Friday, February 16, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way now. It should be pretty obvious that Black Panther is an extremely important movie, both in how it handles representation and in its exploration of themes and subgenres that have never before been approached with this kind of budget or studio backing. And - let's be frank - I'm in no way qualified to talk about any of that. The only aspects of this I'm remotely qualified to address are how it stands as a superhero movie in general and a Marvel installment in particular.

Fortunately, on top of all that really important stuff, Ryan Coogler delivered an absolutely fantastic Marvel flick.

(Thank God - can you imagine how awkward this would have been to write if he hadn't?)

First, let's talk about what this movie is and is not. It's a year-one story, but it's not an origin, at least not for the Black Panther. They already delivered a perfect origin story in Civil War, and this doesn't ask you to sit through a retread of T'Challa's arc from that movie. The version of T'Challa who appears at the start of this one has already undergone the intense emotional and philosophical journey depicted there.

That, alone, is almost unheard of in superhero sequels. Consider where Tony Stark is emotionally at the start of Iron Man 2 and 3 (or Avengers, Age of Ultron, or Civil War). He hasn't completely forgotten the lessons he's learned, but each movie opens with him at the mercy of his flaws. This is intentional, of course: the theory driving these (and most movie scripts) is that an internal struggle is better than an external one. But while that's a good rule of thumb for standalone stories, it tends to get redundant when serialized. And, in case you hadn't gotten the message after eighteen movies and eight television series, the MCU is kind of an experiment in serialized entertainment.

Coogler clearly understands that. You know what else he understands? That T'Challa, post-Civil War, isn't all that interesting as a person. He's interesting as a symbol. He's compelling to watch as a hero. But he basically obtained enlightenment at the end of Civil War - it's hard to identify with someone who's done that.

A lesser director would have rolled that back. They'd have had T'Challa regress to a point where he had to repeat the same journey, learn the same lessons, and confront the same inner demons. Then they'd probably have hoped the novelty of the setting would distract you.

But Coogler does something far more interesting, something comics have been doing for decades. He accepts that T'Challa is the least interesting part of the story, then uses that to his advantage. The fundamental story at play in Black Panther isn't T'Challa's internal struggle: it's Wakanda's. The young king essentially stands in for his nation as it undergoes a spiritual transformation. Ultimately, T'Challa becomes the setting, and his kingdom becomes the lead.

(Incidentally, Batman comics have been doing something similar for ages with Gotham. DC should be even more embarrassed they let Marvel beat them to this than they should be about losing the race to Darkseid/Thanos.)

Speaking of Batman, you know who is more interesting than the Caped Crusader? Everyone in Gotham. That's why Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, Joker, Catwoman, and the rest of them have endured so long. Once you're past Batman's origin (and maybe one or two lessons on the importance of trust and family), your interest shifts to the quirkier side characters.

Coogler takes a similar approach here. This film is full of new characters - heroes, villains, and fusions of the two - and every one of them is a joy to watch. That's not hyperbole, by the way. Literally every single significant character is given a chance to shine, and I loved absolutely every one of them. The movie delights in taking the time to show why each one is worth exploring. You'll walk out of the theater wanting at least four or five spin-offs.

A lot of people are praising Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger and Letitia Wright's Shuri (and for good reason - they're probably the two most fascinating characters in a crowd of fascinating characters), but I want to hone in on Andy Serkis's Ulysses Klaue. If ever there was a character you'd consider relegating to the side, it'd be him. Klaue is sadistic, racist, and greedy. In the world of Black Panther, he's a symbol of pure evil. But while Coogler captures all that, he still finds time to explore the character's merits as a supervillain. He shows you why he's been successful for so long and why he's intriguing. His joy and energy are infectious, even when he's saying and doing reprehensible things. You hate what he is and what he stands for, but you kind of like him.

If he does all that for Klaue, just imagine what he does for characters who are good people. You know what? Don't bother trying to imagine it: just go to the theater and help ensure this innovative, beautiful film makes at least twice as much on its opening weekend as Justice League managed. You'll have a great time and, more importantly, they'll make more movies like this.

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