Tuesday, February 27, 2018

'Black Panther' Has a Sense of Gravitas That I've Never Seen Before in an MCU Movie

Isolated and maintaining no trade relationships, Wakanda is seen by other countries as a poor, backward Third World nation.  However, in truth, Wakanda is rich, self-sufficient, and technologically advanced due to their possession of a special metal called vibranium.  But this is a secret they have successfully kept for centuries from the rest of the world.

Ever since the Wakandan tribes united, the country has been ruled by a long lineage of Black Panthers.  And with the recent death of his father (during the events of Captain America: Civil War), the latest Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), takes his rightful place as king.  However, his reign quickly faces a serious complication in Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a dangerous enemy who has a lifelong grudge against Wakanda.

Such is the plot of Black Panther in a nutshell.  If there’s a need to describe it further, it’s this: it’s not your typical superhero narrative.  It has this distinctive sense of gravitas going for it.  There’s “superheroing” involved, yes.  But it’s more like a character piece drama that happens to involve a superhero.  It feels – for lack of a better word – Games of Thrones-y.  Furthermore, it has a profound message to tell.  Due to all these, it’s probably the heaviest Marvel Cinematic Universe film I’ve ever seen.
The best thing about it is the central, Shakespearean conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger.  T’Challa’s character arc as a hero is quite terrific.  And what’s remarkable is his breakthrough comes from his foe’s influence.  That’s what makes Killmonger a great villain.  He’s not just the generic malevolent, world-domination-type villain (though, if you think about it, regardless of whatever validity his motivation has, he’s endgame is basically world domination).  He’s also the crux that compels the hero to self-reflect.  You get where he’s coming from, and to a certain degree, he has a point.  You sympathize with him a bit.  That said, he’s still a villain, and ultimately, the deeds he chooses to perform aren’t justifiable.  The ends don’t justify the means.  Hence, in the end, it is left to the hero, who has comprehended and accepted whatever valid point the villain has, to carry out the just method or application for it.  Brilliant.

There are some pacing bumps, but generally, the writing and directing are top-notch.  However, the story has no real surprises.  The flow of the narrative is easy to predict.  Now, it’s not because it’s sloppy or lazy – again, it has top-notch writing and directing.  But the foreshadowing aspects are simply significantly evident, making upcoming story beats obvious.  In addition, familiarity with trailer footage makes certain scenes easy to determine where and how they’ll fit in movie.
Another important thing I really like is how wonderfully well-realized Wakandan culture feels.  The exquisite costumes, pleasing production design, and lush CGI are huge factors for this – the screen splendidly exploding with African vibrancy and fullness (this is probably most apparent during the coronation ceremony scene).  Aside from pleasing the eyes, the effect of this is that the audience seemingly completely grasp what Wakanda is all about.

The only thing about this movie that I think is a bit flawed is the action.  Don’t get me wrong.   The action is fine.  But for me, the Black Panther fight scenes aren’t as crisp and kickass as those featured in Captain America: Civil War.  There’s a fantastic car chase sequence, but the trailers already showed its “money shots”, lessening the oomph.  The final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger is also merely serviceable, as it looks generic and CGI-saturated.  If this was any other movie, this aspect would have been bothersome.  But with this particular movie, the main focus isn’t on action anyway.  Rather, it’s primarily keen on its character-driven storytelling, political drama, and social commentary; action comes off to be almost peripheral.

In the final analysis, however, I don’t think it’s one of the MCU’s best movies.  I’m sure that others will have a different opinion.  That’s okay.  To each his own.  Honestly though, on top of my head, I can think of at least six MCU movies that I’ve enjoyed more.  Nevertheless, I tremendously like Black Panther.  And it’s the best film I’ve seen in 2018 so far.

Miscellaneous musings (w/ some SPOILERS):
  • How can you tell if someone has recently seen Black Panther?  He or she keeps on doing the “Wakanda Forever” salute.
  • Though there are a few facets of its message that I don’t agree with, I concur with it in general.  At the core, in adherence to the context of and how it’s presented in the film, this resonates with truth and importance (especially through a Christian standpoint): “More connects us than separates us.  But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.  We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
  • However, those from both the left and right of the political spectrum mustn’t think that this message is making a case for globalism – “borderless, one-world government” sentiments and all that – thus, praising or condemning the movie for this reason.
  • Moreover, isolating yourself from the world, not allowing anybody from the outside to enter, and refusing to help others when you are in the position to do so do not equate to making and enforcing policies to prevent unlawful entrances, especially when there’s a legitimate threat, okay?  Okay.
  • It also gives off a tinge of implication that the United States is the worst place to be black, which I find laughable, when on the contrary, it’s probably the best place.  Sure, some racist sentiments may still exist (where do they don’t?), but it’s not like there’s a powerful, wide-spread system in place that actively work to derogate, hinder, and persecute them.  Rather, it’s a place where success and admiration are earned by the merits of one’s work and not by one’s skin color.  It can be seen through the fact that they are able to have a dominant presence in sports, entertainment, and music.  Also, in a more cynical note, with the prevalent culture of pandering virtue signalling existing in the US now, it’s actually a place where they can play the victim card at its most advantageous.
  • Where the heck was Cap during all this time?
  • Ryan Coogler, the writer/director of this film, is only 31.  He’s just a few years older than me!  And yet he has already made three great movies – Black Panther, Creed, and Fruitvale Station.  That’s extremely impressive.
  • Vulture, Hela, and – now – Killmonger.  After being notorious for underwhelming villains, the MCU managed to have pretty strong ones in three straight movies.
  • I hope, in the sequel, Shuri gets to be a Black Panther, too.  Just like her comic book counterpart.

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