Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hail to the King? - Black Panther, Reviewed

Having purchased my tickets for Black Panther nearly two weeks ago, and hankering to see it since it was announced three years ago, I have been doing my best to avoid reviews. It's difficult to ignore all the accolades, or the fact that it has one of the highest ratings ever on Rotten Tomatoes for a mainstream blockbuster. And then there's the fact that it could make $180 $200 million in its opening weekend, putting the boots to Deadpool's record for a February opening from two years ago and potentially having the biggest opening for a superhero movie ever. Best of all, all the right sort of people (i.e. bigots, racists, the alt-right) seem to dislike it. So what's left to say in a review, at this point?

I guess my perspective is that of an extra-large boy who has loved the faithful job Marvel Studios has done in reimagining its larger than life characters for the silver screen on 17 previous occasions (!), and wants them to continue doing so. One eye watches as a movie fan, the other as a comics fan, and both eyes were happy with Black Panther.

Like most, if not all, of the Marvel flicks, it enjoys brisk pacing, with little to no filler, and a 2:20 runtime that simply flew by for me. Unlike most of them though, it also features a compelling and relatable villain in the form of Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. He is compelled to action not by greed or megalomania, but by a vision of a world where the resources of isolationist Wakanda are instead used as weapons against oppression. He asks the question that most of the audience has as well: how could rich, advanced Wakanda allow such evils to go on, when they had the power to stop it?

The movie asks lots of other questions as well, most notably, what would a pan-African futurist utopia look like? And the answer they have come up with is fascinating. The architecture, costumes, makeup and technology all have an afro-futuristic feel to them, making them unique in a make-believe world full of outlandish innovations. For instance, the majority of Wakandans walk barefoot, an intentional choice by the filmmakers.

To be fair, that fantasy is what makes it safe for the movie to ask hard questions - "What if a meteorite full of an ultra-rare mineral, the hardest substance in the universe but also an unparalleled absorber of energy and apparently a power source as well, embedded itself in a naturally isolated part of central Africa and enabled the emerging nation to have unequalled prosperity and technological advancement? Oh, and also a heart-shaped herb that could grant their rulers superhuman physical attributes?"

But if Star Trek can imagine a peaceful and abundant future, what's wrong with Black Panther visualizing the same thing in the present day?

The story is probably the most Shakespearean thing Marvel has done, crafting a heady mix of the bonds of legacy, the weight of rulership, political machinations both in the royal court and in a larger geopolitical sense, righteous vendettas and secret princes. The action pieces are up to Marvel's usual high standard, although the prevalent use of CGI to pair impossible stunts with even more impossible camera angles make me wish George Miller would direct one.

T'Challa's struggle for grace, his impetus to be merciful where he can, his acknowledgment of the shortcomings of his predecessors, all combine to create one more decent bloke for the Marvel Universe. I am certain that this moral underpinning in its title characters has as much to do with Marvel's ongoing success as the costumes, quips and immense fight scenes.

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa makes a reflective counterpoint to Killmonger's understandable anger, but the women in the supporting cast are a big part of what propels the movie forward.  Danai Gurira (Walking Dead) plays Okoye, Wakanda's leading general and head of the Dora Milaje, an all female retinue loyal to the king (and potential betrothed in the comics, something I hope they touch upon in the inevitable sequel). She is almost impossibly badass, and her confidence is simply a joy to watch on screen, especially when she finds herself conflicted in the third act, weighing her affection for her king against her responsibility to the throne.

Lupita Nyong'o is Nakia, one of Wakanda's many intelligence operatives and T'Challa's former flame, and struggles with the best way she can serve her homeland. Meanwhile his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) balances her sibling sassiness with tremendous knowledge of medicine, science and engineering, reminding me of nothing so much as a young, black, female Q. Angela Basset, one of my favourite black actresses, really has to work to project her regality in the face of all this, but of course, she does this with aplomb.

I could go on about the supporting cast, especially 6'5" Winston Duke who plays rival chieftain M'Baku (who some might recognize as Man-Ape from the comics, a sobriquet they thankfully avoided in this iteration). Or how director Ryan Coogler (Creed) brought many of his previous crews to this film to make it look and feel distinct from the other Marvel movies, including cinematographer Rachel Morrison (first black woman D.P to be nominated for an Oscar), and composer Ludwig Goransson. But in the end, I can simply tell you that this movie is well worth seeing.

Similar to last year's Wonder Woman, Black Panther does a far better job of highlighting real-world issues like racism, injustice and inequality than it does in solving them, but that is not its job, Although, come to think of it, fielding a comic movie about a long-established black character, helmed by a black director, with a black screenwriter, cinematographer and largely black cast, is probably a step in the right direction don't you think?

Like Star Trek, it holds up an idealized fiction to show us what a better world might look like, and that even a utopia can still have its problems. Black Panther tells a familial story with far-reaching consequences, and does so in a way that makes the impossible accessible, and in a way that is beautiful (and funny, and tragic) to behold.

Wakanda forever!

1 comment:

  1. Ooh...I am really looking forward to seeing this one. It opens here March 1st and I am quite excited. We've already confirmed with our local cinema that it'll be playing in English, so that's a good thing!

    Thanks for the preview :-)