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Black Panther (2018)
~Review by Grawlix (Frebruary 2018)
There’s no denying, at this point, that Marvel Films has their superhero movies down to a science. Particularly their superhero origin films, of which they tend to release roughly two a year. With an astounding 18 films (and counting) to refine their blueprint, they know how much action keeps the pace, how much story holds interest, how much humor keeps things relatable, and how much character makes things memorable. You could argue that it makes their movies formulaic, to a degree, but when a formula works this well, why stop using it? Other studio executives probably dream of having a formula so consistently successful. And besides, given how their competitors keep managing to screw it up, it’s entirely possible that Marvel is making this all look way easier than it actually is.
Black Panther is Marvel’s latest origin story movie, and that intro is, I guess, a wordy way of saying that, if you look close enough you can see the familiar superstructure on which a lot of the proceedings are hung. But I suppose we can only get so reductive before we’re back to discussing the classic hero’s (or in these cases, superhero’s) journey upon which all comic book origin stories are inevitably based. Besides, it’s the flavor between the lines where Marvel films continue to shine and in this instance Black Panther is no different.
While Black Panther, the character, is technically the focus of the story, you could make the case that the true star of the show is his homeland, the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Thousands of years ago, we are told, a meteor crashed on Wakandan soil. Besides being made of Vibranium, the hardest and most versatile metal on the planet, the meteor also somehow infused Wakandan soil, flora, and fauna with all manner of unusual, semi-mystical properties. This allowed the local tribes to advance at an accelerated pace. The end result being that, in the modern day, Wakanda stands as the most technologically advanced country on the planet, though it conceals this fact under mantles of holography and feigned poverty, lest it upset the social and political balance of the rest of the world.
By ancient custom, the king of Wakanda also assumes the role of the country’s foremost protector, the Black Panther. Augmented by meteor-plant alchemy, and the cutting edge of Wakanda’s considerable technology, the Black Panther is a formidable force indeed. After T’Chaka (John Kani), the previous king, is killed (as detailed in Captain America: Civil War) his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) inherits both the throne and the tights, consolidating his power through a trial-by-combat during which his powers are ritually, temporarily stripped.
Rituals and ancient customs, and how they interact with the rapidly changing modern world (particularly that of the MCU), are a central theme in Black Panther, as are the significance and potential pitfalls of family ties. Not only is T’Challa surrounded and advised by the rest of his living family, including his dignified mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and techo-genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) the latter of which often playing Q to T’Challa’s Bond (or perhaps Alfred to his Batman), but he is also able to enter a trance state to confer with his deceased relatives including the spirit of his father. These conversations turn a bit awkward following the appearance of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an expatriate who not only has eyes on the throne, but also some radical ideas for Wakandan foreign affairs. On top of this, T’Challa must also deal with the matter of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a mercenary who, years before, stole a measure of Vibranium and has been selling it to all the wrong people (as detailed in Captain America: Civil War and also in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Hey, isn’t it awesome how we can do this now? Reference prior movies like they were prior comic book issues? When has this ever been possible before? I mean, yeah, Disney will probably end up owning the entire known universe at its current rate of expansion, but dammit, the fanboy in me is going to enjoy this particular silver lining).
As he faces these myriad challenges, T’Challa learns what it means to be a hero, a king, a father, a brother, and a man, and how what’s right for one aspect may not necessarily be right for another. It’s a lot of plates to spin, but Boseman proves to be the right man for the job, and when he’s on screen you can totally believe that he’s simultaneously a powerful superhuman, an inexperienced king, an annoyed older brother, and a kid who recently lost his dad. The rest of the cast support him well and, amazingly, nobody is neglected. The movie is two hours and 15 minutes long and the screenplay, credited to Director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole makes certain that not a second is wasted.
Technically, the movie is impeccable. The costumes are earthy and colorful, the props stand out while still looking functional, and the pervasive special effects are seamless. Between the Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and now Black Panther movies, Marvel has gotten so adept and creating entire, fully realized alternate worlds, and I almost feel in danger of taking them for granted. The action is solid and there’s lots of it, although some of the hand to hand combat (of which there is a decent amount) suffers from the overuse of closeups and jump cuts that directors who don’t specialize in shooting action sometimes fall back on. It’s probably not really noticeable unless you’re already inclined to look for it, though.
I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t devote some space to the <ahem> social aspects of the movie’s production and release. Personally, as someone who has watched hundreds of foreign films, the presence of a nonwhite cast and crew has long since ceased to be anything I’d take particular notice of. But yeah, Black Panther is being touted the first film to have a black director and an almost entirely black cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an rather specific categorization that seems specifically calibrated to exclude having to mention films like Steel, Meteor Man, Spawn, or Catwoman, which, besides being high profile flops, share certain other commonalities that studios tend to take into consideration when deciding on what and to whom they throw $200 million dollars. Personally I love the stance Marvel itself seems to be taking on the matter, which is basically that it ain’t no thing. Black Panther was the next hero on the slate for a solo movie, so they made the best Black Panther movie they could with the best people they could get. It may be a subtle difference, but the fact that Black Panther was marketed not as a black superhero, but rather a superhero who is black has likely gone a long way toward the films impressive crossover appeal.
There were a few things that did strike me as a little off-pitch. A lot of the uber-African costuming and production design did seem a bit too on-the-nose. Kind of like if a movie set in modern day Scottland had everybody dressed in tartan and kilts. But as far as I’m aware, nobody else is making a big deal about it, so I guess I shouldn’t either. Also, Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross character is sometimes overplayed as the stereotypical tone deaf white guy, blurting out tactless statements and in general being more of a dumbass that one would expect of a trained CIA agent. The world “Colonizer” is hissed in his direction once or twice which, in the context of the movie, seemed a little odd considering it was coming in a nation that only pretends to be benighted while making it abundantly clear that it was never, and could never be, colonized by anyone. I dunno, maybe someday the Black Panther will run into Luke Cage. That could lead to some interesting interactions.
So, yeah, depending on how much you want to drill down into it, Black Panther can certainly be many different things to different people, and the usual Internet (and AM radio) loudmouths will howl away about it as they are wont to do. Or it can just be a really fun superhero movie and nothing more. Me, I’m just here for the explosions.
And on that level it works just fine. Black Panther is the product of of a well oiled filmmaking machine firing on all cylinders. If one was inclined to nitpick, that would really be the only basis of complaint. That it’s maybe a bit too polished, that’s its appeal is too broad, that its risks are calculated just so. Ultimately it is a corporate/ committee product, but it’s the awesome one that you see in commercials, not the crappy one you find on the shelves. And when the quality is this high, and the end result this much fun, who cares if its ultimate purpose is to placate shareholders? And hey, if, just by existing, it somehow manages to change the world for the better, even by a little bit, that’s fine too.
Final Score: A
Another fantastic entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that works on however many levels you want it to.
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