Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hail to the King: Black Panther review

All my friends who like M’Baku are so excited about this movie they’re going ape.

I love comic books; I love movies; I love Africa; I love the Black Panther. All of this being true, I went to see the newly-released Black Panther in the theater. Directed by Ryan Coogler, it’s the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe super hero film, this time out featuring Chadwick Boseman as comicdom’s first black super hero. Even though Boseman’s debut as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War was well-received, who at the time would have predicted the movie would smash box office records and win over critics to an extent super hero films seldom do? How did I feel about the movie? Permit me to create some SPOILER SPACE.

Now then, I came to love the Black Panther because of the efforts of Christopher Priest, who wrote Black Panther from 1998-2003. Priest was (and is) an author who puts a lot of thought into his stories. Priest’s comics tend to be very complex and although he uses familiar super hero characters and familiar super hero plot beats, he enjoys subverting expectations and defying tropes.

On his blog, Priest cautioned fans such as myself:

“I am confident the film will be a huge hit with African American audiences and certainly with comic book (and comic book film) fans, leaving only Priest-specific Black Panther fans a bit disappointed…”

He’s not wrong.

The characters in the film are not Priest’s; his T’Challa is unflappable; his Everett K. Ross is bumbling, mildly racist and prone to histrionics; his Nakia could never truly love T’Challa because of the power imbalance between them and their relationship was something deeply wrong and problematic, not the stuff of cheap laughs; his Zuri was created as a parody of the wise old mentor; and while W’Kabi has always been pretty xenophobic, he’s also extremely loyal to T’Challa.

However, the needs of film versus serialized comic book are apt to be different. Fair enough.

Still, seeing Priest’s characters flattened into something safer, simpler and more formulaically Hollywood made all the other tropes too obvious for me. When Shuri mentioned Ross’ Air Force history in passing, it was a blatant set-up for some later scene where he would have to pilot a vehicle. It features another “villain seems to lose but it’s a set-up,” plot which was novel when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight did it and getting banal 10 years on. Erik Killmonger was refashioned into T’Challa’s cousin to be yet another of those tiresome “like a brother” or “shadow self” villains you find in most super hero films. T’Challa’s father/mentor has a shadowy secret because of course he does, these are the 21st century super hero film tropes.

At this point you’re thinking I hate this movie; here comes my Priest-like subversion: no, I didn’t. I find it all very familiar and by-the-numbers, but I accept that super hero films work best when they adhere to formula – lack of pretense was one of the triumphs of last year’s Wonder Woman and I think it serves Black Panther as well; Black Panther wears its intentions on its sleeve.

A Black Panther film which drew a little deeper from Priest’s well would be something that would leave audiences speechless; all of those critics complaining that the film ends with yet another slugfest? Priest’s Black Panther villains are schemers who only resort to violence as a last-ditch effort after the complex scheme crumbles. Priest is unafraid to confront religion, politics, race and sex. Priest’s Killmonger once stopped to give a lengthy speech on how he would defeat Black Panther by using economics. The man’s audacious.

Coogler’s Black Panther is a simple film, not as interested in politics as Priest. Part of what pushes it higher than most movies of its ilk is Michael B. Jordan’s turn as Killmonger. The film’s interpretation of Killmonger certainly feels closer to the character’s original stories under Don McGregor than those of Priest. Further, Killmonger is permitted to have a sound, reasonable argument to make about Wakanda withholding its superior technologies from a world which could sorely use them; I mean, he can only envision using that technology to wage war, but that’s keeping with his tunnel vision. Killmonger’s also helped simply by being portrayed by Jordan, who is incredibly charismatic (I was actually disappointed when I heard he’d be Killmonger simply because I’d rather root for him as a hero).

But the issue Killmonger raises is an important one – when Reginald Hudlin revealed in the comics that Wakanda had cured cancer but wouldn’t share it with the world, it was an uncomfortable revelation. Sure, they’d always been isolationist and a little xenophobic, but withholding medical data seemed particularly crude. And this material plays particularly well today if Wakanda is used as a placeholder for the contemporaneous United States, which is itself currently going through a streak of isolationism and xenophobia. The USA has been viewed as THE world leader and establishing Wakanda as the true number one super power of the Marvel Universe places similar difficult questions for their society.

I suppose my biggest problem with the film is Nakia; after all, she's a villain in the comics and I don't think I can get behind her as a heroic figure. But even confined to the world of the film she doesn't click for me; throughout the picture she speaks about her conviction that the world needs Wakanda's help but everyone brushes her off; surely when Killmonger seizes power she should at least be momentarily in his thrall? After all, he's given voice to the single most important issue she holds dear. Instead, Nakia turns on Killmonger the moment T'Challa loses his fight. (Of course, Nakia working with Killmonger would also be great because they were allies in the comics)

There’s a lot of affection for the comics in this film - in fact, more than I’m used to seeing; it is not at all ashamed of its roots, unlike so many of Marvel’s film heroes. After an introductory narration the picture kept exposition down pretty well, simply placing the characters and environment on the screen and trusting the audience to keep up.

The picture is remarkably well-cast (I didn’t hear until a week before release that Daniel Kaluuya was in it). Winston Duke, who I hadn’t heard of before, appears to have had the time of his life as M’Baku, who is so much more fun in this picture than his comic book counterpart is normally permitted to be. I’m a little disappointed that the T’Challa in this picture isn’t the brilliant scientist he is in the comics, but giving the science material to his sister Shuri at least gives that character a function in the story (even though comics’ Shuri was more of a fighter than a thinker). Andy Serkis was admirably looney as Klaw.

Part of what I’ve enjoyed about this crazy shared universe film world Marvel’s been running for the last decade is that you don’t have to wait for the film’s protagonist to get their own sequel before seeing them again. So, we’ll be seeing Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther again later this year via Avengers: Infinity War. And I’ll see you then.

Creator credits for this movie coming tomorrow

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