Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Black Panther' (2018) Movie Review

Movies obviously had a substantial impact on my life. I was fortunate enough to grow up and see people who looked like me doing fantastic, incredible, even relatively normal and mundane things on screen. Looking back on it, at the films that spoke to me—Goonies, Stand by Me, Red Dawn, and countless others—almost everything I watched showed me a version of myself. I know what a presence that had, I know how much that meant, personally, and I know that wasn’t the case for everyone. But a lot of people, young people especially, are going to find a similar sensation, to feel a similar weight, when they watch Black Panther.

That’s not to say Marvel’s latest superhero jaunt is without problems. We’ll get to that. But it does rank in the upper echelon of what they have to offer and possess a crackle of energy their films too often lack. Hell, the simple fact that they made a Black Panther movies rules pretty hard.

Watching Black Panther, there’s an added weight, an additional sense of magnitude. A ton of black kids, black girls especially, are going to fall in love with this movie, with these characters and this story in a way they don’t often have the chance to with mainstream Hollywood products. I expect, and in fact we’ve already seen, people connect with this film the way they did with Wonder Woman and elements of Star Wars: The Last Jedi last year. And that’s exciting.

When I see people, even people I respect and consider friends downplay the importance representation—and let’s be honest, I’m talking about other white people, and people who have often built their entire lives around movies, who should really know how damn important movies can be—it makes me want to scream obscenities. It’s endlessly frustrating, but I also get the warm fuzzies knowing just how much Black Panther is about to mean to a whole lot of folks.

And it doesn’t hurt that the movie itself is pretty damn fantastic. Especially the first third. It begins with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the African nation Wakanda, shortly after the death of his father and the events of Captain America: Civil War. By and large, he’s lost. He deals with the loss of his father; he’s tasked with becoming king and ruling a country, an overwhelming proposition; he still has feelings for his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). And then there’s that whole being a costumed protector of the realm thing.

The script from director Ryan Coogler (Creed, and now the first person of color to direct a Marvel movie) and Joe Robert Cole takes its time to let all of this develop, but the film’s true strength lies in the world building. A nation of great technological achievement, thanks in large part to being home to the world’s supply of vibranium, Wakanda also isolates itself from the rest of the planet. It portrays itself as a poor African backwater, a ruse the rest of the world is all too eager to accept. But Black Panther digs into the history, the people, the vibrant culture. Not by heavy handed narration or an information dump, but by actually showing it too us in a variety of ways.

Working with Rachel Morrison, who lensed Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and recently made history by being the first ever (!) woman nominated for a cinematography Academy Award, Black Panther offers much to gawk at. Wakanda is all stunning vistas and sunsets and waterfalls. In short, gorgeous. Seen from afar, the advanced cities do look like every other fantastical CGI Marvel city—think Xandar or Asgard—but once we’re actually down in them, they reveal a distinct look and texture. Futuristic technology blends with traditional African flourishes to create something new and unique.

It’s in Wakanda where Black Panther distinguishes itself. When T’Challa leaves, decked out in his high-tech Black Panther suit and with a bunch of gadgets—Coogler has remarked on the James Bond influence—it loses its fresh edge. As they track the notorious Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, who has way too much fun as the scene-chewing antagonist), and ultimately encounter the film’s big bad, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), it becomes much more familiar and rote. Things get predictable. That’s not to say there’s no fun to find, but it definitely devolves into more traditional Marvel movie fare.

That said, Black Panther take pains to avoid some of the biggest complaints about the MCU. First, the villain. Klaue represents the big, cartoonish secondary enemy, but Jordan’s Killmonger is the only truly interesting villain outside of Loki. He’s vicious and ruthless—for a PG-13 movie, Black Panther straight up murders way more people than I expected—but he’s also complex, charismatic, and has specific, intriguing motivations. He’s not some demi-deity who rules via fear, he makes an argument, one that makes sense, and people choose to follow him.

In all honesty, he’s a far more interesting character than the actual Black Panther. T’Challa is, at times, dreadfully dull and one-note, and the film would be stronger with more Killmonger. He’s the first Marvel villain with a real purpose beyond a bland quest for power and glory. (Okay, maybe Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that's it.) His primary objective also ties directly into why representation and recognition matter, and what happens when they’re not available—it’s not just a theme or esoteric idea surrounding the film, but a concrete plot point.

Too often, Marvel movies—and superhero movies in general—rely on massive action scenes that disintegrate into muddy CGI nonsense where humans awkwardly flip around in a way that resembles videogames. (I find this most egregious in the Thor movies for some reason.) Black Panther isn’t wholly immune to this, and it contains a few big spectacle level scenes of this ilk—CGI armored rhinos anyone? But the bulk of the action, much more than most of its compatriots, remains fairly grounded and relies on choreography and stunts rather than pixels and digital manipulation.

Black Panther and Killmonger throw down wearing high-tech suits, but their actual fighting is relatively authentic. The same goes for tactics used by the spear-wielding, shaved-headed Dora Milaje, the all female security force, led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye, that guards the king. Their fighting style, while cinematic, encompasses practical techniques and maneuvers. All of this results in solid action that serves the story and takes a back seat to things like character development and story. It’s concerned with more than just kicking ass.

And one biggest, most frequent, and well-earned criticism of Marvel’s cinematic offerings is that, with a few exceptions, female characters don’t usually have much to do. Black Panther flips that on its head. More than just a love interest for the protagonist, Nakia is a spy, worldly and well travelled, loyal to her homeland but empathetic to the plight of rest of the world they could potentially help. She’s also essential to the plot.

Okoye could easily have become a generic warrior, strong and powerful, bound by duty. And she is those things, but she’s also sharp and witty and emotionally engaging. She very much has her own stuff going on. In a universe where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner both exist, the smartest person in this world is now a teenage girl from Africa. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s younger sister, puts both of those renowned geniuses to shame. Continuing the James Bond parallel, she’s Black Panther’s Q, a prodigy in charge of Wakanda’s ample technology.

Multiple times, women pull T’Challa’s ass out of the fire. And what’s more, he explicitly acknowledges that fact, which is akin to spotting a damn unicorn in the wild. For a movie that, at times, treads familiar ground, that’s oddly revolutionary. It shouldn’t be, but in Hollywood blockbusters, saying, “Hey, women can be capable, well-rounded characters with complex feelings and thoughts and minds of their own,” is all too unorthodox. There’s still a hell of a long way to go in this regard, and this is far from radical, but it’s a step. And seeing multiple nuanced female characters in one Marvel movie is nothing if not refreshing.

The fact that this is only Ryan Coogler’s third movie blows my mind a bit. Starting with the indie Fruitvale Station and it’s $900,000 price tag, he took a big step up with Creed, which cost $40 million. That’s a leap, but Black Panther, with it’s $200 million budget and Disney backing, is a whole other planet. But it’s never too big for the young filmmaker (movies like Jurassic World and Rogue One often feel like they got away from directors making similar jumps in scope and scale).

Is Black Panther perfect? No. Does it occasionally fall into predictable superhero traps? Yes. But it also feels like the work of someone with a specific vision, one he more or less executes. It’s fun, often thrilling. While it presents familiar beats, it offers enough to set it apart and create its own personality—and it doesn't shoehorn in references to the larger MCU, those that do occur, happen naturally. It feels much more current and relevant than what Marvel usually offers, and I can’t wait to watch people fall in love with this. I’ve seen it once and I can’t wait to see it again. Although I usually enjoy them, that’s more than I can say for most Marvel movies.

(Crap, I didn’t even mention the music, and the music rules.)

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