Sunday, March 18, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is okay.

It's an okay movie.

I'm black so I know I'm supposed to care more. I am told this movie is a big deal for my demographic. I have indeed been somewhat curious about the movie because as I pointed out, its titular character is philosophically in line with the alt-right. Yet after watching it I have to say that the movie just did not leave that much of an impression.

For me, "okay," is a pretty big compliment for a cape movie. Most of them are trash. At best they have a few good scenes or elements, but as films they are exercises in corporate mediocrity. Occasionally you get some that are really polished and work as campy fun, like The Avengers or Blade. Even rarer are cape movies that transcend - that work as well-crafted thrillers or dramas on their own terms, such as Batman Returns or Dredd.

Black Panther is not in either of those categories. It falls squarely in the 60th percentile range of above average watchable action movies with decent plots. There is some quality acting here as well. Chadwick Boseman I thought did a great job as T'Challa, the young king finding his way. The supporting cast was generally solid. Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, and Forest Whitaker were all great.

The directing is pretty good. There are some breathtaking shots of the city of Wakanda. The set and costume design is pretty cool. Unfortunately the special effects are not very good. The best action scenes are the simplest ones - the ritual battles on the waterfall. The scenes where T'Challa is suited up as Black Panther looked like a Playstation 2 game. The sound was okay. I liked the tribal music a lot but felt the modern hip hop stuff was mostly out of place. Overall, this isn't a film worth seeing just for the songs or the spectacle.

The story is not bad though. While there are definitely things that don't make sense it is for the most part a coherent plot. T'Challa's character ark is well-drawn as he evolves from wanting to follow in his father's footsteps to striking out on his own path. Black Panther deserves some credit for tackling timely political issues even if it isn't particularly deep about it. A line early in the film about refugees potentially bringing problems to the kingdom of Wakanda certainly resonates with the issues of the day. The Black Panther kings apparently all took a lesson from Trump spending generations focusing only on their own people. Wakanda is, after all, a wealthy autocratic ethnically homogeneous society that elects not to help poorer countries. Remember, they are not wealthy because of anything inherent in the Wakandan people - above average IQ, scientific discovery, a culture that values hard work and education, etc. Wakanda is wealthy through the sheer luck of having a magic meteor land in their backyard.

I stand by my claim that Black Panther is an alt-right character. Some might dispute this because the film ends with T'Challa choosing to make Wakanda a more open country that shares its knowledge and opens outreach centers around the world. Speaking again of Trump, T'Challa not-so-subtly references the Donald in his speech at the end when he talks about wise leaders building bridges not walls. Of course the film doesn't give any numbers on how many refugees Wakanda will accept, how much of its wealth it will give away, or how much of its culture it will deconstruct to be more accommodating to outsiders. Wakanda is choosing for itself to help the world on its own terms. It is not being invaded, forced, pressured, or guilted into doing so.

Since this is Disney you can be sure that the film takes pains to be faithful to leftist platitudes about race and the history of Africa.  This is disappointing but not surprising. I take issue with this one-dimensional view of black history - this taken for granted idea that Africans were just peacefully chilling out in glorious kingdoms when white people showed up and stole everything. The more controversial reality is that Africans enslaved and fought each other long before Europeans came. Among all the races of man, slavery and conquest have been constants throughout all of human history. In fact, they still are, just some societies have forgotten. When white Europeans showed up Africans and Arabs were largely the ones responsible for selling people to white slavers. Furthermore, messed up as it is to admit, many nations benefited from colonialism. Europeans brought advanced technologies, medicine, education, and science that led to a higher standard of living. South Africa today is less safe than it was under Apartheid. Zimbabwe was also better off under the British. Hell, so was Hong Kong. 

A bolder movie would have been willing to tackle the complexity of race relations across history. In Black Panther we get some sanctimonious lines from Michael B. Jordan's villain Killmonger. We're actually meant to sympathize with him too. When he talks about how blacks have been oppressed and he wants to use Wakanda's power to even the score, we're supposed to feel he is at least somewhat justified. Even lead actor Boseman agrees that Killmonger isn't really wrong. Killmonger displays strong racial solidarity when he laments having, "killed his own people," during his career as a U.S. soldier fighting in Africa and the middle east. No white character would ever be allowed to express such a sentiment in a favorable light.

Double standards aside, Killmonger is an above average villain in my view. I was caught off guard by the scene where Killmonger speaks to his dead father in the dream world just as T'Challa did earlier in the film. The movie did not need to go there; any other Marvel movie would not have bothered trying to add dimension to the villain in this way. But Black Panther is not just any other Marvel movie. It took precious run time that could have gone to quips, ham-fisted politics, or action scenes, and decided to give us this really great moment between a father and son. It is these sort of creative decisions that make Black Panther a notch better than its contemporaries. 

Black Panther suffers many of the recent Disney / MCU trappings such as lame politics, forced humor, and phoned-in CGI. It isn't quite as polished as a Guardians of the Galaxy nor as daring as The Dark Knight. Still, it's an above average cape flick and one of the better Marvel Studios projects. I'm genuinely curious to see where it goes in the sequel given the social and political implications of King T'Challa's decision regarding Wakanda's role in the world.

Grade: C+