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March 8, 2018

RE: Black Panther

I both love and hate the position Black Panther has put me in.

I hate it because it’s going to make me look like I’ve got less brainpower than a dead goldfish.  It seems like being a Marvel movie is basically an anathema these days, to the point where the mere mention of one can, at best, draw responses of “Yep, another one.”  At worst?  I’d prefer not to think about it, because how dare I enjoy a mainstream product by a major corporation, or something to that effect.  And now here I am, about to sing praises about the newest movie -- about to clap my hands like a seal because I, and many others, have been conditioned to go “Yeah, another one!”

Despite that, I love the position I’m in.  I’m wary of saying this about the movie because it is the newest to date, and it is another one to throw on the pile.  But…yeah.  I think this the best one yet.  I’ve seen 15 out of 18 of these movies, and it’s the best one.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m black, and most of the cast is black.  So you in the back with your hand raised?  Put your hand down, imaginary idiot I’m calling out.

So here’s the setup.  Hot off the heels of Civil War (canon!), T’Challa, AKA Black Panther, has to come to terms with the untimely death of his father.  On one hand, he’s set to become the new king of Wakanda, AKA an African country hidden from the world and blessed by deposits of the extraterrestrial mineral vibranium.  On the other hand, as the new king he has to figure out how to rule -- how to best govern Wakanda, especially in the wake of a world rocked by supervillains, aliens, terrorists, syndicates, and all sorts of other creepy crawlies.  I don’t envy his position.

Even when he ascends to the throne, T’Challa opts to keep donning the suit and take a more hands-on approach to curing what ails the planet.  First up on the agenda: dealing with the leak of vibranium and its misuse by the manic mercenary Ulysses Klaue.  But his plans end up going awry when Black Panther and his crew discover that there’s more to this conflict than Andy Serkis laughing it up -- and the personal stakes force our hero to learn what it really means to be a king.

So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.  There have been tweaks, but you can still tell that it’s a Marvel movie.  Each progressive entry has made the similarities more obvious, and not just because of “lol, jokes” -- though yeah, that does factor in a bit.  T’Challa is a different character from Tony Stark/Iron Man, but like Doctor Strange before it, the film crew run that characterization back and end up hurting the movie whenever it comes into play (however briefly).  This is an overarching issue Marvel Studios needs to sort out, especially given the drama they’ve injected into Phase 3.

If you’re going in expecting wall-to-wall action, you’re going to be disappointed.  I wasn’t, because I’m a creepy weirdo, but the first third or so of the movie -- and maybe more -- seemingly drops the plot and the villains in favor of fleshing out Wakanda.  I understand why, but it’s still weird, and absolutely noticeable mid-viewing.  Speaking of viewing?  Boy, some of the CG here is dodgy.  The transition from real people to computer models can be as smooth as the switch from an episode of Law and Order to a game of Super Smash Bros.  

…Is that it?  I think that’s -- no, wait, I’m starting to give the timeline of events in the MCU canon some dirty looks.  Between this and Spider-Man: Homecoming, it seems like there’s some serious ‘splainin to do.  Also?  Jeez, guys, stop taking your masks on and off.  I know you’re actors and you need face time, but it’s seriously ridiculous to pop off your headgear for no reason.

…Okay, that’s it for real this time.

Yeah, sure, there are issues and nitpicks that can be brought up in the weeks and months to come (I’ll be the CinemaSins crew will handle that decisively when the time comes).  But none of them are enough to make me think less of the movie.  Black Panther is the best one, because it has the best versions of the basic MCU elements -- and in some ways, even manages to iron out some lingering faults.

I’m not sure if I want to say T’Challa is my favorite hero yet, because I’d plant a tender kiss on the backside of Cap’s boots if he asked me.  And I’m really fond of Doctor Strange because…he’s Doctor Strange.  But Black Panther is up there for sure.  While he does lapse into some Starkisms, he’s overwhelmingly his own character with his own spread of strengths and weaknesses.  He even has the fabled “character arc”, and it takes him to places that most Marvel heroes can’t or won’t tread.

Also, I can confirm that he continues his hot streak from Civil War and remains menacing.

I’m so glad I get to use that picture again.

Seeing Wakanda in action gave me flashbacks to the Thor movies and their take on Asgard.  And at first, I was willing to write off the former by thinking “Okay, so it’s just Asgard again.”  But it’s not.  Wakanda may have hyper-advanced tech and superficially look like Thor’s realm if you unfocus your eyes, but there’s an effort to give it a unique character and presence.  Crucially, it has a personal, lived-in feeling that (IIRC) Asgard sort of lacked.  The funeral scene from The Dark World is an MCU highlight for me; however, Black Panther gives you a look at Wakandan life in general, on top of its rituals and customs.  Even if millions of dollars were burned to create it, the African haven feels more real than anything the MCU has rendered to date.

More importantly, Wakanda is more than just a backdrop.  It forms the crux of the entire movie, to the point where beating the baddies is almost an afterthought (in a sense, but I’ll get to that).  Though it’s demonstrably more advanced than any other country, Wakanda has relied on isolationist policies and absolute secrecy since the moment vibranium blessed their lands.  Now the question -- especially in the wake of T’Challa’s ascension -- is whether or not to continue those policies.  Should you hide behind walls and veils to protect your secrets, power, and way of life?  Should you use your overwhelming advantages to bend the world as you see fit, especially when that world is in dire need of aid?  Should you stick to tradition and precedent, or forgo them for the sake of the future?  It’s a quandary you tend not to get in big-budget blockbusters.

Still, this is a big-budget blockbuster (despite its February release), and it shares DNA with them -- only in the best possible forms it can have.  The action inf BP is sparser than most, but what’s here is certainly striking, like our hero forcing a car into a hairpin turn with his bare claws, like he’s trying out for Tokyo Drift.  The supporting cast is the best, so that even characters that are dead or will die give some meaty performances.  The female representation is, unequivocally, the best.  You know how the MCU has pinned its hopes and dreams solely on Black Widow until Captain Marvel shows up? Not only does this movie have one good female character, but THREE (at least).  And yes, they’re good in and out of a fight.

But the real standout here is, believe it or not, the villain.  I’m not just talking about Klaue here, even if he is a blast to watch onscreen (side note: when the credits rolled, I wanted to slap myself and say “So THAT’S human Andy Serkis!”).  The true villain -- the one I barely even registered by way of not watching any of the trailers -- is Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.  Now it’s not even a contest as to who’s the best MCU villain.  Not only is he one of the most dangerous, and the most threatening, and the most successful (though we’ll see how much Thanos wrecks shop), but he’s by leaps and bounds the most sympathetic.  Between his story, Jordan’s performance, and the movie at large?  I have no problems admitting that I teared up at key points throughout.

And on that note?  Black Panther is a movie that made me feel things that movies, MCU or otherwise, generally haven’t.  This one might actually be the first time I actually felt heartache -- like what happened onscreen was so potent and affecting, it made me feel emotional pain that managed to become physical.  I mean maybe that’s just a sign I need to see a doctor or lay off the hot dogs, but I’m convinced that the emotions onscreen translated into emotions off of it.  For a movie in a genre and overarching franchise not exactly known for subtlety or grace, this is crucial.

I do wonder if BP will be able to withstand the test of time -- if those who helped it score a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes will continue to sing its praises on future rewatches months or years down the line.  The flaws and missteps will become more apparent, for sure.  Still, here’s the thing: first impressions are important.  

In my experience?  I may not remember every detail from every game or movie or whatever, but I do remember choice moments -- and, more importantly, the feelings they inspire in me in that moment, and the potency of them.  Because I have fond memories of hype and joy from The Wonderful 101, I tend to think highly of the game in general.  Because of some nightmarishly bad events in Final Fantasy 13-2, I tend to think of the whole game as a trainwreck.

What I’m going to remember from BP down the line isn’t necessarily the mastery of cinematic techniques on display (assuming there are any to display, since this counts as another product from the assembly line).  I’m going to remember how I felt in those key moments, with tears in my eyes and my chest seizing up.  That’s not to say that they’ll supersede or invalidate a critical approach.  That’d be ridiculous -- a “feels over reals” mentality that’s hard to support.  But feelings are important, especially if a piece of fiction is potent enough to create reactions you’d never expect, or even felt before.

For that reason?  Black Panther is the best one.  The best one.

I mean, it does have the best credits sequence, after all.  Strong soundtrack, too.  And a good ending theme, just to top it all off.

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next time -- because rest assured, there’s more to say about this movie.  Maybe something even a little bit -- breathless gasp! -- political.

Don’t worry, though.  I’m sure absolutely nothing will go wrong, and nobody will walk away from it looking like a racist.

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