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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Panther

This is going to be a slightly different review as I'm actually going to get a bit into both the massive pre-hype that the film received and, perhaps more crucially, the audience I saw the film with - both of which did (adversely) affect my appreciation of the film. Fortunately, though I still have my issues with it, a bit of time has given me a far better perspective on the film and what it was trying to do.

SPOILER WARNING: Please note that though I will do my best to avoid spoiling any actual plot details, I will be going into the themes of the film quite a bit and because these themes are often tied into the characters and plot of the film, you may well be able to infer just a bit more than you want to know about the film. As such, if you want to know as little as possible about the movie going in, it might be best to read the actual review section of this feature-length essay/ ramble after you have seen it.

The Preamble

To get this out of the way first, Black Panther is almost unquestionably the most hyped Marvel movie this side of the first Avengers. Why this is, though, is still at least something of a mystery. For a start, for all that people have talked about this being the first Marvel movie to be headlined by a black superhero, this rather ignores the great black superheroes that we have already had in Marvel's movies, both from Marvel Studios and their rivals/ collaborators Fox and Sony: War Machine, the Falcon, Storm, Johnny Storm (though I'm sure everyone would rather forget everything about Fant4astic) and, yes, Black Panther himself. It's true that these characters were either supporting roles or part of an ensemble but you certainly can't say that about Blade: the black vampire-superhero that literally started off this wave of comic book movies some twenty years ago and finally put marvel on the cinematic map!

And yet, I don't want to be a total ass about this. Yes, a lot of this did come across as your typical hectoring by so-called SJWs and the ultra-PC-brigade (and I say this as a rather left-of-centre liberal: I think these movements are well-intentioned; they're just annoying and wrong-headedly fanatical) but no doubt a large part of this is simply about this generation of black Marvel fans rejoicing in their being represented by a truly kick-ass and incredibly heroic black - nay African! - superhero in his own major Marvel movie. Nothing wrong with that. It's certainly no more fair to hold that against them than the gleeful reception that Wonder Woman received by female audiences of all ages - though, from where I'm standing, I still think Wonder Woman was the bigger deal.

Personally, I thought the trailers for the film looked no more than fine and, though I very much enjoyed Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, I wasn't really dying to see him in his own film.

My slight aversion to the film's pre-release hype, though, became something closer to genuinely feeling alienated by it thanks to the audience with which I saw the film at the pre-release screening last week.

Let me try and explain...       

I'm a "white" South African - are we counting Jews as "white" this week, I honestly can't keep up? - and I saw the film in a press screening with the usual group of maybe ten regular film critics and another thirty, possibly fifty, "guests" who were presumably invited by the PR people at Disney South Africa. Unlike the critics, the majority of these guests were black South Africans - something that became increasingly significant as the film wore on and the difference in reactions to the film proved to be quite... enlightening.

It being a dark cinema, it was obviously impossible to tell exactly who was reacting to what but, as near as I can tell, while Black Panther was just another perfectly solid Marvel movie to most of us "whiteys", the ecstatic reception the film received by the black men and women in the audience was something else entirely. Aside for my usual snobbery of preferring quieter audiences, thank you very much, hearing more than half the audience break into rapturous applause a number of times throughout the film was almost more interesting than the movie itself.

South African audiences tend to not be too vocal in their reactions to films, by and large, so this was something of a novelty straight off the bat but it was also extremely interesting to note which moments elicited the biggest reactions. Much of it was clearly a reaction to the film presenting an immensely empowering vision of the "black experience", which, as I said, I certainly appreciate but there were a few odd moments that pulled me straight out of the film and left me feeling not just alienated by some of my fellow South Africans but suddenly innately aware of just how large the gap remains between races - certainly here in South Africa but no doubt in the world at large too.

Take, for example, the thunderous applause that met the "joke" of a random white guy being called "colonizer" by a certain African woman in the middle of the film. While the line itself was an off-hand remark made by someone who lived her life almost entirely separate from white people and, indeed, much of the rest of the world, the reaction to it was, frankly, kind of disturbing. Is it just me or is applauding wildly for such an off-hand comment, not all that different from my doing the same to some random German dude in the 21st century being called a Nazi? It turned a perfectly decent character moment into something that struck me as severely tone-deaf and, of course, pretty damn limp as far as jokes go.

Still, one certainly cannot police people's reactions and it was an honest reaction by people who are certainly allowed to feel what they feel. Moments like these, though, did unquestionably affect my viewing of the film and, ironically, landed up representing the very opposite of what the film was actually trying to say.

And that, finally, brings me to my review of the film itself - which, as I said, is far more positive now that I've had a chance to think on it a bit (which is itself a huge plus for a Marvel film!) and have put some distance between myself and that sometimes rather uncomfortable screening.

The Story

Picking up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa is now the king of the African country, Wakanda, a paradise of peaceful co-existence and technological miracles all based on the incredible metal Vibranium, that has been hidden from the outside world for centuries. As T'Challa tries to navigate his new role as the king of a country that is edging ever closer to needing to reveal itself to the rest of the world, an outside threat looms in the form of Erik Killmonger, an apparent small-time American criminal with far, far bigger plans than anyone could ever possibly have expected.

The Review

What is perhaps the most surprising discrepancy between the pre-release hype of Black Panther and the film itself is that most of the hype seemed to be primarily based on the fact that this is a major superhero movie written, directed and starring black people, a number of which are honest to goodness Africans, but what's actually remarkable about the film itself is that it uses its "blackness" to elevate a fairly straightforward superhero flick into something a bit more intriguing. It's a black superhero movie, in other words, rather than a superhero movie that happens to feature black people and that's a huge difference.

The character of the Black Panther was created in the mid-sixties, like nearly all of Marvel's characters at the time, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This is a bigger deal than it sounds and directly impacts what works so well about his first, solo cinematic outing. Lee and Kirby were a pair of Jewish comic book creators who created the character as a reaction to and during the Civil Rights movement that was raging at the time. They had already written and then rewritten the rules of superhero comics in their seminal Fantastic Four run but the appearance of this superhero who wasn't just black but was an African king in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) was a huge deal even by their standards.

Here was a pair of white, Jewish Americans who brought an unprecedented black voice to American comics; combining the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the superhero genre with the struggles that black Americans were then going through to achieve equal rights with their white countrymen. It was a voice created from both an outsider perspective and by people who could certainly empathize with the Civil Rights movement. Lee and Kirby may not have been black but they were Jews who had lived through the Second World War and who worked in an industry whose very existence was a creation of necessity by young Jews in the early 20th century who were kept out of "proper" jobs by the anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in America at the time. Hell, Kirby didn't just draw Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of his comic but actively fought Nazis as a soldier when America entered the war.

Since then, Black Panther has been written by a number of black creators (including the likes of Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and, currently, Ta-Nehisi Coates) who, obviously, were far better at capturing T'Challa's "voice" but everything that is interesting about the character was already there in the original creation. And, though it may be well over fifty years since the character first appeared in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, that is certainly true of Ryan Coogler's film too.

Black Panther, the film, recreates the way that Lee and Kirby took the young-nerdy-Jewish-kid wish-fulfillment of the superhero and recontextualized it in the wake of the Civil War movement and flips it by taking the major salient points of the black experience in the 21st century and recontextualizes it in the wake of the apparently neverending popularity of the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is a film that is very much from the black perspective but it is tinged with the universal values that have always been at the core of superhero comics (and now films): idealism, empowerment, hope and a very real sense of, as Bernie Sanders puts it, "we're all in this together." It's a film that directly confronts much of what still angers so many of African-descent - colonialism, income inequality, you name it - but takes what is ultimately an incredibly victimized point of view and puts an empowered spin on it.

While Wakanda itself is basically black wish-fulfillment taken to its most positive conclusion, the main conflict in the film is between T'Challa's view of black empowerment and that of Killmonger. While Killmonger represents a hateful, vengeful take on black empowerment whose response to centuries of black oppression is more violence, more racism, more oppression, T'Challa's sees the only way to empower his people is by transcending the past and working with the descendants of his enemies to making a better world for all. It's not for nothing that T'Challa is, in many respects, Nelson Mandela recast as a superhero - something that feels all the more literal during a speech he delivers during one of the film's two post-credit scenes - where Chadwick Boseman (who, it must be said, is pretty wonderful in the role) directly evokes both the message and speech patterns of the man South Africans call Madiba.

It is precisely this sort of thematic depth that elevates Black Panther above some of the more middling Marvel movies. Nowhere is this more clear than with Killmonger, played with relish by frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator and former Human Torch, Michael B Jordan. There's no getting past it: on a surface level, Killmonger continues the MCU's tradition of populating their films with unimpressive villains and, on a purely visceral level, he may just be the most annoying Marvel villain ever. I for one, could not be more sick and tired of the "angry black man with daddy issues" stereotype and Killmonger is the apotheosis of this annoying character type. And yet, in the context of the film's overriding themes, he is the perfect villain.   

This isn't to say that the film is nothing but its themes. Coogler ups his game and transitions brilliantly from his more grounded work in the past to the more sweeping, epic scope of Black Panther. It's a beautifully designed, perfectly shot film that on a purely visual level is up there with the trippy psychedelia of Doctor Strange in terms of the best looking Marvel movies. It's mostly black cast is pretty great (though, in fairness, none are as fun as Andy Serkis as the film's most outright enjoyable baddie) and the characters are generally well-defined. The action scenes are also generally well done, if somewhat forgettable, and it's certainly to the film's credit that the final battle is a slight twist on the usual world-ending threat.

And yet, putting aside the film's thematic riches, I personally enjoyed it a lot less than most of Marvel Studios' output from the past few years. On a surface level, it just doesn't have the quirkiness, the sense of humour and snappiness of my favourite Marvel movies. Also, it's interesting that despite the fact that it has a somewhat different plot to most Marvel movies it still felt weirdly overly familiar and the pacing and general story structure struck me as being more than a little off.   

These are in many ways quibbles, though, and are probably more about what I want from this sort of film than any major flaws that the film itself has. It's certainly not perfect but it's a film that is, in many ways, actually far more worthwhile than its insane hype suggests (even if it doesn't quite live up to it in some other ways) and delivers a powerful and empowering message that people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds would do well to heed.


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