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The Brilliance of ‘Black Panther’ Helped It Avoid a Common Tentpole Movie Trap

The outpouring of reactions to Ryan Coogler’s Marvel triumph “Black Panther” is understandable, given that there are any number of things to praise about it. Its world-building is spectacular (I need Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia spinoffs now); it disproves the frustrating, long-held myth that movies starring actors of color don’t perform well all over the world; it is the rare superhero film with an array of well-developed female characters (Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda — just wow); and it is one of the most explicitly political tentpole movies ever (and brilliantly so).

It also had one of the best concluding sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero film. Among its many accomplishments, “Black Panther” understands that psychological stakes matter more than the sheer scale of destruction on screen.

Coogler’s film managed to avoid what I’ve taken to calling the “smashy-smashy” trap — the syndrome that afflicts too many big-budget movies, even some that I otherwise like. In most of these movies, the final 30 minutes consist of escalating smashy-smashy, as the audience is pummeled by ever more ridiculous spurts of rote violence and flames shoot out of just about everything in sight. When a big-budget movie does this, I tend to tune out, just when, theoretically, I’m supposed to care most.

To be clear, when it comes to all the fighting, blood and destruction, my complaint is not about the violence itself — I actually love well-deployed action and mayhem. I’m just bored by how predictable these concluding scenes usually are. Nine times out of ten, a square-jawed hero faces down a powerful bad guy who wants to:

a. destroy a city and/or a whole bunch of human beings we haven’t met (or barely know)

b. destroy Earth

c. destroy the Galaxy

d. something something Infinity Stone

e. all of the above

Can you recall the concluding action sequences in “Thor 2,” “Man of Steel,” or “X Men: The Last Stand”? Probably not all that well — and if you remember them, do you recall feeling anything at the end of those films? It’s unlikely.

Of course, those films had other problems that no explosive-laden third act was going to fix (ahem, “Star Wars” prequels). But death and destruction have been the go-to solutions for too many tentpoles films: If the character development, world-building, and depth are lacking, and you’ve got no way to hide that in the home stretch, just blow s—- up! Create ever-bigger armies of aliens or robots, and take out a few dozen city blocks or planets while you’re at it. That ought to distract the audience.

It can work, up to a point. But an increasing number of us would rather stay home and binge on our favorite TV shows — or watch “Wonder Woman” or “Iron Man” again on our TVs — than hand over our hard-earned money to sit through character journeys that acquire no texture or stories that have not been made relevant in some way — emotionally, psychologically, politically. Explosions and ever-growing armies of CGI monsters can’t make up for the feeling of frantic, empty bloat that accompanies the endings of too many big-budget films. I’d rather watch “Black Lightning” or “Jessica Jones,” thanks.

There are signs that the filmmakers behind big franchises are beginning to shy away from the excesses of smashy-smashy. “Logan” wrapped itself deeply in a thorny, bittersweet journey of redemption. “Rogue One” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” weren’t stingy with explosions, but the deaths of important characters had tragic and elegaic resonance. The “Guardians of the Galaxy” films may indulge in a certain amount of bonkers violence and CGI overkill, but they also provide witty asides, an adorable sentient tree and a foul-mouthed raccoon I would follow into hell.

One reason “Wonder Woman” — which did conform to the formula by featuring a final sequence full of the usual explosions — worked as well as it did was because we understood the cost of both Diana and Steve’s actions. It wasn’t just that the world was at risk — their emotional investments, their beliefs, and their friends were, too. What they did and what they felt in those moments mattered.

And that’s where the brilliance of “Black Panther” comes in. 

[WARNING: “Black Panther” spoilers follow.]

By the time the concluding battle rolled around, I cared about every single core character on that battlefield. Seeing Okoye fight for her rightful king with fury and precision was thrilling. Shuri, the film’s breakout character, showed that she wasn’t just a whiz in the lab — she could engage in high-tech fisticuffs with the best of them.

Nakia was yet another charismatic woman on that field of battle (and if Marvel doesn’t make her the centerpiece of a whole string of her own action-espionage films, it’s leaving a lot of money on the table). It was exciting when M’Baku’s army arrived from the wintry mountains, and I laughed with pure delight when one of W’Kabi’s thundering battle rhinos licked Okoye’s face. A battle sequence that takes time to deftly insert a humorous moment — one that doesn’t undercut but reinforces the humanity of the combatants — is a thing of beauty.

And I may have had my doubts about Erik Killmonger’s methods, but his goal — to have Wakanda help free oppressed people of color all over the world — was not trivial, nor is it one that Killmonger, a son of Wakanda himself, arrived at lightly. Killmonger’s death was meaningful to T’Challa and spoke deeply to the film’s themes of liberation, autonomy, and frustration, and their exciting fight was followed by that graceful and compassionate death scene.

In “Black Panther,” the stakes mattered all the way through the film, but especially at the end — to the characters, and to me. That’s how these movies are supposed to work.

It wasn’t about the size of the battlefield, the fate of the entire cosmos or the villain’s faintly ridiculous agenda. These men and women were battling each other to save and defend their world. The beliefs and loyalties they acted on were compelling, thoughtfully presented and made sense. Thanks to top-notch performances, writing, and direction, what the characters were fighting about on that golden plain drew me deeper into Wakanda.

And I can’t wait to visit again.

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