It’s good to be the King
Video review again, but this time with a nice written component to go along with it:
Man, the hype was strong with this one. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has developed its own sense of gravity as people wait for the first big screw up from this studio that could feel like it would derail the whole show. As I’ve stated before, it’s probably NOT gonna be this one, because the studio keeps finding fresh voices to tell intriguing new perspectives we haven’t seen before. And hey, sometimes all you need is the voice of a strong director/writer, like Ryan Coogler of Creed to helm a fresh new take, but what makes a solid movie for me is when multiple areas of screenplay, cinematography, score, acting, and story are all working together wonderfully to deliver something worth watching. Something like Black Panther.
After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is returning to his home country of Wakanda in order to assume the position of King following the assassination of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani). While Wakanda appears to be a poor, third world African nation to the rest of the world; it really is a hyper-advanced civilization with technologies far ahead of even the richest of countries, or indeed even ahead of Tony Stark’s inventions. Anyways, the role of King of Wakanda also means T’Challa must don the mantle of the Black Panther, thus possessing enhanced strength and speed as well as a powerful suit that puts Iron Man’s armor to shame. As the hero, T’Challa is tasked with hunting down a notorious terrorist in Ulysees Klaue (Andy Serkis) on behalf of his people, but the cackling villain is being aided by a fierce black ops mercenary in Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has a deeper connection to Wakanda than anyone, including T’Challa, could imagine.
The first thing that anyone notices about this movie is just how imaginative the nation of Wakanda appears; and as a lover of speculative science-fiction, it checks off everything I love about the genre. You see, the country is envisioned as a big “what if” Western colonization never happened to an African nation, and what if said nation had more advanced technology than any of the current world superpowers. So, the film, very carefully, shows what such a culture would look like: from the architecture to the fashion to the military to the healthcare to the language to the government and so on and so forth. And even more relevant is that the film’s main theme is just how this hyper-advanced nation must deal with the rest of the world as many of its citizens debate throughout the movie if Wakanda should maintain its historic isolationist attitude or offer aide (military or financial) to less fortunate countries or indeed if it should even accept refugees. You know, solid real world parallels that bring up intriguing questions of global affairs, just the way I like it.
Furthermore, the whole business of colonization isn’t merely paid lip service either, because this is the highest profile movie I’ve seen tackle the disastrous effect of colonization on world history. Which brings us to our main villain, Killmonger, as well as the rumblings calling him the “best comic book villain” since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Well, the rumblings aren’t far off the mark, because Michael B. Jordan brings the strongest antagonist Marvel Studios has produced, beating out Michael Keaton’s great turn in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. The mark of a great villain is one that you can see where they’re coming from, and you would indeed find yourself agreeing with were it not for the flaw in their logic when it comes to horrific actions. And despite the absurdity of his name, Killmonger fits that description perfectly. Serving as the furious by-product of centuries of oppression, you get why he’s enacting his scheme and even understand his perspective. To the point that other characters in the film, quite reasonably, agree with him.
But he is, nonetheless, a foil for our protagonist in T’Challa, and this is yet another area where Marvel finds to expand its formula. Once again foregoing an origin story (partially thanks to Civil War sorting most of the introductory stuff) and diving headfirst into a character who’s not limited to stopping a random thug on the street, but T’Challa is a friggin’ king. So the movie takes a good chunk of its run time dedicated to the politics of Wakanda and how the new king must guide the nation in a world now chock full of superpowered beings. Boseman has always been a strong actor, and here he demonstrates a level of charisma befitting a strong leading man. Ironically enough though, he’s not even the most interesting character in his own movie. This is no fault of the actor or the script, but because the movie presents so many other characters you want to follow and you want to get to know.
See, we have ourselves a trio of actresses who knock their roles out of the park and give you three intriguing and well-developed characters with strong character arcs in addition to our main protagonist. First we have Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-lover and well-trained spy who presents a positive vision of what Wakanda could be if it had moved on from its isolationist ways. Next we have Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead) as Okoye, Wakanda’s general and leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces who double as the king’s bodyguards. Okoye presents the other side of the country’s coin in being proudly isolationist with strict adherence to tradition, but finds her worldview shaken by the events of the film and her interactions with her lover, W’kabi (Academy Award-nominated actor [damn it feels good to say that] Daniel Kaluuya). And finally, there’s Letitia Wright (recently from Black Mirror) as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and genius inventor who also serves as her brother’s very own Q branch when the movie decides to be a James Bond flick for a couple of minutes.
Actually the film deftly blends a plethora of styles like spy films with fantasy political epics like Dune or Game of Thrones, and even a dash of Star Wars when it introduces its wilder ideas in the action department. Once again, credit goes to Ryan Coogler for demonstrating strong direction in filming solid action sequences in addition to more quiet character moments that feel both earned and absolutely memorable. There are two scenes focused on T’Challa and Killmonger speaking with their deceased fathers that are shot in a style that befits a quiet drama like Moonlight more than a big budget blockbuster; and such contrast helps the action set pieces feel all the more special because you give a damn what’s happening to these characters.
If I have a complaint about the film, it’s practically paltry to everything else that was done so right. But I wouldn’t be the fair and just critic (shut your goddamn mouth) if I didn’t point out flaws and room for improvement. Martin Freeman’s character felt a bit forgotten about, as he appears to be more of a product of an earlier script before the director was brought on, even if he does serve as a solid comic relief. Andy Serkis feels a bit like General Cocaine from Wonder Woman, that he’s acting too ridiculous for the consistent tone the rest of the movie engages in (but it’s Andy Serkis laughing maniacally, so it will likely be forgiven by many). And while Coogler is a very solid action choreographer, he does need to remember to pull back on the camera so I can see the awesome fight sequences in all their glory. Also, and this may come down to inexperience with working with heavy amounts of green screen, some of the computer effects look a bit muddled in the final act for the big, explosive finale. Still, for a first time working such heavily technical effects that take years to master, Coogler still delivers on action front and especially in the areas for a movie that matter most.
Because there is in fact something special about this movie succeeding commercially and critically. Consider this: only 33 films that had a Black director at the helm has earned more than $100 million at the global box office. So we have here a Black director being provided a large budget to lead a cast that is overwhelmingly comprised of Black thespians set in a style known as “Afrofuturist,” and many pundits believed this to be a massive financial risk. Many bullshit Hollywood reasons are given as to why it has taken so long for a film with a crew like Black Panther to materialize, but they are almost all rooted in ignorance and being severely out of touch with an ever changing market. For a film like this to succeed on its own merits AND being rewarded for it is a positive development in the filmmaking world, one that I hope will lead to more unique visions from other marginalized voices.
I dug the ever-loving hell out of this movie. It’s worth the trip to the theaters and then some. For some minor technicalities, it may not be a perfect film; but it’s damn worthy of praise. Giving this a high…
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