Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Marvel Watch: Black Panther (2018)

Watched:  02/15/2018 and 02/25/2018
Format:  Alamo Slaughter Lane/ Alamo Village
Viewing:  First/ Second
Decade:  2010's

I'm supposed to schedule with AmyC to do a podcast on this film.  I need to get that done.  In the meantime...

Writing about Black Panther (2018) is, perhaps, not terribly useful at this point.  The movie is a legitimate phenomenon in box office and in cultural conversation.  Both of these things are yet another sign among many of the past few years that we're undergoing some tectonic shifts in Hollywood, unlearning the rules of the industry when it comes to what audiences actually do want.  As of this writing, Black Panther had raked in $700 million worldwide, and, if my sold out 7:00 on a Sunday show was any indication, shows no signs of stopping.

As a white dude who is as much of a white dude as you're like to meet, I get the basic contours of what this film has meant to a Black audience, in America and abroad, but I won't pretend to have been more than an observer.*  By this late date, it's possible or likely you've seen photos of people who've "dressed" for the movie, watched video of kids attending crowd-funded screenings... and more than likely you've read one or five of the dozens and dozens of think pieces circulating.  So I don't know what new I can add, and I'll try not to belabor those points.

On Sunday the 25th, Jamie and I went with JuanD to catch Black Panther for a second viewing, and I'm glad we did.  I am pleased to report that I liked the movie even more on a second viewing, and while I know folks' mileage varies wildly on Marvel movies (yes, they're all the same, you've very smart.  Have a cookie.), I truly do feel like this is one of their best efforts.  Black Panther stretches past the usual trappings of a sci-fi superhero movie to actually,  here in the first installment, challenge the implications of the film and not let the characters off the hook.  While, yes, it's a movie about super powered beings getting into a fight - opposite sides of the coin characters, in fact - the motivations in a Marvel movie speak less to generalities and more to very real, understandable specifics.  And those specifics are heartbreakingly real and raw.

You know, a lot of times we sniff at the way superhero comics take on larger social issues.  The medium and genre don't always make it easy to take it seriously when they take on things like drugs, or seeing the world from the Black perspective.


Kirby and Lee created Black Panther way back in the first five years of Fantastic Four, and from the get-go, T'Challa was pitched as Reed Richards' intellectual peer and equal, but also the martial artist and all-around super fighter guy who has evolved over the decades to what we got in the film.

Kirby, in particular, had a particularly progressive bent, and Lee was always up for a ripping yarn.  Wakanda fit neatly into Marvel's tendency to lean on existing fantasy and adventure tropes and likely didn't have a subversive subtext to the kids reading those early comics featuring T'Challa - it was one more lost culture for white explorers to uncover.  Remarkably, though, T'Challa was not presented as an antagonist to be subjugated, and that, in itself, is of note.   Eventually T'Challa was brought to the US for a while, posing as a teacher, returned to Wakanda to reign over his technologically advanced nation and feature in one of very few Black-starring stories.

I wasn't around back then and read about Black Panther's winding narrative via Marvel RPG supplements, but way back sometime in middle school, I picked up my first Black Panther comic.  It was the four-issue mini-series in 1988 by Denys Cowan and Peter B. Gillis.**   The cover was dynamic and I wanted to learn who this cool-looking character was, why he wasn't in urban New York, etc....  The series pitted T'Challa against an invading force of super-powered interlopers from - I'll admit, I can't remember - either South Africa or an analog for South Africa.

Between this comic and a two issue Teen Titans Spotlight featuring Starfire - someone was explaining Apartheid to me in the language of story and analogy, and that did as much to raise my adolescent awareness as any years' worth of news stories.  Again - say what you will about comics talking social issues, but somehow the super-human King of a small, sci-fi kingdom was what turned it from one more international atrocity on the evening news into something urgent and an existential crisis.

In college I took some African History and African Geography, and these classes provided me with a lot of context I'd lacked as that white kid from Spring.  So, by the time I got to the Priest and Hudlin runs - what had felt like a pretty cool fantasy sci-fi environment to me as a younger reader took on the edge of political statement.

No one will claim that Africa did not suffer war or other issues prior to the arrival of colonists and the scramble for African territories, but to this day Africa struggles in the wake of the pre-colonial and colonial period, not to mention the proxy wars of the Cold War and ongoing exploitation by outside interests.

The comics did share some history of Wakanda - depicting first invading African neighbors, then the repulsion of colonial forces, a secret and mysterious high tech defense, paired with the Black Panther, which denied all invaders, but leaving Wakanda shrouded in myth and mystery.  Left in relative peace, Wakanda was able to thrive and prosper.  Hudlin's run, in a fairly short sequence, is able to illustrate the impenetrable nature of what trying to invade Wakanda and seize its marvels cost interlopers.

Better than average comics?  Sure.  But what does it mean to show a thriving African nation, untouched by the hands of outside interference?  Why is that a fantasy unto itself?  And the notion that one of the Golden Age kingdoms of Africa also had the technological edge thanks to a space-mineral, and they'd lived in relative peace, building a sci-fi kingdom of their own?

As the comics I read were not from the first few decades of Black Panther's existence, mostly, the stories I read addressed the challenges of being a man of goodwill attempting to lead and govern, protecting the nation, and all that within the Marvel Universe.  So occasionally you deal with Doctor Doom or Namor or Mephisto.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is - flat out - a brilliant person and writer, and his recent Black Panther run has been a study in what we all hoped superhero comics could rise to as mature (truly mature) storytelling, of wrestling with huge issues, wound in myth and science fiction.  If Superman is a story of what one strange visitor would do with power to bend the world to his will, and using it to make the world better and safer via personal strength and invulnerability, Black Panther asks what would a good man do as king, not just with the power of the Black Panther, but with a nation of untold wonders at his disposal and one he must protect and lead into the future.

So, yeah, I'll admit, for a good number of years now I've viewed Black Panther as a strong political statement existing hidden like Wakanda itself in the middle of superherodom.  And I'm thrilled those ideas made it to the silver screen.

So what does this all have to do with the movie?

There was a very strong chance this movie could have been made back in the 90's.  We certainly had marquee African-American stars who could have anchored it during the star system days.  But you know it would have been 15 minutes in Wakanda as Klaw kills T'Chaka, T'Challa having to take the throne and then pursuing Klaw to Los Angeles or whatever city was doubling for New York that week.  And probably a Vibranium bomb that was "going to level the city". Essentially any Shadow type one-off film mixed with what would have inevitably been compared to Coming To America.

But we got lucky.  While the wait was too long and the movie overdue, the audience was primed for something new and Marvel has learned that taking a chance by just going all in and letting directors have a vision does pay off.

Since Christopher Priest picked up the book 20 years ago, through Priest, Hudlin and Coates, we've had a chance to see T'Challa as a character working in nuance unique, in many ways, in comics.  He deals with monarchical issues, family issues, Marvel Universe issues, wrestles with the past, present and future in a way that seldom relies on two fists and a lot of gumption.  When Batman is done for the night, he goes back to the cave and is done.  Black Panther is a king.  He is literally responsible for a wildly advanced civilization, but one surrounded by the history of our world.  He doesn't say "my city" like a spoiled kid with entitlement issues, Bruce.  He is literally held responsible for what happens when he does and does not act.

If Captain America asks: what does a person do when the world does not live up to his ethics?
If Superman asks:  what does a person of ethics do when given the power to crack the Earth in half?
If Iron Man asks:  what does a person do when he has power and discovers the ethical path?
Then Black Panther asks:  what does an ethical man do when responsible for so many, and all paths have their ethical quandaries?

The film of Black Panther is essentially one long question of: was hiding Wakanda wrong?

We know the colonial history of Africa, and in this movie-verse, the cities and technology remained hidden.  The colonizers may have taken the rest of Africa, but Wakanda - useless, goat-herding Wakanda - remained free and nobody cared.

But that decision had consequences, and in the manner of movies, that consequence becomes personal and walks right into T'Challa's home.  And, for once in one of these Marvel movies, the villain may be wrong in what they want to do, but their reasons for doing so scream with truth. 

I didn't know Chadwick Boseman before he was cast in Captain America: Civil War, but I did know a lot of the rest of the cast of Black Panther.  I'll just give a general blanket statement that the acting in the film is roundly excellent - when Angela Bassett is who you're casting in secondary roles, you're doing okay, my friends.

Lupita Nyong'o is somehow part of every franchise in the western hemisphere at the moment, but that's not a problem as her Nakia, especially paired with Danai Gurira's serious general Okoye, make for an ideal spy/ soldier dichotomy.  Daniel Kaluuya's Wakabi, a one-note character anywhere else and probably played by a cackling Brian Blessed, is all heart and clear in purpose.  And we all love Letitia Wright's Shuri.  This isn't even a question. 

Part of why I relaxed and enjoyed it a bit more on a second viewing - while we're hardly free from action movie tropes and cliches, we have stopped doing some things I would have expected out of a movie fifteen years ago, that I never thought made sense fifteen years ago and earlier - like killing off side-kick type characters.  I mean, we had two strong female women who believed in T'Challa.  Surely one of them had to wind up dead at the end of the second act to drive the stakes up in the third act.  But, nope.  Instead we got a chance to see Okoye have her own arc through to completion, and that feels significant.  She doesn't have to die in order for her character to have meaning or for our hero to have purpose.  The dream of Wakanda is enough.  And we aren't stuck with a convenient "woman in a refrigerator" trope that serves no one well.

I was never particularly enamored of Killmonger in the Black Panther comics, but did understand him as a foil to T'Challa.  And saw Klaw as the bad penny that just turns up and gets under his skin.  And it's honestly a little weird to see Everett Ross played more as Felix Leiter than as comedy relief (but as one of our Tolkein white guys, Martin Freeman does a really very good job with what he's got, while Serkis' Klaue is exactly the over the top rat bastard you didn't know you wanted).

A lot can be said for how this movie ends.  This isn't Cap punching Red Skull until space/time rips apart and he disappears or Hulk slugging mutant Tim Roth until he stops moving.  Instead, a real Civil War begins, one based on actual principles.  The leaders of a nation that has been held together by subterfuge and wealth realizes it is clinging to a rotten core.  For all the wrong paths of Erik Stephens to get to Wakanda, for all the wrong ways he wishes to take the nation and the world, he isn't wrong about why he wants to do it.

How weird is it that the scene in the movie that moved me most was the one of Killmonger on the ancestral plane, his vision of only a small apartment and a father weeping for his child?

Iron Man came out of the gate not entirely soft-selling the role of arms manufacturers - and whether we, as the audience, glossed over this fact, is our doing.  They certainly said it again in both Iron Man sequels.   It's harder to apply similar weight to Thor and Ant-Man, but Captain America has felt timeless and therefore timely with each installment.  And while that may be commentary ripped from Time Magazine, Black Panther takes on a past many would rather ignore or say others should ignore, that it has nothing to do with our present.  That a superhero movie puts the lie to this notion, that a character cast as a villain's rage at the lie is hot enough that it bends our fictional country and galvanizes our protagonist's nascent beliefs...

That's something.

I've always liked T'Challa of the comics.  As I've grown older and maybe don't take Batman's brooding cynicism as seriously, T'Challa has aged well and made a lot of sense, even when he's making mistakes.  I don't think you could bring the dour king of the comics to the screen and not make him feel more than one-note, and Boseman does an admirable job of showing the many facets of the King.

What were we all so lucky as to have a King who knew compassion and learned and earned wisdom like what we've seen in just two short movies.

Anyway - heck of a movie, and one, like the Cap movies, I'll be watching over and over, I'm sure.

*I recently had an online discussion with a regular reader regarding some of the, uh... perhaps too diligent lefty white people takes on just going to see the movie, and while I don't want to seem that ridiculous.  I know what I don't know, and am not going to try to put to voice someone else's narrative.

**I didn't yet know the name "Cowan" - that would come with my reading of The Question Quarterly over at DC, and his work on The Shadow Line book Doctor Zero at Epic, and well before Milestone and Static.


Simon MacDonald said...

Even though I wasn't able to see the movie during the opening weekend I snuck out and saw it twice the following week. I absolutely loved this movie. It's easily in the top 5 of all the Marvel movies for me. What was particularly awesome about this one aside from the obvious where African American's and women both get some great roles but the villain, if you can call Killmonger one, was the best we've seen so far in the MCU. He's got some real believable motivations behind why he's behaving in the manner he is and why you may not agree with his methods you have to think, "he's not wrong".

I was really struck by the parallels between this flick and Shakespearean tragedies.

Ryan Steans said...


I had a twitter conversation with a film reviewer who was opining that not enough people were making comparisons between this and The Lion King (and I was like: hey, people are going to read that as both not right and vaguely racist, but you be you) and we got off on a tangent about how Lion King - when I worked at the Disney Store leading up to the film's release - was being pitched internally as a Hamlet reimagining.

Because, yes... any time you're talking ascension and rights to thrones and the complications and pitfalls that you get if you knock it off with the "Chosen One" nonsense, you get to expose characters at a very essential core. There's so much at stake in these conflicts that are both family spats and macrocosmic. I mean, that's the thing: T'Challa wants to be good and wise and do as good a job of protecting his kingdom as his ancestors, but he is aware of what that cost everyone else in a way his ancestors couldn't see. And it's really Eric Killmonger's history that drives it home for him. The difference not being in retreating to status quo, but in how we move forward, with an open hand or clenched fist.