Sunday, February 25, 2018

Black Panther Advances The Marvel Cinematic Universe Surprisingly Well!

The Good: Cerebral moments, Decent continuity, Good performances, Female characters
The Bad: Very basic plot progression, Some under-developed characters
The Basics: Black Panther does a good job of making a fairly-original feeling film for the Marvel Cinematic Universe . . . when it is not falling into the familiar conceits.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, wisely, evolving beyond the most obvious and familiar icons from Marvel Comics and it is a risky venture for the wildly successful film franchise. Fans of Marvel Comics and the films based upon them have a pretty wide stable to draw from, but the characters who are most popular are most popular and enduring for a reason, so as the MCU evolves, the fanbase is being challenged and highlighting lesser-known (in the collective consciousness, at least) characters is a risky endeavor. Arguably the greatest risk the film studio has taken - the television portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-acquainted with risk, whatwith making the series' Agent Carter, The Inhumans and Iron Fist . . . and finding shocking success with the obscure character Jessica Jones - thus far is with the film Black Panther. While Ant-Man (reviewed here!) mitigated some of its risk by playing with a popular genre - the heist movie - Black Panther takes a much riskier approach by blending a tormented family drama with a conflict of a society in crisis.

Black Panther is intriguing in that it marks a major turning point within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More than the continuity aspects within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is intriguing because it does not utilize most of the obvious conceits of the action-adventure superhero films that have dominated the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, one of the issues that does not take long to manifest within the film is that it is horribly mis-named. Black Panther would have been more accurately entitled "Wakanda" or Black Panthers; the film is vastly more about the setting than the protagonist or antagonist.

Indeed, writer Joe Robert Cole and writer/director Ryan Coogler seem to go out of their way to smartly explore the setting of Wakanda in amazing detail and with a clever eye for subtle cultural commentary. Black Panther is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which has incredibly futuristic technology and is hidden from the outside world by a massive holographic field. The country's largess comes from the presence of a massive reserve of Vibranium, the hardest element on Earth, deposited under the surface thanks to a meteor that crashed to Earth in ancient times. The Vibranium deposits allowed four of the five local tribes within Wakanda to unite and create a stable, technologically-advanced society that featured its own super hero, the Black Panther.

But beyond the technological superiority of Wakanda, Wakanda is characterized by a strong sensibility of African style. Wakanda is well-defined by a visual sensibility that illustrates costume and art style that are not dominated by European sensibilities. As a result, buildings have curved ramps instead of stairs, bright colors dominate the walls and outfits, and weaponry is spear and energy-based, as opposed to advancements in gunpowder-based firearms. Wakanda is a colorful place that blends advanced technology with tribal artwork, lip plates, and body types that are not at all monolithic (there are several films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where a viewer would be hard pressed to try to find someone who did not look like they could be a lead in a film and/or a model).

Opening in 1992 in Compton, a Wakandan spy who has stolen Vibranium from Wakanda is confronted by King T'Chaka - the Black Panther at the time. Flashing forward to the present day, a week after the death of T'Chaka in Captain America: Civil War (reviewed here!), T'Challa is being formally installed as King of Wakanda. After a brief challenge, T'Challa becomes king. One of the first challenges he faces in the dual roles of King of Wakanda and Black Panther is the theft of a Wakandan artifact from a London museum and the resurfacing of Ulysses Klaue, a mercenary who stole Vibranium from Wakanda and has since eluded capture or justice there.

Determined to bring Klaue to justice after thirty years, T'Challa and his guards journey to South Korea where an American is buying the Wakandan artifact from Klaue. T'Challa finds that the buyer is the C.I.A., in the form of Everett Ross. While they disagree on who should apprehend Klaue, the point rapidly becomes moot as Okoye is made and a fight breaks out in the casino the mission has taken them to and Klaue is revealed to be armed (literally) with Wakandan weaponry. Ross captures Klaue and begins an interrogation of him, but Klaue is rescued by Erik Killmonger. In the process, Ross is shot saving Nakia and T'Challa makes the decision to save his life by bringing him back to Wakanda. Shortly thereafter, Killmonger arrives on the border of Wakanda with a surprising gift and a challenge to the throne. Deposing T'Challa, Killmonger begins to pursue a radically-different agenda for Wakanda.

Black Panther works when it tells the political story of two potential leaders who each have a different view of their nation and its relationship with the world at large. Erik Killmonger, raised in the U.S. and trained by the C.I.A., sees the plight of black people around the world and wants to use Wakanda's resources to liberate blacks, advance Africa, and dominate the world. Killmonger is one man, essentially, working alone with a vision that would overturn the world order and have Wakanda conquer.

The most interesting aspect of Black Panther on the character front is that Killmonger's foil is not a single character; it is the idea represented by T'Challa in the way he governs. T'Challa - despite being a king who reports to a council that features representatives of the four tribes that participate in Wakanda's government - has a strongly democratic idealism; he is guided by views and agendas from his scientifically-minded sister (Shuri), the Captain Of The Guard (Okoye), his old friend W'Kabi, and his ex-, a spy who is bent on stopping the oppression of women throughout Africa, Nakia. T'Challa is an interesting mix of being open-minded to opposing viewpoints and being set in his way. In many ways, Black Panther is about T'Challa slowly incorporating the various ideas he is presented with into a new plan for Wakanda.

Much like Captain America: Winter Soldier (reviewed here!) was essentially a spy thriller set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Ant-Man was a heist flick in the shared universe, Black Panther is a cerebral political drama that is masquerading as an action-adventure movie. In fact, the forced action moments are often disappointing because of the way they feel entirely incongruent with the rest of the movie. The car chase sequence is especially banal. While things like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Doctor Strange provide Black Panther with continuity cover for the film's mysticism (both Killmonger and T'Challa both commune with the dead, but they do so from a specific place in ways that could be explained as either portals or simple psychological revelations).

While Klaue is outfitted with an awesome weapon that is utilized in a clever way for his part in Black Panther, many of the conceits that follow the plot formulas for the action-adventure film fall flat in the film. T'Challa's body being tossed off a cliff, for example, simply leaves the genre fan waiting for him to pop back up in the narrative.

But the foils between T'Challa's father issues and Killmonger's father issues play out well and create an interesting character drama that the viewer wishes was explored more. The values of Wakanda are detailed well and the political differences between T'Challa and Killmonger, Nakia and Okoye, Ross and Klaue make for an intriguing story of political theory disguised in a science fiction/fantasy setting.

The acting in Black Panther is good. The performers are all convincing in their roles, but given how few of them I was familiar with prior to the film, it is hard for me to write more. Andy Serkis (Klaue) is well-cast, but his giggles are reminiscent of his most famous performances and Martin Freeman's biggest performance challenge seems to be maintaining an American accent throughout (which he does well). Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright are all good, but most aren't given a lot that allows them to show off much range or greatness. Indeed, Boseman's best moment comes at the film's climax when T'Challa amends what could be the film's most sexist and demanding moment into a request. After a film populated by strong women and men who accept that as the norm, that moment stands out and after a moment of disgust at the writers, the film turns back to its delightfully progressive direction.

Black Panther is worthwhile and it is a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it could have been more by focusing on what made it original, as opposed to trying to force it to conform to the familiar paradigms.


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2018 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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