I graduated college in 2008. During my final semester I took an overnight job at Motorola and worked with a few temps who happened to be black. I wound up working there way longer than expected and the closer we got to November and election day I noticed something rather remarkable. So many of my coworkers who never once gave a shit about politics were excited to vote, some of them for the first time despite being in their 70s. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt Barack Obama would be our next president and I also learned a little about what it felt like to finally have someone representing you.
As a white man I don’t have that type of hardship. Call it white privilege but as long as I can remember political candidates look like me and most of the heroes in movies whether they be super or not tend to bare a resemblance. Now I know many black people do love comic books and super heroes, but I can also guarantee there were many people at the Regal Cinema in Jack London Square on Thursday night who were seeing their very first super hero movie. I’ve been to some midnight screenings before and you’ll see your fair share of nerds but this was something else. This was a celebration of all things black and African. Like that second Tuesday in November of 2008 I was witnessing a group of people mobilized and celebrating the fact that for once they were witnessing one of their own. Perhaps this is because I was seeing the film in the director Ryan Coogler's hometown, and one of the most historically black cities on the west coast, but unlike the 16 previous Marvel movies, this one seemed bigger than comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s hard to talk about this film without getting into the bigger picture here. This film is unapologetically black in all the best ways. It celebrates black culture in a way that not only shows African culture as equals globally but in many ways blatantly superior. It’s a film that might scare idiotic and easily threatened white people, but again is more of a cultural event than a random super hero movie. Marvel has built up a ton of good will with their Cinematic Universe and although it might seem insulting it’s taken this long to bring Black Panther to the screen, it is a character whose time has come. This franchise has been painfully patient when it comes to introducing characters and you can tell there is a definite desire to get this right rather than just get it out.
Hollywood often lacks imagination when it comes to what will sell. This is the reason we had to wait an embarrassingly long amount of time for Wonder Woman to get her own film. That movie vastly exceeded expectations and proved to be the only modern DC film people actually somewhat enjoyed. Black Panther as a character isn’t nearly as universally known as Wonder Woman but it once again showed that a large segment of the population was ready and waiting to see themselves represented on screen.
I know nearly twenty years ago Blade came out in theaters and damn it it’s still a pretty awesome movie. In many ways Blade was the first Marvel movie that helped opened the doors to X-Men, Spider Man, and eventually the MCU. When Blade came out we were all so excited to see any sort of super hero it didn’t matter. Although Blade was undoubtedly black, his race seemed largely incidental in that film and franchise. The Luke Cage Netflix show used clumsy kid gloves trying to tell an inner city story about a Harlem super hero that seemed incapable of taking chances. Cage was largely a boring show because it seemed the show’s creators were too scared to offend people or alienate others that it largely played it down the middle and left us wishing the show had some balls. Thirty minutes into Black Panther and that is not the case. This film punches you in the face with African culture, it embraces it’s blackness in a way that is downright inspiring and truly beautiful.
Now before this white man starts talking any more about what this film means to black people I’d like to actually try and discuss the film on it’s own merits and to some degree how it fits within the MCU. These films have occasionally gotten a little formulaic and considering I’ve reviewed so many of them I honestly wonder if I’m falling prey to my own cliches when I break them down. So I suppose I should get into my what I liked and disliked sections but forgive me if bigger picture issues muddy up the waters.
Many solo films in the MCU do tend to stand alone, but I feel like not since the first wave of movies have we really seen a film largely ignore the rest of the MCU. Sure we know T’Challa was introduced in Civil War, and the death of his father is shown in flashback. Also Klaw is an early antagonist and we first see him in Age of Ultron, losing his arm no less. It is perhaps a little ironic that one of the two white people in the film happen to play a villain. For an actor that spent so much of his career creating iconic roles for CGI characters it is nice to see Andy Serkis get to be a human here, and he seems to relish every devious moment his character has. I’m not going to lie, I thought Klaw was a very minor player in Age of Ultron, and didn’t connect the dots of who he was which is one of the great things about these movies playing for the long haul.
Black Panther largely ignores the outside world and the other films and events of the Marvel Universe. This makes it prefect for those people who are just coming on board to this movie here, because anything that happened in a previous film is quickly referenced to so you don’t need a phD in MCU history to appreciate what’s going on, nor do you necessarily need to be all caught up on these films to get everything. Now I would say that I might get into some spoilers so again I recommend seeing this film before reading further but I’ll try not to divulge too many details.
Erik Killmonger was without a doubt my favorite part of this film. Michael B. Jordan is absolutely phenomenal here and I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for him and his character rather than our hero. Marvel movies have given us a fair share of monster of the week villains who want to bring destruction because blah blah blah destiny, etc. In recent films they’ve come to almost laugh at these motivations and have made things slightly more interesting but Killmonger is something different. He is from Oakland but Wakanda by blood and man does he have a point. He knows that Wakanda and their Vibranium can help liberate oppressed black people throughout the globe and it isn’t hard to take his side. Perhaps a few of his methods might seem to go overboard because after all we’re supposed to view him as a villain but even T'Challa begrudgingly seem to admit he was at least partially right.
Now there are a few things that didn’t really work here. There were a few half-assed attempts at comic relief most of which went over about as well as a fart at a funeral. In many ways this movie does take itself very seriously so even the occasional attempt to add some levity winds up seeming awkward and forced. Luckily these moments are few and far between so you just cringe and move on. I also was thoroughly removed from any sense of reality when CGI rhinos showed up to fight. I know they showed up earlier in the film but they looked far more silly than menacing. Last bit of nitpicking is that when looking through the credits it appears as though the scenes set in Oakland were actually filmed somewhere in Atlanta. Much like I shook my first in anger at Chicago being filmed in Toronto, I have to gripe a little about this considering the director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland and damn it I wanted my town to be in this properly.
|Too many strong black women to count|
If you were keeping track the faults I found with this movie are all definitely in the minor category, especially if you were one of the people who were put off by the over abundance of humor in Thor: Ragnarok or the Guardians movies. What this film does right is so much more. I haven’t even begun to mention the absurd amount of strong female characters here. This isn’t a token female gets to be a bad ass, it’s more like every female is either a hell of a fighter, incredibly smart, powerful, and proud warriors. It takes a special gift to make these characters seem authentic in their abilities and powers rather than forced examples of inclusion. This is something the last couple of Star Wars films have been unable to do for the record.
Now I am reluctant to get into some sort of recency bias and declare this a transcendent masterpiece. I do think some perspective is necessary when assessing what this film means in the larger picture. Structurally a lot of things are right in this film. There are a few moments when there seem to be fight scenes drawn out just for the sake of having action. A few plot points seem slightly clumsy that help to motivate story and character arcs but didn’t seem to make rational sense among the characters. *Spoilers* Why didn’t T'Chaka take Erik home to Wakanda when he was a kid? Why did they immediately agree to duel each other when both eventually come to a similar conclusion?
|Still obligated by law to have your hero shirtless|
These are the types of things that tend to stick out when you think too much about everything, but seem like potential flaws that can be exposed like a sore thumb upon closer inspection. I’m reluctant to declare this a masterpiece right out of the gate but it is a damn good movie, and one that was long overdue. The cast is all pretty excellent and the one performer I feared most for Forest Whitaker mercifully didn’t bring his Rogue One or Battlefield Earth performance here. The females and villains however remain the best of the scene-stealers.
The film does strike a little close to home at the end. T’Challa eventually decides that he wants to help the rest of the world, particularly black people with Wakanda’s technology and resources. The first place they establish a base in is Oakland, and looking around my neighborhood I can’t help but wish there was some super human help on the way. People here really do need help and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of melancholy knowing that this was just a movie and the help was was purely fictitious.