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Black Panther

So. How’ve you been?

Me, I finally decided to step away from the blog so I could make my debut as a playwright/producer. It went great, thanks for asking. I have another script in production right now, but the rehearsal schedule is much less demanding and another company is doing all the heavy lifting on producing. This means I can’t do my usual Oscars festivities this year, but I’m so far behind the curve on this year’s Oscar race it wouldn’t be up to my usual standard anyway. I do want to remount “From the Ruby Lounge” eventually, but in the meantime, I’m happy to get back to analyzing someone else’s work instead of obsessively worrying about my own.

And here I am starting with a critic-proof movie. Though to be fair, Black Panther isn’t just critic-proof in the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe “everybody loves this movie and anyone who doesn’t is obviously baiting the fanbase” kind of way. No, this movie is critic-proof because we need this movie to be good. This movie is so different in so many ways that it’s culturally important on a level we haven’t seen since Wonder Woman.

In point of fact, both movies are very much alike in that they had to present an inspirational and uplifting hero for a massive subset of people who’ve gone so long without proper representation in superhero cinema. Moreover, with Wakanda and Themyscira, both movies had to craft and present a sprawling and vibrant culture that could plausibly live next to and apart from the world at large. These are both surprisingly tall orders, so it’s a mercy that both movies turned out so well.

To be clear, Black Panther does have flaws. To start with, I really wasn’t impressed with the action and spectacle. I found the action to be poorly shot, blandly choreographed, and the 3D effects added nothing. But far more importantly, while the global stakes are well-defined and appropriately dire, the smaller interpersonal stakes mean very little. It’s been established that Wakanda is so technologically advanced and its citizens so well-trained in combat that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his peers are borderline invincible in combat. Hell, the nation is so far advanced that they have gadgets for every conceivable scenario and they can instantly heal wounds that should be damn near fatal.

Throw in the standard plot shield (because of course the title character is never in any serious mortal peril) and the fights become so much more boring. That said, there is at least a nice bit of variety to the action scenes — armed combat, unarmed combat, T’Challa fighting in and out of the suit (not that it makes any real difference, since he still has superpowers either way), aerial combat, car chases, and so on. All that product placement for Lexus got pretty egregious, though.

So, the action’s not all that great. But everything that happens around the action is aces.

See, while T’Challa can more than handle himself against weapons and fists, he’s a freshly-coronated king who doesn’t really know how to rule his people. It’s quite impressive how the movie takes us through the different tribes, feuds, agendas, alignments, and royal family politics of Wakanda. Hell, the filmmakers did a fantastic job of making Wakanda feel like a lived-in place with its own massive culture, history, traditions, language, and style. This is a huge part of why this movie absolutely needed a black director: a white filmmaker could never have gone remotely far enough in crafting an African culture with such a painstaking level of detail, certainly not without inducing some cringes. And all of this is done in a very expedient way, showing and telling just enough to draw the audience in without slowing the movie down.

But then we have the ethics of Wakanda itself, and that’s where this movie truly shines.

For those who aren’t up on their comic book lore, Wakanda was built around the world’s only source of vibranium. The people of Wakanda can access whole underground mountains of this miracle metal, resulting in a nation so wealthy and technologically advanced that they’ve been able to hide themselves from the rest of the world. The people of Wakanda pride themselves for being an African nation that’s never been conquered, a futuristic paradise in a deeply troubled continent.

Comic book fans have been asking for nearly a century why Superman — with all of his godlike powers — doesn’t simply take it on himself to assert his will and solve all the world’s problems. In this movie, the characters ask a similar question of Wakanda. The difference is that Superman’s arrival (in-universe, anyway) was relatively recent, and Wakanda has literally been around since the dawn of civilization. Think of all the shit that’s happened in Africa and all around the world over the past five thousand years. Think of all the shit people have been doing to each other, and especially to people of color; all the nations in Africa and the Middle East getting invaded and colonized; all the people getting captured, forcibly trafficked and sold into slavery, raped, exploited, and killed in the process of manual labor; all the people of color who are dying and killing because they don’t have enough… and Wakanda could’ve solved all of that. But instead, Wakanda kept its wealth and technology secret, and watched all that shit happen without saying a word. Kind of a dick move.

Then again, even the vast resources of Wakanda are not limitless. There’s the very real possibility that Wakanda could only grow into such an incredible power precisely because it stayed isolated for so long. More importantly, there’s a line that has to be drawn: At what point does Wakanda become just another colonizing power? At what point do they become every bit as awful as the first-world countries who’ve sacked and pillaged Africa, abusing people who come from someplace else and/or look different?

All of this is stuff that T’Challa has to wrestle with, and Boseman is a perfectly charismatic actor who’s more than fit to play royalty. But what really makes all of this work is Michael B. Jordan, here playing the single greatest villain in the MCU to date. Yes, even better than Loki. By a mile. No contest.

Erik Stevens alias N’Jadaka alias Killmonger spent his entire life training to take the throne of Wakanda. But he’s fueled by such righteous anger and his family tragedy screwed him over so completely that the character’s motivation is deeply compelling. This is a character who’s seen pain and suffering up close, from the mean streets of Oakland to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a lethal fighter and a cunning tactician, even if he’s short-sighted enough to burn the whole world down purely out of spite. As a person, as a king, and as the custodian of Wakanda’s legacy, T’Challa is challenged by Killmonger in every conceivable way, pushed to the breaking point as only a truly great supervillain could do.

By comparison, I’m sorry to say that Andy Serkis is totally wasted as Ulysses Klaw. Yes, Serkis is milking every second of screen time for all it’s worth so long as he’s onscreen and out of a mocap suit, but his character is still a tragic letdown. Oh, and Martin Freeman playing an American still doesn’t work. I don’t care how bland his accent is, Freeman is still so quintessentially British that there’s no possible way he could play an American, much less a plausible CIA operative. It’s admittedly quite nice that he got a sweet action sequence in the climax, but this is still a huge step down from Agent Coulson.

The rest of the cast ranges from solid to middling. Forest Whitaker could play this role in his sleep, and he appears to be doing precisely that. Angela Bassett doesn’t have much to do as T’Challa’s mother, but she does it well. Winston Duke takes what could’ve been a flat background role and turns his character into a neat bit of comic relief. Lupita Nyong’o plays one of the stronger love interests among recent entries in the MCU, but it’s still hard to imagine that the film would’ve played out much differently if she had been cut entirely. Danai Gurira shines as the general of the royal guard, very nicely portraying Okoye’s dilemma between her duty to country and her duty to whomever happens to be sitting on the throne.

John Kani gets a delightful cameo role as the late king T’Chaka. They even got Kani’s son — Atandwa Kani — to play a young T’Chaka in flashbacks. Sterling K. Brown has a sadly brief yet memorable turn as Killmonger’s father. Daniel Kaluuya plays a character with so many deeply held friendships and personal desires that it’s genuinely intriguing to see what he’ll do and how his decisions are influenced.

But the standout of the supporting cast (save only for Michael B. Jordan) has to be Letitia Wright. She plays a bona fide scientific prodigy who’s got the gadgets and she knows how to use them. Shuri is a smartass comic relief and a badass combatant. On every level, this character totally works.

As for miscellaneous notes, I was a bit disappointed by the music. While the score has a suitably African sound to it, I’m always let down by a superhero score that doesn’t leave me with an iconic theme stuck in my head as I exit the theater. There’s a Stan Lee cameo and it’s just okay, ditto for the two post-credits scenes. There’s nothing overt to set up Avengers: Infinity War, but given certain Wakandan rituals that we see and Wakanda’s prominent appearance in the trailer for Infinity War, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Soul Stone is hiding in the background somewhere.

While Black Panther does have the action and CGI spectacle that we expect from a superhero romp, that isn’t why this movie succeeds. Rather, this movie works because it puts a significant emphasis on developing Wakanda into a fleshed-out world of its own, at the expense of further developing the greater MCU. Moreover, the plot’s conflict is primarily focused on sociopolitical racial commentary, with a subtle yet wickedly incisive statement about our own “America First” policies of late. These are all bold choices for a billion-dollar superfranchise to make, never mind a multimillion-dollar franchise based on an obscure comic property making its cinematic debut (Civil War notwithstanding). But because these choices were so bold and timely, and because the movie was crafted by so many intelligent filmmakers, it all totally works.

I wouldn’t recommend the 3D option, but I’d totally recommend the movie.

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