Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Black Panther: A Review


Much has been written, much has been said about the importance of Black Panther: in terms of 'representation', in terms of and to African-Americans in general, in terms of history.  I cannot speak to that here, nor will I speak to those who proclaim Black Panther 'one of the best superhero movies of the century', a very curious statement given 'the century' is only 18 years old (19 if you count the Year 2000).  At this point, here and now, I will review only the movie, and I can say for myself that Black Panther is a well-made, well-acted film from the Marvel Studios factory, if long and a pastiche of other films, despite the breathless claims of those who think it will sweep next year's Academy Awards.

Many centuries ago, a meteor with vibranium, the most powerful metal on Earth, crashed in Africa.  Five nations united as one to form Wakanda, ruled by a king who, thanks to the fauna affected by the same vibranium, has superhuman strength.  This king is the Black Panther, defender and protector of Wakanda.  The vibranium which the Wakandan mine allows them to have massive leaps in technology, but this is all hidden behind a veneer of Third World poverty and unequivocal neutrality.  All this has allowed Wakanda to never be colonized.

Moving to today, the new King, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) inherits the throne after his father is assassinated when a U.N. meeting is being held, events covered in Captain America: Civil War.  He returns to Wakanda for his coronation, but first after collecting Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who is doing her own undercover work to rescue girls from a Boko Haram-like group.  T'Challa is enamored of Nakia, but she is her own woman.

After a ceremony where anyone can challenge T'Challa for the Throne, he becomes the new Black Panther.  He faces, if not pressure, at least the idea that Wakanda's longstanding neutrality and remoteness should end.  He also learns that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has been spotted in a British museum, having stolen a rare Wakandan artifact that secretly contains vibranium.  Klaue, a racist South African mercenary, is a longstanding enemy of Wakanda: the only man to have managed to have stolen vibranium from Wakanda itself with help from an inside man.

T'Challa cannot have this vibranium floating around the black market, nor can he allow Wakanda's technological prowess to attract attention.  It is decided to take Klaue and bring him to Wakanda for trial.  T'Challa takes Nakia and Okoya (Dania Gurira), the head of the Dore Milaje, for lack of a better term the kingdom's Amazonian Guard, with him to South Korea where they learn Klaue is going to sell the vibranium.

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Unexpected difficulties come up when it's discovered the buyer is Agent Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent whom T'Challa has met before.  Klaue, for his part, is pretty much bonkers and after a wild fight, manages to give them all a run for their money.  However, thanks to Princess Shuri (Leticia Wright), T'Challa's version of Q from the James Bond franchise safely guiding him back in Wakanda, he does manage to capture Klaue.

Ross suspects there is more to this trio than meets the eye, but before he can get deeper into things Klaue's minions manage to spring him free.  However, Klaue himself is betrayed, by a figure known as Eric Stevens, also known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).  Killmonger has his own agenda, and it involves overthrowing: overthrowing T'Challa to become the new Black Panther, and overthrowing the white power structure.

It goes a bit like this: Eric is really T'Challa's first cousin, the product of a relationship between T'Challa's uncle N'Jobu and an American woman.  Back in 1992 Oakland, T'Challa's father discovered that  N'Jobu was Klaue's inside man.  N'Jobu tried to kill his brother, but was killed by Zuri, another Wakandan who was also working as a spy of sorts.  Zuri (Forest Whitaker) has carried that guilt and secret all these years.

As Eric is Wakandan and a member of the royal bloodline, he is within his rights to challenge T'Challa for the Throne.  Another battle takes place, and this time T'Challa is defeated, with Zuri getting killed.  Okoye and the other Dore Milaje pledge loyalty to the Throne, but Okoye becomes distressed and conflicted when she sees Killmonger's plans.

Killmonger, full of anger and hate, has decided he will reveal the truth about Wakanda to the world, but also arm all those 'oppressed' people with their technology so that the African will rule the world and subjugate their oppressors.  Only T'Challa's friend and Okoye's lover W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) supports Killmonger's plan to impose black justice on humanity.

Shuri, Nakia and the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) escape to the mountains with Agent Ross, whom Shuri has reluctantly saved from death after he took a bullet for Nakia when Klaue made his escape.  Up in the mountains, they ask for help from the Jabari people, the one nation of Wakanda to not join in with the technological advances all those centuries ago and are semi-autonomous.  To their surprise they find T'Challa is still alive, and he is revived to return and fight Killmonger's genocidal plans.

As T'Challa has neither died or yielded at the Challenge, the Dore Milaje insist the challenge is not complete and they are free from loyalty to Killmonger.  W'Kabi and his men, however, disagree. Essentially a civil war breaks out, and in the end, the cousins must fight to the death to save Wakanda and the world.

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That plot description probably does not do Black Panther justice insofar as that it isn't strictly chronological (we learn about Oakland pretty much after hearing the origin of the vibranium in Africa and its effects on the land and people).  However, when you look at the plot of Black Panther, you can see that director/cowriter Ryan Coogler (with Joe Robert Cole), intentionally or not, took elements from The Lion King, the James Bond films and somewhat curiously, Coming to America.

From the interfamily struggle for the throne of Pride Rock/Wakanda, down to Whitaker being Rafiki in all but name and T'Challa's visits to the spirit lands of his father to the appearance of the Wakandan Court where one can almost hear someone sing 'She's Your Queen to Be', Black Panther for better or worse hits on things we have already seen.

Shuri explaining to her big brother all about the technology she was going to gift him with could have come from anytime Q tells a less-interested 007 what the audience needs to know.  It makes a strong case for how Wright should be considered for the part of Q should she ever be given the opportunity.

Wright was a delight as the confident and cheerful Shuri, a clear standout. Gurira conveys strength as Okoye, with a bit of humor too, such as when our normally bald warrior complains about the wig she has to wear in Korea.  Nyong'o continues her strong streak of roles with Nakia and her mix of strength and compassion.

As a side note, if ever Wakanda really did break out of its isolationist shell, I'd love to see commercials that feature her saying 'Nakia for Nokia'.

Serkis was all wild and crazy as Klaue, but that's what the role called for, so I can't fault him for that. If there were weak performances, it's with Whitaker, who makes Zuri look a bit out-of-it, and Freeman, bless him, fought long and hard with his fake American accent and almost won that battle.


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Now, as for our protagonist/antagonist combo.  Both Boseman and Jordan are exceptional actors and Black Panther showcases them well.  Jordan's fire and fury as Killmonger shows that someone who is bent on his own war of extermination can make his case, menacing at it may be.  Boseman, who has been the de facto Important Black Man Biopic actor (42, Get On Up, Marshall) is his usual best as our noble king.

However, this is where there is a bit of a problem.  As played by Boseman and written/directed by Coogler, T'Challa is a bit of a bore.  He's so noble, so moral, so upright, so regal that he never seems to have any internal life.  When he's doing the action scenes or showing hesitancy with Nakia, he's great.  When he's ruling from his throne, T'Challa seems aloof and remote, more a symbol than a person.

It would not be surprising that, if given the choice, the Wakandans would rather follow the dangerous but charismatic Killmonger than the wise but dull T'Challa.  Then again, few people have noted or apparently cared that Wakanda is not a democracy or a republic but essentially an absolute monarchy where such things as Parliament or elections are foreign ideas in more ways than one.  After all, the King (and as far as we know, it's always a King, for there does not seem to have ever been a female Black Panther, let alone a Queen Regnant of Wakanda) is chosen by combat.

I leave it up to others who know more about Wakandan culture to inform me if it indeed has had a Queen as ruler.

I would also add that Black Panther is, as many of these comic book-based film are, rather long and at times predictable.  Perhaps we could have cut back or down on the visions of the Wakandan Kings or the fighting rhinoceroses, making the somewhat rushed manner of Killmonger's mad plan all the more curious.  As for the predictable, who here didn't think T'Challa would survive getting tossed off a waterfall?  Why tease something your audience is fully aware won't happen?

Quibbles nonetheless, as Black Panther is an extremely well-crafted, well-acted story, with compelling characters if not the most original story.  For my part, I wouldn't mind a Shuri spin-off. It's the rare Marvel film that doesn't feel like an extended trailer for another film, and while I feel some reviews have gone overboard (one of the best comic book film of the century?), it works as both a stand-alone and as part of the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A great vision of an idealized Africa, respectful of African culture while also giving viewers all the thrills of a comic book action film, Black Panther is a very good film and another example of the Marvel Studios production line creating something worth watching repeatedly.


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