outcome and survive it.

The film is also a celebration of the franchise’s rich legacy, recalling poignant moments in Rocky’s life, as well as peppering it with little Easter eggs here and there (Hi, Cuff and Link!). Yet it still manages to stand as its own entity. It is a film of both regret and redemption, of condemnation and celebration. Yes, some of it is formulaic, but it is by no means predictable…at least, not completely, and it does so to such an extent that this reviewer recommends bringing a set of handkerchiefs to the theater. Trust me, they’ll be necessary. This film honors it's legacy even as it modifies it and, at the same time, forges its own.

Creed II is a quality legacy film that only seems like pop fluff on the surface. It is so dense and thematically rich that this review couldn’t even begin to dig deep enough for analysis. Despite a meandering middle, it is a rousing and satisfying film filled with surprising acting performances. It celebrates its cinematic past while leaving the viewer wondering what tomorrow will bring. The past is not disposable, the future is promising, and that will be this film’s legacy.

*Special thanks with gratitude to Ian Morris for proofing assist. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

STOLEN HOURS: While It Has Its Charms, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" Is Anything But Magical

I'm sure you've heard some iteration of the following phrase before: "That's ___ hours of my life I"ll never get back." When that statement's uttered, the somewhat humorous implication is clear: time was stolen.  It's practically a crime. And, speaking of crimes, the Fantastic Beasts sub-franchise is a cash grab, plain and simple.

Ok...all attempts at snarky thematic humor aside, the above statement is less indictment than it is statement of fact.

After all, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" creation has become a pop-culture juggernaut, remarkably achieving in a twenty year or so span a level of beloved notoriety that rivals that of a certain mouse; not to mention filling the coffers of not just Ms. Rowling, but Bloomsbury Publishing, Scholastic Press, and Warner Bros., among others. The fact that the original "Potter" story was wrapped up in a tidy little bow in both print and film, was not going to deter the possibility of milking this particular cash cow for all its worth. It's to be expected these days, as shared cinematic universes are part of the current cinematic zeitgeist. Further, there isn't anything wrong with it, so long as what is being presented has not only maintains the quality of it's previously successful entries, but it's established lore as well.  Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald lacks in both departments

Taking place sometime after  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in quite a pickle. Under unwanted scrutiny from the Ministry of Magic, he's allowed the opportunity to travel abroad only if he accepts the offered position of Auror; a position he vehemently despises. Add to that that his childhood sweetheart, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) is about to marry his high-ranking Auror Brother Theseus (Callum Turner), and that Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) is cooler than a Dementor towards him, the normally-flummoxed Newt is practically discombobulated. Oh, the evil Gellert Grendelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and is hot on the trail of the "lost boy" Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who holds the key to Grendelwald's ascension to power, and Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger) are in the midst of a domestic dispute.

Given all that director David Yeats, working from the noted-author’s screenplay, has a lot to juggle. It’s clear that Rowling is keen on expanding her Potterverse by world building a part of its past. However, unlike her original “Harry Potter” novels, which showed meticulous care and great attention to detail in every page with an organic flow, the script and presentation are cursory and haphazard due to the fact that the film tries to cram too much at once. As such, noted callbacks to the original story seem more an exercise in ersatz “name-dropping” as it is actual plot development. Further, die-hard Potter purists are sure to get their wands bent when the script plays the retcon game, and much of the action, while spectacularly rendered, lacks the weight necessary to hold much interest as it unfolds. Unfortunately, this carries over into the characters as well, as their motivations and presentation are so muddled that one could care less how the climax affects them. For example, the film violates the “show don’t tell” narrative rule frequently, allowing for some head-scratching developments. Perhaps Ms. Rowling will address them in the inevitable sequels. Perhaps not. The fact that the viewer is left to fill in the blanks on their own is a major weakness; egregiously so for those not chapter-and-versed in the Potterverse.

But, again, the film is not without its charms.  Redmeyne’s socially-awkward, absent-minded professor shtick as “Newt” continues to charm even the most jaded movie-goer, so much so that the film lacks when he is not on-screen.  Equally as missed, due to the fact that she doesn’t appear until much later in the film, is Katherine Waterston’s “Tina”. Their chemistry together is beguiling and sweet, and serves as reminder that theirs is a journey of equals, two parts of a whole struggling to find each other. Dan Folger’s fish-out-of-water comedy misses more than hits, but his character’s good-natured and well-meaning presence still lightens the mood, even if his and Sudol’s story arc is less than satisfactory. Ezra Miller is fascinating actor to watch, even if one is not quite aware of what he’s doing…which fits his character of "Credence". Jude Law’s take on an earlier version of a familiar character is all his own yet slyly hints at the individual he’s destined to become. Controversial though the casting was, Johnny Depp hangs up the proverbial phone and turns in a sinuous, charismaticly-arresting performance as the film’s big bad who acts as analogue to the current socio-political landscape, and adds a chilling element to his performance. If he had done this in his other established franchise, he might have not risked losing that gig.* Unfortunately, Zoe Kravitz is left with the short end of the stick. Her "Leta" never seems to rise above stock, despite her connections to both the main character as a piece and the universe as a whole. Yet to varying degrees each character is a victim of the busyness of the script.

Artistically rendered, it is a beautiful film to watch. The sets are evocative of early Disney, wherein one could feel themselves transported to a land of pure imagination.**The special effects, while still weak when it comes to kitchenware, improves with each film; especially the fantastical beasts who have such personality to make one wish they existed in real life. James Newton Howard’s score carries the film, blending original orchestrations with call backs to John William’s beloved score, carrying the film as it should, even keeping the more lackluster sequences buoyed.

But the film is, ultimately, “damn[ed] by faint praise.” While it does have good elements, The Crimes of Grindelwald is the weakest entry of all the Harry Potter universe films. In truth, it fails to deliver on the faint promise delivered by the first Fantastic Beasts. Thus, it robs the audience of its expectations, and that is the biggest crime this film could perpetrate.

*Though other factors are mitigating that possible casting decision.
**Statement cribbed from a non-Disney film. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

GRRRR...EIGHT: "Ocean's Eight" Is An Enjoyable Film In It's Own Right.

The Ocean's Eleven reboot series of films, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others, was a successful franchise under the auspices of Steven Soderbergh. After the untimely demise of beloved cast member Bernie Mac, it was agreed among the cast that they could not continue the franchise without him, ending their run with 2007's Ocean's Thirteen. However, Hollywood isn't known for letting a good idea (and potential profit) go to waste. Thus, the reboot/spin-off Ocean's Eight is born, the concept retooled with an all-female main cast. A risky proposition, given the reception of the previous all-female reboot/spin-off of Ghostbusters (2016) both in terms of box office and opinion. The risk here was worth it. Eight stands as its own entertaining entity even as it respects and pays homage to the films that came before. 

Upon her release from prison after having been framed for a crime she (for once) did not commit, grifter Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney) devises a plan to pull of a multi-million dollar jewelry heist from the upcoming Met Gala. To pull it off, she enlists the aid of her bestie Lou (Cate Blanchett), and associates Amita (Mindy Kaling), 9-Ball (Rihanna), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Constance (Awkwafina), and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter) to pull the job. And if she can get some payback while doing so, so much the better. 

The previous Ocean films ostensibly represented flash and style, but this film make them seem frat boy-ish in comparison. The main actresses carry themselves with an aplomb that distinguishes them from the original cast (yes, even among the octet's more urbane members). Of course, this could be a carry-over effect given the film's setting (the sophisticated New York art scene replaces the Las Vegas flash and dash), but it helps to cement this series as it's own entities, even if a couple of cameos give a respectful and poignant nod to what came before. Even franchise composer mainstay Daniel Pemberton's orchestrations give the film a musical identity that stands on its own even as it peppers it with acoustical tribute to its cinematic beginnings. 

The film has a brisk yet understated pace, bolstered by an intelligent script that manages to make a complicated heist easy to follow. Director Gary Ross focuses on character building moments which manage to remain as entertaining as the heist itself. In fact, it's the characterization that fuels the plot. Bullock's Debbie Ocean has a countenance of marble and a poise of cool detachment which belies the simmering emotions that seethes beneath the exterior. Blanchett's Lou is brash and serves as perfect counterpoint to her sister from another mister. The rest of the cast is entertaining, but the standouts are Bonham-Carter as the off-center and teetering on financial ruin fashion designer, Rihanna as the hacker with the devil-may-care attitude, and especially Anne Hathaway as the Hollywood It Girl de jour who is not quite what she seems; her performance being one of the film's highlights. The film has its shares of laughs, though not to the extent of the previous entries. By the same token, it's still joyous as it never takes itself too seriously. The cast must have had a great time shooting the film because it shows in the performances. If there are any weaknesses in the film, it's the lack of dramatic urgency which a bit of swapping of scene positions in the narrative could have addressed. While it might mar the film, it doesn't derail it. The energy among the cast, replete with surprise cameos that celebrate women of film outside of this series, makes it a pleasure to watch.

In sum, it would be a crime not to steal away some time to experience Ocean's Eight as it's a smart heist film that does justice to what came before, while showing promise for what is to come. Hollywood can't let go of a good thing, and Eight is a very good thing. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND: "Avengers: Infinity War" Is What A Super Hero Ensemble Should Be

Ten years.

Nineteen films.

Myriad characters whose adventures we've followed and whose personalities we've come to know as well as ourselves. Flawed individuals who've come together even as they've bickered among themselves, walking separately and together on the long and winding road that marked them as earning the mantle of  "hero".

A road that has led to Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War is the first half of a culmination of a decade’s worth of cinematic world building. As such, the pressure was on not just Anthony and Joe Russo (and at least 14 credited screenwriters) to deliver, but for all the actors as well. Infinity War is both the end of a beginning and the beginning of an end. If that sounds operatic, then its a designation that befits the film.

After years of subplots and teases, the mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally makes his bid to collect the Infinity Stones, gems of power which have been peppered throughout the Marvel film narrative. Once collected, Thanos will use the stones to impose galactic cleansing on a universal scale, wiping out life everywhere. It will take the combined might of practically all the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to attempt to stop him…though not without bitter sacrifice and loss.

The Russo Brothers have clearly learned from their missteps in Captain America: Civil War (2016). There are no shoehorned narrative hiccups here. The story kicks off immediately after the events of the tonally-different Thor: Ragnarok (2017) with the speed and power of a rocket launch and, despite moments of quiescence here and there, does not let up. The action and story are so compelling one is barely aware of the two and a half hour run time. It’s visually stunning, narratively arresting, and cannily polished; perhaps too polished for the Marvel Studios naysayers who decry the studio’s “play-by-the-numbers” policy. But the films' flaws are conversely its’ strengths: it’s operatically epic, filled with the bombast and sturm und drang that one expects of an “end of the world” fable. Whether it’s one’s cup of tea or not is based solely upon the viewer’s taste and perspective. 

Polished it may be, but "safe" it isn't. From the first few minutes of the film, the directors establish that there are no sacred cows and that the phrase of the day is “anything goes”. As befitting the culmination of years-long universe construction, the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been and the fallout is sure to drop. As Steve Rogers’ (a bearded and resolute Chris Evans) disgraced uniform signifies, the film portents dark times. Yet his bearing and carriage also signify the hope and resoluteness that viewers have come to expect, not just from him, but of all the Marvel heroes in varying degrees. Alan Silvestri’s score enhances the contrast between the light and the dark, at turns portentous and uplifting. In truth, there is no “by the numbers” in this one…to a degree (to say more would be to spoil more).

An ambitious ensemble piece like this had more likelihood to crumble and fall under the weight of its sheer star power alone. Instead, the actors’ commitment to the film and the Russos’ direction show that, unlike another ensemble wannabe epic illustrated, it’s not the numbers of the players, but the construction of the playbook. And epic, it is. The story moves across a myriad worlds and landscapes, each sub-story working in service of the main one with hardly a one feeling ancillary. The weight of the stakes, and their costs, feel real in this film than they haven’t in a previous Marvel film. It is as emotionally charged as it is visually hypnotic. The visuals are so spot on they deserve the IMAX and 3-D treatment. So much goes on that it teeters on Avengers fatigue (and not of the sort implied by a noted director). It’s may look exhausting, but the film is as exhilarating as any super hero film has any right to be.

Further, Infinity War bears repeat viewing. There’s so much spectacle on the screen that moments of subtle import are lost in the shuffle. Character lines foreshadow character moments in a way that hit subconsciously in an effective manner (one moment in particular in the film’s climax comes to this critic’s mind. It won’t be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, it was an unspoken rebuttal to a previous statement that gave the film more power and import than it would have had alone. It was an unexpected example of brilliant storytelling). For all its character numbers and ratcheted action, character development is not sacrificed. Previous subplots from the preceding films are touched upon; some satisfactorily, some less so (but could be forgiven if addressed in next year’s as yet untitled Avengers film), but all respectfully and completely in character. It would be unfair to single out any of the approximately 64(!) main characters of this film here as they all bring their >ahem< “A” game. Yet the revelatory performance here is Brolin’s. It’s not incorrect to say that in all of Thanos’ previous appearances (save for the end tag of the first Avengers, who was played in profile by actor Damion Poitier), implied a standard, two-dimensional megalomaniac waiting behind the scenes. Now front and center, he is surprisingly three dimensional (realistic CGI notwithstanding). He’s a resolute man of singular purpose with, as with all Marvel films in the back half of their run, a totally topical and identifiable reason for his actions even if his methods of addressing same is anathema to anyone with a whit of sanity. Years ago, there was a news story detailing a real life genocidal dictator who showed love and affection for his dog; a marked and incongruous contrast between human being and mass slaughterer. In this fictional universe, Brolin manages to evince the same effect, making his moments of merciless brutality seem even the more terrifying as a result. On top of that, it’s this level of villainy that raises the stakes and, in contrasts, bolsters the actors’ performances as the heroes even further. If there were an MVP award for films, Brolin easily takes it here (while Peter Dinklage would win for “most ironic, tongue-in-cheek casting”).

As aforesaid, to say more would spoil more. In this day and age of the almighty entity known as “The Hype”, it is more the case than not to say that very rarely do event films live up to the hype leading up to it. Avengers: Infinity War is a successful exception to that expectation. As aforesaid, it’s no secret that there is one more Avengers film slated with this cast which tells the rest of the story. Yet for all that knowledge, this film is completely satisfying and successful on its own merits. For all its “darkest before the dawn” aesthetic, it is the first of a celebration of an experiment that began with a previously-disgraced actor in an iron suit. The pay-off is there successfully on the screen. Don’t war with yourself. Avengers: Infinity War is a must see. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

IN THE BLACK: Marvel's "Black Panther" Tells A Familiar Story In A World All Its Own. [POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS]

If The Lion King and Rocky III had a love child, it would be Black Panther.

Stop me if you've heard this one: A reigning champion is challenged for the title. The champion defeats all lesser comers, unbeknownst to him that his right hand is harboring a dangerous secret; one that manifests itself as formidable, angry challenger who threatens to expose the champion as a fraud and wrest from him all that he holds dear....

To say any more would spoil the entire film. Despite major differences, the film is a beat-for-beat structural retelling of a 1983 classic...yet given that director Ryan Coogler helmed the Rocky spin-off Creed (starring Michael B. Jordan, who appears here as "Erik Killmonger"), he would be well versed in Rocky lore. The third film in that series has been referred, in certain circles, as "the perfect super hero film", so the fact that the film's skeleton mirrors the other so closely is not an indictment (save for the element of predictability that bogs it down), nor is it an unfair comparison either, since both structurally (and, quite honestly, the structure of most Marvel Studios films to date) are steeped in mythology. The Heroes' call to arms, their rise, their fall, their "death", their "rebirth"...universal themes that are shared across cultures, but rarely with such resonance cinematicaly as here given that Africa is steeped in it. It treats the Panther, both as character and myth, as an entity unto himself, despite any superficial resemblance to characters that came before it like "Batman" or "The Phantom". 

Black Panther is a celebration of Africa and its culture in design, dress, and presentation...all of which is embodied in Chadwick Boseman's "T'Challa", King of Wakanda, giving a performance that is by turns confident and unsure when required, befitting a "hero's journey". The film is also a treatise on the importance of birthright, dignity, duty, honor, and family (themes that mirror the above-mentioned Disney animated classic), while not shying away from the issues of ignorance, marginalization, and racism. The Black Diaspora is referred to but not directly addressed as this is, first and foremost, a super-heroic fantasy. However, it is infused in the narrative without browbeat; a testament to the film's narrative technique, despite a clumsy third act before the film's climax.

The film not only addresses racial equality, but gender as well. As capable, charismatic, and dignified as Boseman is in the role, it's the women who steal the film right from under him. Letitia Wright plays "Shuri", T'Challa's sister and chief technological scientist (succinctly put, she's Wakanda's "Q"). Her fraternal relationship with T'Challa rings true. Danai Gurira trades katana for spear as "General Okoye", leader of the Wakandan guard, and wields it, and her role, in effortless, commanding fashion. Her presence is kinetic, and when she's not onscreen her absence is palpable. Lupita Nyong'o's "Nakia" is no damsel-in-distress, but a capable individual who stands as equal to the Panther. While Angela Bassett as "Ramonda" makes clear which side of the family T'Challa got his regal bearing from (and, not for nothing, but at fifty something, Bassett here looks and acts more like the X-Men's "Storm" more than Halle Berry ever did). The "Mickey Goldstein/mentor" analogue is shared between two characters, "T'Chaka" (John Huri) and "Zuri" (Forrest Whitaker), and they fulfill their roles adequately. The two major Caucasian actors, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, reprising their roles of "Ulysses Klaue" and "Everett K. Ross" from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, respectively, take the polar opposite positions of enemy and ally. While they are instrumental in moving the plot forward, they take a back seat wherein other films they would be front and center...something else that sets this film apart.

Marvel films of late from Age of Ultron on (with the arguable exception of Ant-Man) have endeavored to put to rest the studio's stigma of weak villains. The recent trend being menacing villains with goals so relatable as to invoke sympathy. It's a fine line to walk to have a an effective baddie whose actions are deplorable yet whose motivations are completely understandable, if not justified. In this sense, Jordan's "Killmonger" stands toe-to-toe with, if not slightly edges out, Michael Keaton's "Vulture" or Daniel Bruhl's "Zemo". His character's rage is the aspect most reminiscent of Rocky III, but unlike Mr. T's "Clubber Lang", Killmonger's rage is more atavistic, personally motivated, and focused. But he's not a two-dimensional character, for Jordan takes what could have been a stock villain archetype and infuses moments of nuance and vulnerability. This film, combined with Creed, shows an actor of remarkable depth and versatility that can play either side of the moral coin. A hero is only as good as his villain, and while Boseman is quite good as the title character, it's only when he's paired up with Jordan that his performance truly crackles. Special note must be made of Winston Duke as "M'Kabu", the "Thunderlips" of the film and, like Hulk Hogan, just as contradictory: menacing yet a source of much needed comedic relief.

Marvel Studios banked on this film, and it shows. Visually, the film pops (with only two instances where the CGI was wonky enough to take one momentarily out of the film), taking advantage of the film's settings to make each location stand out in vibrancy. The movie's score and soundtrack, Ludwig Goransson with music by Kendrick Lamar (among others), capture the African cultural aesthetic both traditional and modern, further individualizing the other films under the Marvel banner even as it remains firmly within that shared universe.

Black Panther in many ways is a standard Marvel film, with its expected conventions firmly in place. But in many other ways, Black Panther is its own entity, and a triumph as it dismisses and rises above both expectations and confines of what is expected of a "black picture". Not a whiff of the blacksploitation era is evident here. These are fully realized, human characters (despite their over-the-top superheroics), who happen to be of a certain nationality and culture. It embraces that even as their characters struggle with the idea of opening it up to a world that sadly still has not caught up with the ideologies of equality and brother/sisterhood. But for all its significance, it never loses sight of the fact that it is supposed to be a fun, fantasy adventure. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, even at their most serious, as there is an infectious joie de vivre infusing the film that the audience cannot help getting caught up in.

Recently, a black super-hero renaissance in live-action has started to emerge. While Wesley Snipes' Blade has not been given its appropriate due in spearheading it, the rise of such characters as "Black Lightning" and "Luke Cage" has shown that there is a market for heroes of color. Black Panther will certainly cement it. It's not a perfect film structurally, and its politics will leave some moviegoers cold (but that will be a commentary to their own prejudices rather than the film itself). Black Panther is not only a must-watch, but it is also a cultural touchstone (even if the story itself doesn't match that weight). The fact that it was made at all is a testament to that, and it's a step in the right direction.