Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Panther

While ultimately falling into the category of a lesser Marvel film, there's still quite a bit to enjoy about Black Panther which develops the African country of Wakanda (which is far more advanced than almost anyone in the outside world suspects). Black Panther seems a bit out of place as Marvel gears up for its big crossover cosmic event in Infinity War as it is arguably the least connected film to the larger overall franchise since the first movies premiered a decade ago.

Taking place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to assume his new role as king. Along with the beautiful scenery and high-tech gadgets, Wakanda also introduces us to some interesting supporting characters including T'Challa's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who acts as a Bond-like Q, Lupita Nyong'o as a female spy and potential love interest for the new king, Danai Gurira as the head of the army, and Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker as the elder generation ushering in the new king. Martin Freeman also reprises his role from Civil War in one of the movie's few ties to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Given its family drama and themes of protecting Wakanda from the outside world, Black Panther feels very much like Thor meets The Lion King. There's a double-edged sword to Black Panther in that it isn't a traditional super-hero movie. While T'Challa's struggles mirror that of the basic hero journey, the film is neither origin story nor in-depth character study as to what makes the character tick. As a result, T'Challa never really gets to know himself, and we don't get to understand him, at least not on the same level of Tony Stark in Iron Man, Thor in Thor, or Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Michael B. Jordan stars as our hero's primary rival who arrives in Wakanda with desires on its thrown. While small moments suggest nuance to the character, Killmonger's main purpose is to provide the film with an over-the-top villain whose motivations would have been more interesting if they weren't so megalomaniacal. The fact that at one point Killmonger (minor spoilers - highlight to read) becomes the legitmate ruler of Wakanda also creates all kinds of problems for the film's final act as it isn't always easy to view T'Challa's attempted coup d'etat as heroic (spoilers end).

The film also gets into trouble repeating itself. Often. Repeatedly. Have I mentioned it repeats itself? There are several sequences that each happen two or three times over the course of the film, bloating its running time to well-over two hours. I'm not talking about flashbacks to the same scene. I'm talking about the same basic sequence done again, and again, and (in some cases), again. These include, but aren't limited to, separate tribal challenges over the right to be king and mystic journeys to talk to dead fathers. The film even repeats itself in its epilogue and mid-credit sequence, ending both on the exact same smug beat.

Is Black Panther a successful Marvel film? Sure. Despite its issues, writer/director Ryan Coogler does succeed in crafting a different type of Marvel film (even if the attempts to bring larger racial and social issues into the story are, at best, a mixed success). The film delivers a strong African lead character and several equally-strong female supporting characters along with a technological wonderland I'd like to spend more time in (although that would also likely force the writers to explain how exactly any of this tech, based entirely off of space metal, could possibly work).

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