Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther / **** (PG-13)

T’Challa/Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman
Erik Killmonger: Michael B. Jordan
Nakia: Lupita Nyong’o
Okoye: Danai Gurira
Shuri: Letitia Wright
Everett K. Ross: Martin Freeman
W’Kabi: Daniel Kaluuya
M’Baku: Winston Duke
N’Jobu: Sterling K. Brown
Ramonda: Angela Bassett
Zuri: Forest Whitaker
Ulysses Klaue: Andy Serkis

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Coogler & Joe Robert Cole. Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture).

You’re going to read a great deal about the box office of Black Panther. You’re going to read many quotes from critics calling Black Panther “ground breaking.” You’re going to read that Black Panther is the best comic book movie ever made. For most people, none of this will really matter. For most people, Black Panther will just be a good time at the movies. It accomplishes this with a predominantly black cast in an international story that includes only two white supporting characters. That right there is the biggest reason why all of the previous things I listed are true. However, what is most remarkable about Black Panther is that all of those things said about it would also be true even if most people didn’t go to see it.

The character of Black Panther was first introduced to theatergoers in the movie Captain America: Civil War as part of Marvel’s reinvention of franchising with their cinematic universe of interlocking movies and story lines. Although for audiences Black Panther’s story began there, I doubt many who were not already familiar with the character from comic books could’ve imagined what the Panther’s full story might entail. During that film we learn the masked vigilante known as the Black Panther is T’Challa, the prince of a mysterious third world African nation Wakanda. T’Challa’s father, the King of Wakanda, is assassinated during a UN speech, now we are given the complete truth about Wakanda and T’Challa’s greater role in the MCU.

As it turns out, Wakanda is hardly a Third World country. That is a cover for the most technologically advanced country in the world, made so because of its location on top of the planet’s only reserve of a precious metal known as vibranium. MCU fans will know this metal as the substance used to make Captain America’s indestructible shield. The Wakandan government’s stance throughout the years has been that allowing this technology into the rest of the world would risk it falling into the wrong hands. Of course, what little bit of vibranium that has gotten out into the world has been sought after by those wrong hands, usually supplied by Ulysses Klaue, a mercenary and weapons dealer seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Klaue was responsible for the theft of what was believed by the world to be the last of the vibranium reserve and the death of the father of one of T’Challa’s top advisors and friend, W’Kabi. T’Challa receives a lead as to Klaue’s whereabouts and assembles a mission to bring the madman to justice. However, Erik Killmonger, a man with mysterious ties to the secretive country of Wakanda, thwarts their efforts.

The plot of the film could inhabit just about any political action thriller. It is remarkable because there really has never been a black political action thriller. The filmmakers don’t really highlight this fact. The plot is presented as matter-of-factly as any comic book story. This is just the way it is in the Marvel universe. Nor do the filmmakers ignore the realities of the world in which we live. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler appropriated the Rocky mythos to explore the modern black experience in America in his phenomenal screenplay for Creed, here he and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole do a similar treatment to the superhero model, questioning the responsibility black people hold in their own world perception. They neither blame nor excuse but say, “We must do better for ourselves.”

Improving upon the typical superhero model, Coogler also provides a complex human being for both his hero and his villain here. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is a leader who never really wanted the responsibility of leading. He leans heavily on his throne’s supporting cast for his own morality. The love of his life, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), operates as a spy for the kingdom primarily because she sees so much injustice outside the walls of Wakanda. She can’t bring herself to come home. The old ways provide resistance to change that T’Challa isn’t willing to push against on his own. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), operates as the kingdom’s chief scientist, opposed to most all traditions in favor of progress. She leaves a little to be desired in terms of diplomacy. And his highest general, Okoye (Danai Gurira), sees the benefit of new thinking while she is still loyal to the throne above all else, possibly even ideology. With these characters, Black Panther represents the many different political mindsets that a progressive government requires. Nyong’o, Wright, and Gurira bring great amounts of humanity to these diverse female representations of strength.

Killmonger, on the other hand, does not just represent the blinded vision his name signifies. While he is blinded by revenge, his reasoning isn’t without merit. Michael B. Jordan portrays Killmonger as a multilayered villain. He’s street hewn and clearly the smartest person in the room. His origins, which I won’t reveal here, speak to a grave injustice, and not one of a general race-related grievance, but a very personal injustice made much more profound by systemic inequalities thriving in America and throughout the world. His position against Wakanda in particular deal with injustices perpetuated by a government unwilling to help its own in fear of breaking traditions and exposing itself to the world in a light it does not wish to admit.

Of course, the greatest achievement of Black Panther is to provide millions with superhero idols they’ve never been able to see who look the same way they do. It doesn’t do this with any sense of antagonism. The two supporting white characters are not used as symbols of racial inequality. Both are non-judgmental of their black counterparts or superiors. Andy Serkis’s Klaue is as much a tool of Killmonger as any henchman would be in any action thriller. I liked that Martin Freeman’s CIA Agent Ross isn’t used as an obstacle for the heroes as he was in Civil War. Instead he’s an equal who brings his own useful skills to achieving the heroes’ ends.

The accomplishments of the filmmakers are hardly limited to the roles of minority characters and minority actors, directors, and writers in mainstream cinema blockbusters. The movie is also the most gorgeous film that Marvel has released to date, and lately that’s saying something as Marvel has recently stepped up its production designs with such efforts as Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Thor: Ragnarok. The production design is vibrant, full of color and features wonderful traditional African design aesthetics mixed with a science fiction approach to affect the unique and stunning look of the technologically advanced society of Wakanda. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is just as brilliant. Morrison recently made history by becoming the first woman ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for her work on the Netflix movie Mudbound. Next year she may break another gender barrier by being the first woman nominated for a film with a blockbuster budget.

Whether you watch Black Panther as another superhero entertainment or as the groundbreaking, multi-layered, ceiling-breaking milestone that it is for minority representation in mainstream filmmaking, it is a blast to watch that embraces the high standards Marvel has been bringing to its movies since it started its own cinematic universe. It has been called the greatest superhero movie ever made. While that may be debatable, what isn’t debatable is that it is so good, all of the other things it is hardly matter in enjoying it. And that is why all the things it is matter so much.

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