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.
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