How Ryan Coogler Could Fix the MCU’s Action Problem

We here at Cinedelphia are incredibly hyped for BLACK PANTHER this week, and so we’re celebrating all week long, leading up to our review on Thursday night! Find the coverage from all week here!

There are a lot of reasons to be excited for Black Panther, many of which I, a white man, would do better to leave the commentary to someone more qualified. And while the progressive reasons to be excited are not at all lost on me, my anticipation is flavored by technical concerns. You see, short of the giant (albeit bland) airport throwdown in Captain America: Civil War, I found the action sequences, specifically the fight scenes, to be abysmal. Heresy, I know, but the front half of that film features a ton of well-conceived action, none of which can be seen.

Subsequent MCU entries have been a mixed bag on that front, and while they are all decent-to-excellent films, there has been a distinct drop in craftsmanship between the current entries and the first wave. This is the result of two things. First, as much as we all hope that putting a distinctive director on an MCU project will change things, these are, by and large, just pieces of the larger MCU tapestry, and too much idiosyncratic flair can be “damaging” to the brand. Secondly, release dates on these flicks exist long before production, and meeting these deadlines takes precedent over things such as rehearsal or thorough action blocking. It is my hope, and my belief, that Ryan Coogler, a craftsman if there ever was one, will buck this trend and reinvigorate the MCU for me in ways that Doctor Strange* and Thor: Ragnarok failed to do.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)
Ph: Film Frame
©Marvel Studios 2018

As it stands, most fight scenes and action sequences in the MCU serve one purpose: excitement. This is all well and good, but as I indicated a few years ago it’s pointless to even have an action sequence if it’s not going to be visible. There is no way to create legitimate excitement without proper use of cinematic language. Furthermore, if there’s no thematic/story weight to an action beat, it had better at least be technically marvelous (or at least functional). Sure, shaky-cam and hyper-cutting are meant to evoke suspense and urgency, but all too often it results in nothing more than a stress headache. And since it’s used to hide lesser choreography at the complete expense of storytelling function, it’s as pointless a “technique” as there is. A viewer could close their eyes until the noise stops and effectively miss nothing of note, so long as they can see who’s still standing at the end of it.

I believe that Ryan Coogler has the skill and the desire to give the action of Black Panther both the technical wizardry it requires and the thematic weight it deserves. Case in point: the single-take boxing match from Creed. Take a look.

This scene is an impressive display of what a great action/stunt sequence requires:

1. Preparation/rehearsal. Being that it is a single take, there is no room for error. There’s no option to cut around sloppy choreography, loose stuntwork, or a poorly blocked camera rig. In order for this match to look real, it had to BE as real as possible. Nothing bugs me more than a super showy visual stunt that was created in post-production by editors and VFX artists that poses as the real deal. Granted, some things simply can’t be done practically or without digital enhancement, and for such things, VFX artists can create true magic. But for an action scene populated by flesh and blood performers, there’s simply no need to lean on your post-production budget. Don’t make it look like you might’ve filmed a fight. Film a fight. It works.

2. Technique sans gaudiness. Yes, Coogler and his team are showing off their skills here, and no, it doesn’t take a trained eye to notice that you’re seeing something outside of the norm, but there’s nothing heightened about what occurs on screen. As the fighters and the camera do their tango, there’s no moment of “check THIS out” which taints so much of modern action cinema. We don’t need to be alerted of the acrobatics on screen, mostly because they’re actually happening. Superhero cinema in general suffers from big showy sequences that are essentially nothing. In the moment, the Hulk v Thor fight in Ragnarok was a blast, but the joy faded as soon as it was done because its showiness was manufactured after the fact. The one-take Creed fight will be burned into my brain until the day I die.

3. Thematic weight. At this point in Creed, we are still getting a feel for Adonis’ skill level. He too is still getting a feel for what it takes to hold his own in a fight. An unbroken take facilitates the furthering of both of these arcs. I am reminded of the book American Psycho, in which there is a five page run-on sentence, employed to describe a foot chase through the city. As a reader, I was unaware of the run-on sentence until its completion, after which point its function became clear: it manifested within me a breathless reading pace that matched the urgency of the chase. Form met function and it tricked me into feeling something rather than just telling me what to feel. Similarly, this single shot gives the viewer a sense of the endurance required to win a boxing match. Typically, a Rocky boxing match follows a simple formula: bursts of cinematic fighting used to punctuate highlight montages. This is almost always a successful way to do things, but it often softens the punishment our fighters take on account of simple time. This is highlighted here. The fight, short as it is, feels exhausting. The break between rounds feels way too short, despite being accurate. The knockout feels hard fought because it is. And at the end of it all, both Adonis and the audience are left with identical thoughts: can this fighter survive a longer match? Can he go the distance? Was this just luck? A lesser filmmaker would’ve left these concerns on the page, but Coogler wove them into the film — told it all through cinema.

So yeah, there are a thousand reasons to get amped for Black Panther, but for my money, watching a talented up-and-coming filmmaker potentially redefine a somewhat stale template, furthermore raising the action bar for future MCU helmers, is the most exciting of all. Hopefully Coogler will step farther out from under the committee than any “auteur hires” the MCU has employed thus far.

*I still maintain that the visual ambitiousness of Doctor Strange blew me away, but Cumby absolutely sucks as the titular character. Worst casting choice I’ve ever seen.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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