Thursday, February 22, 2018

Guest Review: Black Panther (2018)

by tryanmax

The latest installment in the MCU franchise arrived amid massive hype and expectations. It handily exceeded box office projections and breathless believers are convinced that it represents a watershed moment in black cinema. In truth, Black Panther doesn’t tread much new ground in terms of the Marvel Universe or cinema in general. Where the film does succeed, it is by telling an origin story that doesn’t feel stale within a franchise that has already pumped out a bevy of origin stories and doing a large amount of world-building in a way that doesn’t leave the end product feeling over-stuffed. All told, Black Panther gets the job done.

The script follows a classic sins-of-the-father narrative. We are reminded briefly of the events of Captain America: Civil War, wherein King T’Chaka of Wakanda is killed, causing his throne and the mantle of the Black Panther to pass to his son T’Challa. As the story progresses, we learn that the dead king had a brother, N'Jobu, who went to Oakland, CA as a Wakandan spy and become obsessed with ‘liberating’ black people the world over using advanced Wakandan weaponry. A confrontation between the T’Chaka and N’Jobu leads to the latter’s death, leaving behind a son. The son grows up to become Killmonger, who seeks to fulfill his father’s ambitions and capture the Wakandan throne.
A few James Bond-esque sequences get the story rolling: a heist in London, a casino and car-chase in South Korea, joined in the middle by a trip to Q’s, er, Shuri’s workshop/lab. Shuri is T’Challa’s sister and the latest addition to the super-genius club that includes Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Hank Pym, Rocket Raccoon, and Peter Parker. Shuri designs all of Wakanda’s technology and infrastructure using the near-magical substance vibranium. Thought to be extremely rare—with the bulk being tied up in Captain America’s shield—Wakanda just so happens to sit atop a mountain of the stuff. Thanks to Shuri and vibranium, Wakanda looks like a stop-off for the Guardians of the Galaxy if they encountered a planet with a thing for Afrofuturism.
In terms of breaking cultural ground, it has been amusing to watch the true believers scrabble about for a “first” that Black Panther qualifies for. Ultimately, it is merely the first black superhero movie of the MCU franchise. [Sidenote: Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, was the first box office success for Marvel, spawning a trilogy and paving the way for the comic company’s own studio and the MCU.]

However, just because Black Panther doesn’t live up to the excessive hype doesn’t mean it is a bad movie. As noted, the MCU is awash in origin stories and the addition of Black Panther calls for yet another one. Writer and director Ryan Coogler tackles this challenge by tying the character closely to the world that must also be built around him. T’Challa is a product of his upbringing and culture, and so the audience is able to learn who he is as they discover the myths, rituals, genealogies, history, and politics of Wakanda.

This is no straightforward task. Wakanda is awash in contradictions. It is the most technologically advanced society on the planet, yet it maintains ancient customs and rituals. They are united as a nation, but remain divided into tribes. They are isolated, yet the concerns of the outside world press upon them. T’Challa must navigate these and other contradictions if he is to succeed as the new king.
Additionally, Coogler uses the villain Killmonger as an appropriate foil to showcase what a Wakandan prince separated from his heritage might become. Both men are proud, but Killmonger’s pride is distorted by resentment. While this contrast could have been explored more deeply, Coogler isn’t philosophizing; it is an action movie, after all.

Despite not upping the special effects bar, there are some ingenious differences in the effects we see. For example, rather than your standard-issue hologram, Wakanda has a technology that renders a miniature 3D bust out of black (presumably vibranium) sand. There are some armored rhinos, which is fun. The overall look of the movie is really cool. African influences on the techno-designs render a look that diverges pleasantly from the Apple/Microsoft look we’ve become accustomed to.
Black Panther also avoids many potential pitfalls of both the genre and external pressures. For one, the film is in no way a political soapbox. When it comes to political themes, it is easily surpassed by Civil War. At the same time, Black Panther isn’t an endless slugfest, either. Plenty happens apart from the action to drive the story, and much of the action is story in itself. Meanwhile, the smaller scale story keeps all the world-building manageable; the script doesn’t feel overstuffed or rushed. If anything, the pace was a tad slow, but never close to dragging. And there aren’t any byzantine plot devices that fail to make sense by the time the credits roll.

In short, if you put aside the hype, Black Panther is a decent film that entertains, but probably won’t blow you away.


Anthony said...

Nice review. I agree with pretty much everything you said though as a big fan of superhero movies I'd say black Panther lives up to the hype. I put it up there with the likes of Robocop, Darkman, Blade 2, Xmen 2, The Incredibles, Hellboy, Spider-Man 2 (the one with Doc Ock), Dark Knight, The Avengers, Winter Soldier, Dredd, The Guardians of the Galaxies movies, Wonder Woman and Logan.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, LOL! Good point. Every one of these superhero movies is supposed to change the way we see movies, isn't it?

FWIW, Michael B. Jordan has said he wishes the movie weren't so hyped up, either. He also says he hopes that his character's hairstyle becomes a trend. That's what I like about Jordan: talking about hairdos is a totally appropriate conversation to attach to a movie. Not everything has to be earth-shattering. (It's a pretty cool hairdo, too.)

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the review, tryanmax! I've been interested in this movie since I first heard about it. I thought Black Panther was the only good thing in Civil War.

But then I heard the left going nuts over how this film was supposedly going to change the world and everyone would finally join their cult -- apparently, Gender Confused Boy, Strong Woman, Gurl Power, and Gay Muslim Chick never caught on with the public, so this film had them excited. But knowing nothing of the plot, it was hard to tell if this was true. It sounds like it isn't.

In fact, if this isn't political, as you say, then all the leftist trumpet blowing is for naught. In fact, having the villain be the one trying to "liberate" blacks runs pretty directly contrary to what the left is teaching.

AndrewPrice said...

On the issue of this representing some opening for black cinema... I doubt it.

First, black cinema already exists, it just isn't visited by whites. For example, you have movies like Friday about growing up in the ghetto and it's progeny. You have a lot of black comedies, look at Kevin Hart or Madea. Etc. Or you have the more white-produced "black" films like Hidden Figures and Twelve Years A Slave -- those are really aimed at white liberals.

From what you've described, this film isn't either of those so much as it's just another superhero movie that uses black characters... kind of like a black-culture-free blacksploitation film: Live and Let Die rather than Black Caesar.

Indeed, it doesn't even sound like it's about real black culture or the black experience. It's about Atlantis done in Blackface with some African set decorations. That's hardly any real basis to declare some breakthrough in the acceptance of black cinema. It's about like mistaking Big Trouble In Little China for opening the door for Chinese cinema.

So ultimately, it sounds like this is just another superhero film and I doubt it will give legs to more black films.

Well, actually, it will probably spawn a DC version which will bomb and kill off the idea.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, exactly right, to the extent that there is any political message in the movie, it is the timeless message that it is better to build up than to tear down. All other claims are, in my estimation, fantasy. And there have been some fantastic claims, such as that Black Panther proves that if Africa had not been colonized, it would be more advanced. Yeah, that and a meteorite of fictional super-metal. Besides, the movie makes it clear that Africa was colonized in the MCU.

tryanmax said...

I had some similar thoughts on black cinema, too. It exists. It's generally a niche genre with an occasional mainstream breakout. Films aimed primarily at black audiences couldn't be produced if they didn't also attract a fair number of white moviegoers.

I see nothing to suggest that mainstream American audiences would object to a mainstream film that just happens to star a black cast. It's like you say, most of what constitutes "black" cinema is actually ghetto cinema. As a genre, that puts it on par with westerns or fantasy. It's a package of tropes upon which any major genre (comedy, romance) can be laid atop.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the idea that this film conveys a political message comes from the shallow idea of "liberating" all the blacks and the identity-politics idea that "if it's black, it must be political and leftist." It doesn't sound like there is any real message here... just the assumption of a message.

I don't think mainstream audiences care what color the cast is, frankly, if the story remains accessible and relatively free of politics. Once it delves into "black people are super victims of whitey," I think it loses its white viewership.

In terms of "black cinema" being a series of tropes like Westerns, that's an interesting thought that's probably true more in the blacksploitation era than today. The black films I've seen today are eerily similar to white blockbusters except for some ghetto speak and more drug references.

Anthony said...


Live and Let Die is a Bond movie and Bond movies have little to do with anything real. Hell, most of the Bonds don't even have English accents.

Authenticity is very much the exception to the rule in big budget Hollywood blockbusters. You don't get studios to splash out 100 million or more by promising your movie will be really, really authentic, you do so by talking about how it will make them lots of money around the world which is why so many look like Benneton ads.

Generally speaking ideologues rush to claim popular movies. Often what they say makes sense on some level, but it's the level audiences don't care about. For example liberals loved Avatar and hated 300 and conservatives loved 300 and hated Avatar but both those movies owe their massive success to people looking for action packed, CG heavy movies.

AndrewPrice said...

This is interesting. The conventional wisdom is that Black Panther has broad-based racial appeal, which is why it's supposedly reaching beyond the black community to change the culture etc. etc.

Then I saw this today. Despite claiming that the film has broad-based racial appeal, here are the racial numbers for the audience:

Before "Black Panther" debuted, some pundits wondered if moviegoers beyond African-Americans would go see it. They need not have worried.

According to tracking service PostTrak, the audience make-up this weekend was 37 percent white, 33 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Asian. Love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, well, universal, and "Black Panther" is no exception.

That's actually rather skewed. If the film were race neutral, you would see 75% white, 11% black, 11% Hispanic, 3% Asian. What this means is that whites are less than 50% of what you expect, Hispanics are only 1.5x what you'd expect and Asian 2x, BUT both of those could actually be the result of "disappearing whites" boosting their percentages, which means that Hispanics are likely around 75% of expectations and Asians are 100% of expectations.

That doesn't paint the picture the media has been painting of broad cultural acceptance. That's not to downplay the box office power this film had, but it doesn't appear to have advanced the racial issue.


AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, Live and Let Die was blacksploitation produced by whites for whites. That's why it lacks the "black" themes of other blacksploitation films like Black Cesar and Coffee and the such. That's why I include it in the second type of black culture films -- those that aren't really black culture and are meant for upper-class white consumption, i.e. fake black films.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I think rather than Black Panther lacking broad racial appeal (whatever that means) the low numbers for whites reflect a suppression effect of the secondary marketing which is largely out of the hands of primary marketers. There was a moderate "whites stay away" message in channels that target liberals. Yes, you read that right, liberal channels called for a not-a-boycott-I-swear of Panther for opening weekend on the grounds of not interfering with "black joy." I'm sure a good many good liberals complied and put off seeing. And, I don't doubt there was a good amount of audience shift in the other direction among blacks who saw the film earlier than they would have otherwise. If they track the movie's entire run, I expect it won't look different than any other Marvel movie.

PikeBishop said...

And what of the point that one of my most conservative friends who has seen it has made? To wit: contrary to expectations, Black Panther is actually "Trump" and the villain is "Black Lives Matter?" Thoughts?

tryanmax said...

Pike, I think that is one of those readings that you can make into almost anything with a hero and a villain. If the director had decided to do something like give Black Panther an orange wig, I'd say he has a point. But in that case, it'd be easier to see the villain as Trump since he has a distinct hairstyle.

Post a Comment