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Thursday, February 7, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Black Panther (2018)

We did it, guys. Comic book movies are officially art now. Oh sure, “The Dark Knight” was among the best reviewed films of its year and is frequently voted the best movie of all time by film bros and nerds everywhere. (I hate it.) Yet the Academy did not deem that adventure worthy of acknowledgment, at least not in the Best Picture category. After about a decade of the superhero film being the primary genre of American blockbusters, one has finally broken through with the AMPAS. That would be Marvel's “Black Panther.” It's not like a cape movie hasn't made a billion dollars, been the highest grossing film of the year domestically, and been a genuine pop culture phenomenon before. So what makes this superhero epic from the House of Ideas different from the other superhero flicks that also meet those criteria?

Everyone and their uncle saw “Black Panther” at least twice last year but I'm going to summarize its plot anyway. The African nation of Wakanda keeps its status as a scientifically advanced, utopian society a secret from the rest of the globe. Also a secret is that the Wakandan kings carry the legacy of the Black Panther. Each is gifted with superhuman abilities by the cat god Bast and utilize high-tech suits and weapons. The latest king, T'Challa, is having trouble living up to his late father. In pursuit of Wakanda's most wanted, a villain named Klaw, T'Challa unwillingly gives Erik Killmonger, a challenger to the throne, a path into the country.

As usually happens when a piece of nerd-approved entertainment gains serious critical respect, voices have emerged claiming “Black Panther” doesn't deserve a Best Picture nomination. (And in a year when shit like “Green Book” did!) If the Academy exist to acknowledge important films, “Black Panther” is obviously important. Superhero movies are the prevailing populist cinema of our age. “Black Panther” is the first example starring a black character to truly resonate with the public, appropriately based on American comic's first black superhero. Even more than that, “Black Panther” is a celebration of African and black culture, largely set on the African continent and awash in the music, fashion, and traditions of the land. “Black Panther” grants black children the kind of empowering fantasy that white children have had for decades.

Director Ryan Coogler was all too aware of how important “Black Panther” is. Sometimes, the film feels weighed down by its own pomp and circumstance, focused on royal rituals and orders so to emphasize how regal everything is. Yet “Black Panther” is a still hugely entertaining movie. At its best, the film happily fuses the superhero and super spy genres. T'Challa is as much the black James Bond as he is the black Iron Man. Not only does he get his own Q, in the form of genius little sister Shuri, he even gets his own exposition heavy sequence where Shuri introduces all his new gadgets. The globe-hopping story takes him to North Korea, leading to an undercover sequence that feels right out of a Daniel Craig Bond flick.

Of course, being a big budget sci-fi superhero flick, “Black Panther's” action is not so much of the espionage variety. “Black Panther” is full of CGI mayhem and, honestly, not all of it is good. The computer-generated war rhinos, an awesome idea conceptually, look cartoonish and rubbery. The final fight between T'Challa and Killmonger similarly shifts into CGI figures bouncing off each other. While Coogler delivered some excellent action scenes in “Creed,” some of the fight scenes here are murky or hard to follow. Yet “Black Panther” certainly has some well done moments of combat. The car chase sequence through the streets of Seoul is excellent, exciting and inventive with plenty of humor. T'Challa and Killmonger's fight for the crown is pretty well done.

The biggest problem with “Black Panther” is that T'Challa is frequently the least interesting character in his own film. The king's character arc has him realizing that his father's isolationist policies are wrong, that Wakanda has no right to horde its wealth and scientific advancements. His love interest, Nakia, constantly points this out to him. It really shouldn't have taken the guy as long as it did to come to that conclusion. Aside from his somewhat dubious royal policies, T'Challa is just kind of a snore. Chadwick Boseman is a charming performer but heavy is the head that wears the crown. While Boseman does fine when expressing humor or anger, his T'Challa is too often a stuffy protagonist weighed down by his kingly responsibilities.

T'Challa's flaws as a protagonist only become more apparent when he's compared with practically every other character in the film. Look at Killmonger, for only the most obvious example. Killmonger has already taken his place among the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best – or, let's be honest, actually memorable- villains. Unlike T'Challa, who was raised in luxury and apparently doesn't believe in sharing, Erik knows what it's like to live in poverty. Though his methods are extreme, his philosophies of using Wakanda's power to oppose racism, tyranny, and injustice are almost too sympathetic. The film roots Killmonger's fanatical thirst for revolution in a very real sense of loss. When T'Challa takes a special dirt nap that allows him to visit an afterlife apparently exclusively reserved for Wakandan royalty, he has a boring conversation with his dad. When Killmonger does the same, he has a teary and touching reconciliation with his own father. Michael B. Jordan's fiery performance makes Killmonger a deeply principled character whose villainy steams from his childhood wounds. Also, he's dressed like Vegeta, which is neat.

While Jordan obviously steals the show, he's not the only character that outraces the titular hero in “Black Panther.” Letitia Wright is utterly delightful as Shuri, the smart-ass (and smart) little sister that is brimming with youthful energy and excitement. Martin Freeman reprises the role of SHIELD agent Evert Ross from “Captain America: Civil War.” Freeman's talent for humorous bafflement is well utilized here, though Ross does get a heroic moment to himself. Andy Serkis brings a certain sleazy charm to Klaw, even if the villain's outrageous comic appearance is significantly downplayed. Winston Duke displays a propulsive sense of authority as M'Baku, that's Man-Ape to comic readers,  another antagonist in the film that actually has a good point. I do wish Lupito Nyongo was given more to do as Nakia, who is often reduced to the feminine voice of reason.

While “Black Panther” doesn't crack my personal list of favorite Marvel movies, I'm not going to say it isn't a good film. Its sense of black empowerment and message of opening borders is timely and absolutely necessary. There's certainly plenty of very fun or interesting sequences in the film. Its production design is aces. And it's got a great villain. While the Academy's line-up for Best Picture was overall very weak this year, “Black Panther” is certainly a better movie than “Green Book.” [7/10]

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