Black Panther

I realize that this, being: 1: the new Marvel movie; 2: the biggest movie of the year so far and maybe all of 2018, and; 3: a good place to make a lot of observations about race and politics (world-wide, but particularly in a country who after two terms of a very popular black president, then elected a president on the fear, hatred, and white supremacy ticket)—that there is no shortage of people writing about this movie (with infinitely more Marvel knowledge and racial/political savvy than I have). And seeing how I'm writing this for my own website that is for the most part politely ignored, I realize I'm really farting in the wind with this review—but my ongoing project here is to write about every movie I see in the theater, and do it in my own, neither academic nor mass-media style, often willfully ignorant, obtuse, and esoteric. But also as honest as I can be, and not caring if I step on anyone's toes—or even enrage anyone (because I've found, over the years, that you will do that sometimes, anyway, no matter how hard you try not to, so it's better to just not worry about it).

So first of all, I have to admit to seeing only two Marvel movies, previously (one of which I thought was OK, and the other I hated with a passion). I'm not a Marvel guy, and I wasn't as a kid. Though it just occurred to me, I should get out my old comic books (I saved them) and write something about the Marvel and DC action comics I did have, and try to describe my memories of the weird feelings I got from them. But anyway, this movie is my first exposure to the character Black Panther and the fictional country of Wakanda, but with that little informational intro (which charmingly reminded me of the intro to Escape from New York) I was right in it. I'm a sucker for maps and making up places that seem like they could exist, and I love this idea of the hidden African country that has a third world exterior but is actually the most technological advanced place on Earth.

At the center of this story—and placed deep in the earth by a meteorite—is a substance called vibranium—which as far as I could tell has a crazy ability to absorb and release energy, making it miraculously useful and potentially catastrophic. It also affected some kind of heart-shaped herb, which ancient people of the region discovered would give then super powers, thus the origin of the Black Panther. I hope I'm getting that right. And now in contemporary times, and most intriguing to me, the nation of Wakanda has been able to both isolate itself, and thrive with tremendous advances in technology and science, aided by the use of vibranium. Though isolated, they send people out in the world, presumably to study and gain knowledge, but also in some cases as spies—necessary, of course, to know what's going on in order to protect their country. The major conflict—and a fascinating one—then becomes whether to use their power to help oppressed people (particularly of African descent) throughout the world, or to remain isolated (arguably to protect their resources from global powers which would then eventually destroy them and use their resources to further oppress the oppressed). You can debate this endlessly, and I guess people will (both in the movie, about the movie, and as a fundamental question).

I guess that when these movies are made, Marvel geeks debate endlessly about the adherence and deviation from the source materials, and in this case the director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler, is young and tremendously successful, and may be in the position to decide if he wants to direct the next Black Panther movie, or make Heaven's Gate. I will look forward to reading an interview with him, like an in-depth one. I'm not going to get to all the things I wondered about in this movie, some of which might have been wedded to the source material, and conventions of the genre, but then in some case could be breaking away from those things, including possible subversive allegories. I hope so, because I think the filmmakers could see crossover potential of this movie, not just among Marvel fanatics and don't-give-a-shit-about-Marvel audiences, but from the movie-as-a-violent-video-game audiences to sophisticated, thoughtful, and politically minded audiences. Sorry if that sounds condescending.

As usual, I'm avoiding any plot summery (for that, see-any-review), but I want to mention that I liked how our protagonist, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, has flaws and weaknesses, and I realize this idea is central to the superhero thing, but was played out here in a way I found pleasing and fun. It's also interesting, that for him to become king, he had to fight a challenger with his powers stripped away. Which, of course, immediately makes you think, what if a President had to run for office with no financial and corporate backing? I know. Anyway, then later when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) challenges for and assumes the throne (in order to carry out his plan of world revolution), the movie achieves its greatest complexity as some of the Wakandans feel obligated to follow him, while others resist. As Killmonger is pretty ruthless, and as king immediately becomes a dick, the audience is compelled to turn on him, but I couldn't help feeling somewhat on his side, seeing his back-story, in early and later flashback. Anyway, then in the inevitable, protracted, hand-to-hand battle between T'Challa and Killmonger, we have the classic battle between one whose superpower is compassion with one whose superpower is anger and hatred. In the real world, who knows, but this is a movie, so the ending is hopeful (but since it's a franchise movie, don't ever count on the dead not to return, as long as one speck of DNA is kept in a test-tube somewhere, and audiences want a return).

There were some other really interesting things to me, such as that the most fierce of all the Wakandan warriors were women. And the real hero of this movie was T'Challa's 16 year old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), one of their top scientists and inventors, who essentially saves the day. And then the one major character who is white (besides the evil arms dealer, Klaue)—an American CIA agent, Ross (Martin Freeman), who was not only kind of annoying, but also uncomfortably fawned over because “he took a bullet” and saved T'Challa's girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). I don't know about you, but in that scene, as well as most of the action scenes, I could not tell what was happening amidst all the lethal metal flying everywhere. Maybe I am too old to follow action sequences in movies anymore. Is that one of the things that diminishes with age? Anyway, it's nice of them to save his life, but it really made me nervous to let him walk around in their secret laboratories—he's a American CIA for God's sake. And he's pretty lame—but it occurred to me that it might have been a pointed choice to make the “token” white guy really boring in order to poke fun at and critique the countless examples, in the movies, of the token, non-threatening black character.

That's more than I planned to write about this movie; I might need to take brevity training. Oh, but one more thing. Do you mind if I use the bathroom? (Was there ever a Columbo episode where he came back with his “one more thing” and asked to use the bathroom?) This is yet another movie that's well over two hours long with, naturally, no intermission. This would have been a tremendous movie to work in an intermission. I can almost picture where it would go. Also, there were a lot more kids and families at this movie than at ones I usually see—who would really benefit from an intermission. I don't want to pick on the theater by naming it, but you are selling out shows, so it would really be nice if you HIRED ENOUGH PEOPLE to sell tickets and concessions. I really wanted some popcorn, but I had to skip it because the line was too long (could have bought some at the intermission). And I had to rush from the theater, after it was over, to the bathroom (and in the two men's rooms, 50% of the urinals are broken. Memo to iPic/Bayshore: Hire. A. Plumber).

And one more thing. Something I read (after seeing the movie) alerted me to the fact that there was a very illuminating scene during the credits—maybe more than one. I'm sure Marvel people know that they do this. (I think this is a Marvel movie thing.) But at most movies I go to (if I don't have to rush out and pee), I do sit through the credits—and then get up and everyone is gone—and the usher, picking up trash, looks at me uncomfortably, like, “Am I going to have to get the 409?” But with large action movies, the visual effects credits alone read like a phonebook, and frankly kind of depress me. And by that time it might be three hours since you entered the theater. I'm envious of people whose bladders are that large, but also suspicious. Like, if that's your super power, what are your flaws?

Randy Russell 3.7.18