Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther


Directed by Ryan Coogler.
2018. Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.
Cast:
Chadwick Boseman
Michael B. Jordan
Lupita Nyong'o
Danai Gurira
Letitia Wright
Daniel Kaluuya
Martin Freeman
Winston Duke
Angela Bassett
Forest Whitaker
Andy Serkis
Sterling K. Brown

I isolate myself from movie hype as much as possible. As I've lamented before, it's a tough job, but I try it anyway. With Black Panther, that proved to be impossible. Sure, I did my usual. I only watched one trailer, avoided all of your reviews (I'll read them after I finish writing this), and went almost totally Twitter-dark in the week leading up to the film's U.S. release. Sure, the wife and kids occasionally shoved their phones in my face to show me pictures of people dressed up in African garb (often by way of Coming to America) triumphantly strolling into theaters. As a black man, this was simultaneously a source of pride and humor. The latter is because I, perhaps hypocritically, consider myself far too cool to put on a costume to go see a movie while fully aware that I was definitely going to be wearing my Black Panther t-shirt, but I digress. 

My hype problem was more challenging this time because it was an internal creation. I've been dying to see this movie ever since the moment I left the theater after viewing Captain America: Civil War. After all, this was going to be MY movie. You see, as much as any of us rail against the evils of the establishment, we take ownership in the things we deem to represent ourselves on our terms that get accepted by the mainstream. While it's true Black Panther is not an African-American creation, he is a version of ourselves filled with dignity and nobility without being subservient to a white character. Yes, that whole thing about people not just wanting, but needing to see heroes on the screen who look like them is very real.  It's what drove 2017's Wonder Woman to its massive opening weekend. It drove the ridiculous number of pre-sale tickets for this. That said, once I sat in my seat, and if I'm as honest a film buff as I like to believe I am, none of that would factor into how I ultimately felt about the movie. I still had to watch it. And so I did. 

Following the events of Captain America: Civil War,  T'Challa (Boseman) returns home to the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda where he is to be crowned king. Thanks to it's most valuable resource, vibranium, Wakanda has made itself the most technologically advanced country in the world. It's also the most reclusive, choosing to shelter itself from the planet's ills rather than trying to help fix them. Following a rather contentious coronation, T'Challa's first order of business is tracking down Ulysses Klaue (Serkis). Not only is Klaue the man who killed T'Challa's dad. As superhero luck would have it, rogue Wakandan Eric Killmonger (Jordan) shows up and is a way bigger threat than Klaue.

The first thing I noticed about Black Panther is its departure in tone from most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While their most recent releases have been out and out comedies, this film takes a more serious approach. There are certainly pockets of humor sprinkled throughout, but this isn't a gag-fest. Like Civil War, this relies more on the gravity of its situations to generate drama rather than jokes designed to carry us to the next action scene. Two other things come into play here, as well. Most obvious is the social commentary, which hinges on the debate over the responsibilities of the wold's great nations as it pertains to the suffering of people of color all over the globe. The movie is also heavily invested in world-building. This is as much an introduction to Wakanda as it is an origin story for its titular hero. We get acquainted with it through its customs, rituals, and some of the best cinematography the MCU has to offer. Director of photographer Rachel Morris does a wonderful job making Wakanda a place that is exactly what we're told it is - a technological marvel masquerading as a third-world country. We never have reason to doubt this dual identity. All of this dictates more patient storytelling than most of the rest of the MCU, which is beneficial to the movie. However, certain viewers might have an issue with this because it takes the film longer to get going in the action department than most Marvel flicks. Director Ryan Coogler has wonderful command of pacing, which disguises the fact that the early parts of Black Panther are dialogue driven. Those strictly looking for superhero antics might become a bit impatient, but Coogler navigates this portion of the movie very well.


Telling his story this way allows us to get to know more characters than we do in the majority of this universe. Aside from T'Challa, we meet and come to understand quite a few of the main players. Three of them are black women, Danai Gurira's Okoye, Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia, and Letitia Wright's Shuri. This is huge milestone for comic book movies in general and the MCU in particular. Thus far, Marvel has only barely acknowledged the fact that white women can be heroic while women of color have been non-existent within the celluloid walls of the movie wing of its empire. That sin is wiped away as women of actual consequence fill the screen. They have as much say as, if not more than T'Challa himself. The performances of Gurira, Nyong'o, and Wright are all excellent and layered. Okoye is an amazing warrior and practically impossible to tear your eyes from. Nakia is the most complex of the three and the one we become most attached to. Shuri is the most fun character and is clearly inspired by Q in the James Bond franchise. None of them are just window dressing as the plot could not advance without the contributions of their characters. And my gushing over all the girl-power in the film hasn't yet included the king's all-female team of bodyguards.

Having heroic characters is nice and all, but like most superhero movies, this movie's bread is buttered by it's villain. Indeed, Michael B. Jordan's Eric Killmonger is the engine that makes this electromagnetic train go. He's endowed with a number of the qualities to make an excellent baddy. He has clear motivations, a charismatic personality,  and he's is a legitimate physical threat to our hero. Above all, he has an undying conviction in his beliefs. He's not a bad guy for the sake of being evil. He's a bad guy because he is fully convinced the world needs him to be. In his mind, he is the hero of the story. More accurately, he sees himself as history's victim with the opportunity to right its wrongs. What makes him work as a character is the fact there is merit to his philosophy. Who's to say what the world's oppressed will or should do if they suddenly found themselves empowered and without restraints? Would we get utopia, or mere role-reversal? Which is more desirable depends on who you ask. Killmonger makes us face his argument head on. Even his last spoken lines of the film are poignant and relevant to present day society. This gives the film a quality unique to Marvel films. It gives it global implications while remaining a local endeavor, aside from an extended scene in South Korea. It keeps the main plot in sharp focus despite the various storylines that creep up here and there.

On the flip side of things, the Black Panther himself is actually a bit of a weakness. In order to familiarize us with Wakanda, its most important inhabitants, and the bad guy, our hero takes a bit of a backseat. This isn't Chadwick Boseman's fault. He plays the role about as well as can be asked. However, he's oddly given less to actually do here in his own movie than he was in Civil War. In that film, his presence filled up every frame in which he appeared and he was clearly a danger to anyone on the screen with him, superhero or not. Here, the shoe is on the other foot. As the protagonist, we are bombarded with characters who are a danger to him. This is necessary for dramatic tension, so it's not a huge problem, but it's a noticeable one. Of course, as I'm typing this I feel greedy, because I've already praised the movie for the roles of its supporting characters. It might be impossible for the those characters have the impact they did AND have T'Challa dominate the movie, but it's a thought that struck me as I watched.

As an overall experience, Black Panther is quite enjoyable. Much of this is due to Wakanda immediately becoming the richest location in the MCU. In other franchise films, locations are unimportant except as identifiers of major battles within the canon. Here, Wakanda is a living, breathing character. It makes itself a place worthy of protecting, which gets us invested in its fate. The pacing is also outstanding, as I've already mentioned. It's runtime of a bit over two hours (not including credits) flies by despite being relatively light on action for much of the early going. That said, when there is action, it's often very well done. Granted, the massive battle during the climax is perhaps more than a bit too shaky-camish, other scenes are outstanding. The mid-film set piece in South Korea is as spectacular as anything the MCU has given us. Of course, as a superhero movie from a major studio with an almost all-black cast, it's place is secure. Whether or not it's the best superhero flick of 2018 remains to be seen. What is without question is that, like Wonder Woman before it, due to the sheer demographics and hierarchy of its cast, it will be the year's most important. Thankfully, it doesn't rest on those laurels. Ryan Coogler delivers an excellent origin film that sets up Wakanda to be a major player in the MCU going forward.



16 comments:

  1. I'm glad you were able to enjoy it. I was going to see it this weekend but other things happened and I couldn't find a good seat for the showing as I'm going to try and watch it in the coming weekend. I'm glad the film did well and that it's having a positive effect where it gets an entire community to support the film and not give in towards the negative of stupid Internet trolls claiming there's violence in movie theaters.

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    1. Yeah, people who were making those claims need to get a life. Hope you get to see it next weekend.

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  2. I want to see this film because it sounds a step above the other superhero movies. Don’t get me wrong, I like them but this one sounds intelligent but I will wait a bit since I don’t want Tom sit with a ton of people.

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    1. It is definitely a cut above most superhero flicks in the intelligence department. It offers us plenty of food for thought.

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  3. What I most enjoyed are the ways it diverts away from the standard Marvel fare. I have major super hero ennui but tend to prefer the solo movies to the conglomerates (like, avengers-style, 87 people in one movie). This one had style and substance and it felt not only stand alone but like it could have been a non-super hero movie. There is so much to this character, and to the many characters around him (lots of strong women!), and even to the "villain"(and even Wakanda itself feels like a character at times) that I found this quite enjoyable and exciting to watch.

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    1. I totally get that. It is certainly the least like a superhero flick than anything else in the MCU. And that works in its favor.

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  4. I saw this link on Twitter and rushed over. (I really miss being part of the film-blogger community, but I'm just too fragmented right now, both in the cyberworld and IRL, LOL.)

    I've been wanting to review this movie, because there was so much I wanted to talk about, but I wasn't sure I could do it justice. You knocked it out of the ballpark! Amazing review.

    This is, by far, my favorite Marvel movie, for the reasons you mentioned: the depth of worldbuilding, the social commentary (which was direct without being heavy-handed), the role of Black characters, the beautifully badass women of Wakanda, the way the antagonist was developed, and the wonderful performances across the board. Danai Gurira was a standout for me, even among so many great performances. The emotion in her eyes killed me. :-)

    I could go on and on, but I won't. :) Thanks for the great review.

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    1. Thanks! It really does a whole lot for a comic book flick. It's no surprise that it's a fave among people who aren't all that into them. Glad you loved it

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  5. I just saw this last night and I LOVE this review. You are so right about Wakanda basically being a character in the movie, and I think that's a large part of the reason why the film works so well. The other part is the FLAWLESS casting - every single part is filled with someone who could not be improved upon. Like Thor Ragnarok, it's still too beholden to standard superhero/Marvel story beats for me, but it's easily the best Marvel movie yet, and I enjoyed it as much as I can possibly enjoy these movies.

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    1. Man, is that casting spot-on! Every character was perfectly played.

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  6. Great review my friend. I'm a fan too and found myself unable to quit writing about it. I too was worried about the hype. But I'm a Coolger fan and love the cast and the character so that gave me hope. I do disagree a bit on the Black Panther character. I really liked Boseman's T'Challa. He is definitely upstaged by some of the flashier side characters but I think that fits. I see him as a wonderful balance of everyone else's passions and aggressions. It's what makes him so suitable for the throne.

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    1. I also had a hard time stopping my review. I probably could still be writing, but I figured no one wanted my book-length thesis. As for T'Challa, I agree with you and your logic. It's really just a nitpick and doesn't really detract from the film.

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  7. Hey Dell, I too tried really hard to go into this film as 'blindly' as possible. I only saw the trailer once and the Super Bowl ad, but that's about it. Glad I did as I was surprised a few times by the plot. Overall it's such stellar film and I'm w/ Keith in that I'm glad Boseman's T'Challa is understated, I think he's intensely charismatic with his quiet, regal grace.

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    Replies
    1. Glad you were able to avoid as much as possible before seeing it. I did enjoy Boseman and his performance. My small nitpick is that he doesn't have just a bit more to do.

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