Friday, February 16, 2018


Black Panther is easily one of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at this point a sprawling, occasionally mind-numbing constant in modern multiplexes. This one succeeds for the same reasons the other good ones do. It’s loaded with a ridiculously charismatic and overqualified cast delivering good-enough quips, and built out of splashy comic book action that barely overstays its welcome. But the movie leaves a slightly bigger than average impression because it is allowed a bit more personality. Offering control over to Ryan Coogler, the promising young writer-director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, the story of the princely superhero ruler of fictional pan-African paradise Wakanda is given a genuine charge of retro-Afro-futurism. Here is a gleaming modern city hidden away behind a force-field in the heart of Africa, the capitol of Wakanda, a country both a towering symbol of sci-fi technical might – the most advanced in the world – and rich in tribal tradition. Untouched by colonialism and slavery, Wakanda is strong and isolated. This becomes both its greatest asset and a potential weakness, as characters debate the long-held seclusion of their people. What do they owe the greater world? Heavy is the head that wears the Black Panther crown. There’s slightly more charge – in politics, character dynamics, and world-building – than is the norm in this type of thing.

Played with paradoxically shy bravado, a soft-spoken Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, ruler and protector of Wakanda, and the hero of the title. We last saw him introduced in the worst MCU film, the interminably boring Captain America: Civil War, where his father was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now, his people look to him to lead. His mother (Angela Bassett), tech-genius sister (Letitia Wright), advisors (Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya), spy (Lupita Nyong’o), rival (Winston Duke), and military leader (Danai Gurira) have competing and overlapping interests. Some wish them to be more proactive, sharing their technology – flying cars, miracle medicine, hover trains – with the world’s underprivileged. Others wish to protect their secrecy at all costs. Enter the villains – a scene-chewing thief (Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, last seen getting his arm chopped by Ultron in Avengers 2) and a rabble-rousing zealot (Michael B. Jordan) – who are hellbent on breaking into Wakanda and zooming out with high-powered weapons to send hither and yon to the oppressed everywhere. A new world order is what they’re after, and though deep down they ideologically align with the Wakandan ideals of freedom, their process is suspect. Yes, Wakanda may be prepared to fight off baddies with violence – they have an army and battle-rhinos, after all – but at least they aren’t indiscriminately murdering their way through a plot for world domination. There is real political heat to this conflict, and it is rooted inextricably in character. Jordan, especially, brings great simmering rage and expressive, pointed attack that’s more vivid and personal than the typical superhero villain.

So Coogler does more than the usual MCU picture gets up to, while managing to draw several immediately lovable new characters and relationships. It’s an entire cast of scene-stealers, fun on the surface. But, beyond the pleasure of charming performances, that it’s an all-black cast makes it powerful representation – a swaggering thrill of diversity in an otherwise very white franchise. It’s not even explicitly addressed in the film itself; best is how it takes this state as natural and right and moves on to business as usual. Here the cast goes zipping through light banter and fun action. There’s a car chase through Korea that’d be the best action sequence in any other MCU film, and its almost a letdown following a fantastic brawl in an underground casino – sets up a space that looks like a Bond lair and sings with a Kendrick Lamar song before sliding through a digitally-composited long take that slides up and down a multi-level set. It has exquisite design, clothing its characters in colorful patterns and an assortment of accessories drawing equally from African fashion through the ages and vintage Marvel looks from the groovy to the modern. That it has all this vibrancy of personality and ideas makes it all the more depressing that it must culminate in one of those endless CGI slugfests that – though still slightly more fun than the deadening conclusions to, say, the otherwise semi-charming Guardians of the Galaxy – will clearly call out for a fast-forward button in any at-home rewatch. Still, it effortlessly and entertainingly opens up a fascinating new corner in a franchise that risked falling into dull repetition. It may fall into the same routine eventually, but at least it gives us something relatively fresh to admire on the way there.

No comments:

Post a Comment