Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Black Panther

I managed to get to Black Panther this past weekend, and intended to put something up on it, but kept not doing it. I was looking forward to it; when I was a boy Black Panther was my second favorite Marvel superhero, after Captain America; he was a warrior king (I liked that kind of character), from a Lost Civilization (I liked that kind of story), and had the spirit of the panther (which was my favorite animal growing up). I was not disappointed. A few thoughts.

* It is clear that this was a labor of love for almost everybody involved. It's interesting in this universe to contrast Wakanda and Asgard as high-tech civilizations with distinctive aesthetic: Wakanda has a richness of detail that Asgard was never given. Everything in Asgard is impressive in scale, but most of it is rather generic. You don't get a sense of place as you do here. And it's the same with the customs and rituals; over the course of the three Thor movies we got about as much of Asgardian culture as we get of Wakandan culture in this one movie -- only the funeral of Frigga in The Dark World gives us much like what we repeatedly get here. There is still a lot that's not covered, of course, but one never gets the sense that it's due to wasted opportunities in the story itself.

The CGI, I think, was a bit uneven -- some very excellent work, and also some not so great. I was a bit disappointed at the Wakandan city, which most of the time seemed to be a very generic Futuristic City with a few vaguely African elements occasionally.

* The acting is generally excellent. Chadwick Boseman continues to get this character exactly right, although I think Civil War was more consistent in giving him material to work with; Letitia Wright's Shuri is deservedly praised; and, while I wasn't immediately sold on Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger, once the character really begins to take his position in the story, he sold it perfectly.

* The story, I think, is the weak point. There is a lot going on here: introducing Wakanda and its politics, the Killmonger thread, the Ulysses Klaue thread, the relationship between T'Chaka and T'Challa. The story manages to do all of this in a fairly unified way, but it's clear that each one is eating up time and resources for the movie to do the others. An effect of this is that, for a superhero movie, there is relatively little superheroing on the part of the main character. We get a lot of growing-into-kingship story here, some of which we didn't need, because we had already indirectly seen something like it in Civil War. The battles, while entertaining, are relatively generic, and often rely more on spectacle than on investment of the audience. It's an interesting story, and well done, but a crowded one, and oddly it results in most of the plot-threads feeling too short. The first Iron Man, both of the first two Captain America movies, and Homecoming had stronger, cleaner story-structures, I think. Nonetheless, this one doesn't drag and is not a complete mess. Storywise, it was about middle-of-the-road for Marvel movies, I think.

I think this crowding also leads it to struggle a bit in the attempt to weave humor into all of its serious story threads.

* Thematically, the movie attempts to handle some fairly deep issues about isolationism and imperialism/colonialism, and, in particular, to argue for some mean between the two. This gives it a nice depth that Marvel movies often lack. However, it does not, I think, sufficiently motivate the repudiation of isolationism; we get no sense that Wakanda is really ready to throw open its doors the way the movie pushes us to think it should be, and, ironically, I think this is because we never get a sense of why the Wakandans are so vehement about their isolation -- we just know that they are, and that T'Challa himself is moving away from it. The Wakandan marvel is that having all the power required to build an empire, they never did; a fact that is never adequately explained. Wakanda, sitting on a mountain of miracle metal, certainly has no need to go abroad, seeking monsters to destroy; but that never has stopped any other nation. The movie also doesn't properly grapple with the fact that many of Wakanda's attractive features are explicitly tied to the fact that it has had such a strict isolationism (albeit without most of the disadvantages of isolationism).

And equally ironically, I think the movie does too well in presenting the attractions of colonialism. One of the comments I saw in a review was about how Killmonger's 'black liberation' position was in some ways the more attractive position. This is a testimony to how sympathetically Killmonger was written, and also probably how well Jordan managed to capture that aspect of him, but it's an illusion. Killmonger doesn't actually give a black liberation position anywhere in the movie; every time he talks about his vision, he is describing colonialism. This is, rather surprisingly, the first movie I think I have ever seen that really captures just how attractive colonialism can seem to its proponents: bringing aid and assistance to entire nations in dire need of your enlightenment, forming the world according to your values, building not just a civilization but a Great Civilization, an empire on which the sun will never set, to be the standard against which other nations are measured. Killmonger is right that he learned from the colonizers he hates; and T'Challa is right that he has become one.

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