26 February 2018

First Impressions: Black Panther

I finally got around to seeing what everyone else in the country has seen or will see over the next few weeks - Black Panther (2018). Its success is the combination of a lot of things - nothing else currently in the theaters, a build-up of superhero anticipation, high quality blockbuster film-making, and actual underserved representation on screen. Who knew all this could lead to a hugely profitable movie? This shit really isn't that hard.

Let's riff on this for a while, SPOILERS forever, so go watch it, then come back and we'll discuss. It shouldn't take that long.

So many jacked shirtless dudes, too.

That was fun, right? This is a super-enjoyable film although it didn't necessarily blow me away like The Winter Soldier (2014) or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Yes, I just re-watched Vol 2 and that is really one of the best Marvel movies ever. While Panther doesn't reach those high notes, it's definitely a Top Third Tier superhero flick.

It succeeds by playing its completely ridiculous premise relatively straightforward. In its own way, the idea of a magical meteor striking Africa and creating a technologically advanced but still socially and cultural tribal civilization led by a king who eats Heart-Shaped herbs to gain the powers of the Panther God and fight crime is way crazier than talking raccoons or Norse space gods. We're finally in an age, though, where we can just run with this shit. Panther powers? Sure, bury him in the dirt, give him Panther powers, it's all good. Vibranium technology literally making anything possible from floating trains to sound blaster guns to explosion-absorbing cat suits? Put it on the bill. I mean, he has like, a giant Panther-Mouth cave where his Panther Jet launches. It's campy as hell.

We've finally gotten the MCU caught up with stupid-level comic book technology. Just in time to fight Thanos in Infinity War (2018). Tony Stark had a lot of fun stuff, but it was all somewhat grounded and practical, even if it was just really advanced AI. Black Panther's young, black, female Q, Shuri does whatever she wants. Where this succeeds, though, is how much it doesn't just help the plot for its own sake. Unlike a THOR: Ragnarok (2017), where unmotivated shit happens constantly to just make the movie more fun, most of the technological adaptations have a sincere motivation and pay-off. Except for those sneaky shoes. He never uses those sneaky shoes.

On that note, we ought to hop on to the characters. Chadwick Boseman is reliable as a proud and stable king, with just a hint of swag, but he's not the star here. That goes to literally everyone else. Lupita Nyongo, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett prove that black women actually exist. Ellen Cleghorne's dream came true. It's amazing to watch a film create four female black characters with their own arcs and agencies, even if they are still ultimately in service to their male king. There does seem to be some evidence to show that if they wanted to, Lupita could challenge T'Challa for his right to the Throne in ritual combat, but she doesn't (for plenty of character reasons).

And real quick on that note - we really need a better government system to decide leaders other than ritual combat. This is basically that episode of Futurama where Fry accidentally kills the Emperor and so becomes the Emperor. I picture Wakanda having over a thousand kings in the past ten years.

But anyway, it's great to see representation and everything - but the film is also so matter of fact about it that you quickly forget that the only white people you've seen for over two hours are the two whitest people of all time - Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the weirdest Hobbit reunion ever. They're both enjoyable characters and I would have liked to have seen more of Serkis' Klaue, who is not only having a ton of hammy fun, but seemed like a good recurring low level thug to beat up. Marvel never really cares about that and always kills their villains, though.

There is some weirdness with Martin Freeman. He's clearly up to some shady shit, trying to cover up some more Sokovia bullshit by going behind Wakanda's back and dealing with Klaue, but T'Challa seems to get over that fast and brings him to get his back healed. He's still always a weird awkward white outsider, which is great.

And she's got TRON disc blade things
Getting back to the black chicks, I really want to see Angela Bassett in everything. Her African white hairdo was really making me yearn for her dream casting in that failed 90s X-Men movie where she could have played Storm. She doesn't do ALL that much here, but has instant gravitas. There is of course a lot of weirdness to consider here when you remember that Black Panther marries Storm in the comic books. AWKWARD.

I also wanted to see more of the Wakandan super-spy movie this movie pretends to be for its first hour or so. The role of black female James Bond suits Lupita Nyongo surprisingly well, and their South Korean casino playground looked totally like the Macau set from Skyfall (2012). Gurira I didn't even remember as Michonne from The Walking Dead and she plays a similarly stoic character here, but one who is also allowed to laugh and express emotion like an actual human being.

Aside from a surprising slew of lazy-eyed old black man actors, the cast is rounded out by Daniel "Get Out" Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown playing the blackest character I've ever seen, and Michael B. Jordan. Much more on MBJ in a bit, but let's stick with the others for now. If Boseman is Black Panther, Kaluuya is basically Blue Rhino, and Winston Duke plays M'Baku, the White Gorilla from the comic books. It all gets into this Legends of the Hidden Temple thing, that works really well in the final fight when all these color-coded armies are clashing and you can actually tell what's going on with real people and real stakes instead of just dispensable armies of robots or bug aliens. Part of the reason why this film resonates and is so effective is because it's so personal.

Alright, Michael B. Jordan. He takes over the screen whenever he appears and the film's biggest fault is that he disappears for a huge stretch in the middle and dies like a bit of a punk. And that he dies at all. It's still bizarre that his army nickname, "Killmonger" becomes his official name - like T'Challa just calls him that, which is kind of a forced way of integrating his comic alias. But he's still a fearsome threat with his own style, impressive credentials, essentially unstoppable because of both his intellectual and physical competency.

He's also right. How often do you see that. He has a great point to make about the responsibility of a well-to-do portion of a maligned people having an obligation to enfranchise the rest of the race. Of course, inspiring world-wide revolution may not be the best way (not entirely true, this has been an advocated response to global racial oppression), but it's significant that by the end his ideology essentially wins. Black Panther shifts his thinking. Here's a better video essay than I can say that discusses how both protagonist and antagonist actually shift each other's beliefs, which is rare for any film and crazy to pull off.

It's through Killmonger where the film is pulled out of its Africa techno James Bond fantasy and into the real world. It says, "Hey, you can't do this shit while your people around the world suffer." It's rage and hate and struggle in reaction to abandoning global needs for isolationism. There is surprising Trump-ism to be read into the superior walled-off society, although the core of the film rejects this attitude by its end.

And he doesn't even flame on
Instead, the film goes way far into a specifically anti-Trump message, which is where it lost a little of its timeliness for me. When Killmonger looks like he's going to become king it might as well be Election Night 2016. There's a frantic immediate reaction, one of revolution and tearing down their entire society rather than following the procedure that put them here. Okoye remains loyal to the state over her personal feelings, echoing our need to believe in institutions, even if a leader comes to power that we don't agree with. Of course, Killmonger's literal burning of everything Wakanda holds sacred feels "Drain the Swamp"-ish and his striking of all tradition feels so damn Trumpy. This is all of course ironic, because he's a hardcore black revolutionary and about as far from Trump as you can get. Further irony within its own movie world is how Killmonger as a black revolutionary is more Black Panther Party than Black Panther.

And he totally grabs that yellow suit and becomes Yellow Panther. Or just...Normal Leopard. Coogler did a nice job of giving him a lot of motivation, background, and character conflict than normal villains, but he's still just a mirror image of the protagonist. You know, like Obadiah Stane, Abomination, Red Skull, Justin Hammer, Whiplash, Winter Soldier, Yellowjacket, Kaecilius, and Baron Mordo. So you know, typical. Anyway, the fact that when he's stabbed you still want to see more of him is a fantastic achievement. I think some of that is the fact that his position is so well-articulated as well as one we can identify with and even root for.

All of this really grounded and real racial work balances out the complete fantasy elements and ultimately makes Black Panther a referendum on itself. This is to say nothing of the greatness of having black folk tell black stories. I'm still left wondering a little about what Captain America was doing hanging out in the cellars of Wakanda this whole time, but it's probably good he was left out to give Coogler room to tell T'Challa's own story.

This is definitely upper-level Marvel stuff. It's frankly endless amazing to me that Black Panther beats up Batman v. Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017). Like, we have way more hype for this shit. I don't think anyone could have predicted this, but like I said in the opening paragraph, it really wasn't that hard, was it? Wakanda looks to feature heavily in Infinity War, so we'll see if those sound blaster guns can fight Alien Monsters! Wah-hey!

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