Sunday, February 25, 2018

Aiming high

Let me state up front that Black Panther is one of the better Marvel movies that I've seen. The fact that a movie about a black, non-American superhero put not only non-American culture but the identity of the person in question, front and center of the film, is something that can only be appreciated; as opposed to a film like Amistad, in which a story about the plight of black people presents two white guys as the lead figures in said story. At every stage, not only were black characters able and empowered to make their own choices, but the two prominent white characters (Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross) were clearly the (ahem) Tolkien white guys of the film (Gollum and Bilbo Baggins, respectively in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.) Similarly, all of the female characters were strong, active, and extremely influential in the plot and the progression of it through the film. I have to single out Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri for being two of the most entertaining characters and whom I would have gladly seen more of. The third in that category would be Michael B. Jordan as Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. I hope that those of you that are fans of The Wire from back in the day are as appreciative as I am that Wallace is still getting screen time and that he has remained every bit as magnetic a presence on camera as he was as a teenaged drug dealer on the streets of Baltimore. Chadwick Boseman does fine as T'Challa, but those three also steal every scene that they're in.

Those are a lot of the upsides of the film. The downsides are a little more nebulous and have a lot more to do with what the film didn't do, as opposed to what it did. A quarter of the way in, Tricia leaned over to me and said: "It's basically a Disney film." Let's put aside the fact that Marvel is now a subsidiary of Disney so, in fact, it actually is a Disney film. We had reached the part where T'Challa was undergoing the ritual challenge for the throne and the festive, musical, colorful presentation of what was intended to be a fairly solemn ceremony (most battles to the death typically are) and it did have quite the Lion King feel to it. Upon T'Challa's defeat of M'Baku to confirm his hold on the throne, the rest of the attendees breaking out in a rendition of Hakuna Matata wouldn't have been overly out of place. ("No more worries... now that you're king.")

And that's kind of the root of my mild dissatisfaction. There were so many intelligent themes in the questions of Wakanda's place in the world and its use of technology that it seemed a shame that the film boiled down to the usual Marvel CGI slamfest at the end where people were blown up and run over by cyber-rhinos (but always without killing them, of course.)  This is a question of science fiction that goes back at least to the days of Star Trek and the Federation's prime directive. Despite having the power to positively influence the lives of billions of people, and especially those of black people, across the globe, the rulers of Wakanda have always been more concerned about the destruction that vibranium could cause if it was misused or acquired (read: conquered, colonized, stolen, etc.) by those with a less restrained outlook on the world, at large. This is just another take on the justifiably discarded "noble savage" canard of fiction (especially fantasy and SF over the years), where the innate goodness of those people uncorrupted by civilization is taken as a given. Despite Wakanda's extremely advanced civilization, their reluctance to engage the rest of the world on open terms is presented as a safeguard for that world. The unspoken fear is that if they did choose to engage, the power locked in the tiny nation would quickly become more bane than good.  Even in the case of obviously self-interested and ambitious characters like M'Baku, it's assumed that his noble understanding of the power of vibranium would prevent him trying to take the throne with outside assistance or threatening the tribal council with the revelation of their secret in order to get what he wants.

The big question, of course, is why these questions weren't being asked in the intervening years of colonial domination, slavery, racial injustice, and persistent poverty. Clearly, at least some of the population was dissatisfied enough to be regularly engaging in efforts against human trafficking (Nakia, played by Lupita Nyongo'o) outside the borders of Wakanda. Equally obvious was the ruling government's concern over the state of people in other nations, since they created the War Dog program to enable assistance to those peoples. Of course, "War Dog" is a strange name for a program that's supposed to be helping people progress out of poverty or enslavement and it begs the question as to why more overt efforts hadn't emerged during the previous two centuries of oppression. One can fall back on the dominance of tradition over sanity which tends to disrupt all kinds of cultural progression (American reverence for a colored cloth, anyone?) and which you can make a plausible story argument for in the case of a nation with overnight spine repair tech and laser weaponry that still decides the transition of a hereditary monarchy through ritual combat.

Similarly, the film has a bit of a Batman problem in that the title hero is not nearly as interesting as his adversaries. Killmonger was a fascinating villain because he was motivated not only by personal vengeance, but a relatively sound and understandable political agenda. You could have given him far more screen time because every moment that he was on screen was fascinating. And yet, in the course of one film, he's already gone. Now, this is the superhero genre, notorious for its inability to let any character rest in peace if someone has a new (using the term loosely) idea. But no writer should want to cheapen the legacy of Jordan's performance and Killmonger's character in this first film by bringing him back in the "bad guy turned good" routine. There was a lot more to say about and with him here, in this film, right now.

This is an example of it being obvious where the cuts were made. Clearly, there should have been more to Killmonger than just being the "real" threat where Klaue was the opener. But there's only so much one can cram into a 120 minute film. For example, you can't tell me that people with that much technology and innovation wouldn't have figured out how to preserve the heart-shaped herb so that they weren't forced to maintain a ritual garden. That dramatic moment where Killmonger burns it fell flat simply because of questions about how they could have let this happen. This wasn't a formula that they've stumbled upon that works once like Steve Rogers. This was thousands of years in development and maintenance. You're telling me that in that whole time, no one has developed a way to keep that tiny garden from being threatened by someone dropping a candle? Some of this stuff could have been given room to breathe with the space provided by, say, a 10 episode Netflix series. But in a film like this, you only have time for a couple good ideas before the last third of it has to be taken up with the CGI extravaganza. The best superhero stories I ever read had very few, if any, explosions. But sometimes you gotta feed your expected audience so, there it is.

I liked a lot of the other little touches in the film, like Idrissa Soumaoro's music showing up as T'Challa and other characters stroll around their homeland. I originally mistook it for Issa Bagayogo, another Malian artist, but was pleased to know that I wasn't off when it felt like the writers and producers had taken particular pains to make this an African superhero story and not just a story about an American who is somehow king of a stereotypical nation in Africa. Credit, of course, is due to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for being willing to step outside the (ahem) clearly drawn racial lines of superheroes at the time and to create a black character who was not only a superhero, but also the king of an entire nation in his "civilian" life. You can't get much more empowered than that, especially since he was able to leave the throne to someone else's stewardship and run around with the Avengers for years. Among the other touches was the presence of multiple African languages and different ones for different sections of the country (whereas most Wakandans spoke Xhosa, the Jabari, in the mountains, spoke Igbo.) That's an example of a production team that cares about its product (and, of course, doesn't want to suffer the wrath of the Internets.)

So, yes, it's still a superhero film that drags a bit in the middle and blows up half the terrain at the end. However, it's also a superhero film that asks a number of interesting questions (unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy), albeit not thoroughly, and presents a number of great characters that I'd love to see in future releases.