Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Prepare to bow before the power of King T'Challa from "Black Panther"

Black Panther Review

As I exited the theater with my wife after our viewing of “Black Panther” this afternoon, she asked me how I thought it compared to the other Marvel movies. I thought about it for awhile, and at this point, its such a task to compare the MCU movies. Much like Pixar, or the filmography of Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg or the Coen Brothers, franchises and directors who barely screw-up, its hard to compare the Marvel movies. Marvel studios has done such a great job of creating a persuasive, vibrant film universe that comparing the films at all seems almost arbitrary. Do you like space operas with some rough gags? Go enjoy the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. Do you like Tom Clancy style spy movies with a comic book twist? Go enjoy the “Captain America” movies. Do you like trippy magic adventures and comedic heist movies? Then “Doctor Strange” and “Ant-Man” are for you. Marvel has got really good at creating entirely different experiences and each film feels like a different level of greatness.

In “Black Panther,” we journey to the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Billions of years ago, a meteorite containing vibranium crashed into the lands that would eventually make up the nation, and five tribes ended up founding the nation. If you’ve been keeping up with the MCU movies at this point, you may remember that vibranium was used to make Captain America’s shield, and that Ultron stole lots of it in bulk for himself in the second “Avengers” film. It’s the strongest substance in this world, and the Wakandan people have used it to build technology, vehicles, weapons and medicines all far beyond the rest of the world’s resources, and they’ve managed to create a world hidden from the world, in order to preserve and protect this precious metal.

“Black Panther” picks up roughly a week after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” but I don’t want this to feel like a sequel. Because its not. The movie does a good job speeding newcomers up on the recent events, and really all you need to know is Prince T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father was killed in a terrorist attack in “Civil War” and now T’Challa is gearing up to be the new king of Wakanda. Much of the first half of the movie deals with the traditions and culture of Wakanda. Yes, Wakanda is not a real place, but what director Ryan Coogler does so well here is create a fictional country that feels very real. Every weapon, every piece of clothing, every building, every piece of art on the walls, all adds to the culture of this fictional place. This is exactly what Peter Jackson did so well with “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” films, creating a world that feels lived in, feels like a piece of worldy history, even though its about a place that has never existed.

These superhero movies are made or broken by their supervillains. For any movie of any genre, you have to have a villain that is just as interesting and grounded as the hero. “Black Panther” has a great villain in Erik Killmonger, brought to magnificent life by Michael B. Jordan. Its easy for these superhero movies to just throw in a villain who wants world domination or to blow up New York City, just because he’s the bad guy. But its harder to set up a situation that’s not just black and white. Killmonger grew up in the United States, but he has Wakandan ties. He’s read the histories of Africa, about how Africans were forced out of their homes to become slaves, how they were terribly abused by “colonizers” all around the world. He sees how the world has rarely changed, and how those of African descent are still treated terribly. He sees the racial profiling, the police brutality. He also knows that Wakanda has the tools to put their people on top, so he wonders why Wakanda refuses to do anything to help their people. Killmonger goes about this entirely the wrong way, but its hard to deny that his philosophy is wrong. Michael B. Jordan relishes every moment he’s onscreen, with a hellish confidence that’s absolutely intoxicating every moment of his screen time.

 Yes, this is a movie that comes from a black perspective and I bet there are those who will right this movie off just for being progressive, and that’s too bad. I wouldn’t say that “Black Panther” is selling an agenda and it’s still very much a comic book movie. It only features a modern perspective. What shocked me most about the movie was how feminist the movie is, and not in a negative way. One thing my wife kept discussing on the ride home was how well the movie created strong female characters. The Dora Milaje, an all-female throne protecting combat unit is lead by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Gurira, who has become popular thanks to her incredible work on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” deserves unlimited credit on creating another badass who is both witty and intelligent. Speaking of brains, I love that the smartest character in the whole movie is Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s brother and an all-purpose female version of James Bond’s Q. Although the gadgets and inventions coming from Shuri would make Bond uber-jealous. There isn’t a single woman in this movie who is the stereotypical damsel-in-distress, every woman shows profound strength and smarts.

The movie is known for featuring a predominant black cast, and as far as that goes, the film features a who’s-who of the best black actors in the business. Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Isaach de Bankole, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all delivering absolutely incredible performances. All putting in the effort to help create a believable world. Even though the supporting cast is great, its Chadwick Boseman who drives the whole thing as the lead. He expands his character from his introduction in “Civil War” and continues to push why he popularized the character in the first place. I wasn’t too impressed by “42” or “Get On Up” as movies, but Boseman’s power as a performer was undeniable, he’s going to have a great career.

I don’t want to get too far into spoilers, because right before “Infinity War” is released, I will discuss “Black Panther” again. All I want to say is my biggest gripe with “Black Panther” is a gripe I have with many of the MCU movies. If Loki has had as much mileage in these movies as he has. Even Nebula is starting to branch out seemingly. This all proves that the villains can be just as marketable as the heroes, and in the comic books, the superheroes had frequent run-ins with their ever-growing rogues galleries. I wish I could say the same about these movies.

For now, I can’t wait to see the future of this franchise. Kevin Fiege is already trying to get Ryan Coogler attached for a sequel, and that is great news. I hope Coolger gets the same clout and freedom that James Gunn, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers have at Marvel. After how well he created this corner of the universe, I can’t imagine it in anybody else’s hands. “Black Panther” was everything I hoped it would be and more and its an announcement that Wakanda truly will be forever.

And man, all of that writing and I didn’t even touch upon the vibranium-armored war rhinos…

FINAL GRADE: A

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