Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #6 – Black Panther

Posted: February 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

PHEW! I like it when highly anticipated movies work as intended, justifying the several million words of many people that just couldn’t wait. The latest entry in the Marvel MCU just landed with either the unstoppable brute force of, say, Hurricane Andrew, or the more subtle irresistibility of a well-constructed whisper and rumor campaign. Pick your metaphor, we now live in a post-Black Panther world and now that it paid off, it didn’t come soon enough. I’m ready, at least, to move onto the next Internet buzz bomb arriving in…Five…Four…Three…

Black Panther tells the story of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that lucked out with a nearly endless mountain of Unobtainium…uh, vibranium (the metal of Captain America’s shield) that created a utopia of at least one place in Africa that didn’t get colonized or suffer the terrible indignity of slavery. The movie, like many depicting the hopefully universal trope of The Good King, makes the metaphorical point from John Boorman’s Excalibur that – “The Land and the King are one.” In this case, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends the throne after the tragic UN bombing depicted in Captain America: Civil War and grows into his crown and throne with the assistance of the metaphor of the Black Panther that protects the people.

At core, if you come out of the theater thinking that you’ve seen this story about two cousins with an equal claim to the throne but with diametrically opposed viewpoints before…you have. Think Lion King lightly salted with the thematically similar Hamlet filtered through the visuals of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets and you’re nearly there if you actually need the reductionist Player Pitch.

T’Challa represents The Good King that knows not to overplay Wakanda’s hand, while doing what he can covertly as the Black Panther. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is T’Challa’s long lost cousin from America who hasn’t been raised with the sense of security of living in a safe nation (obviously not America in this case) that insists on “get off your fortified mountain and do something!” The two men square off in the ritual combat for the throne that acts as crucible for T’Challa to grow past the complete isolationism of the past, while rejecting the need to become the very thing that ruined the rest of Africa and the diaspora.

At this point in this review, I have so many glowingly positive things to say about every aspect of this movie…where do I start? Somewhere in the connective tissue between director, Ryan Coogler’s, work behind the camera and his considerable work on the script, we are treated to a story that doesn’t drag, flag or fail to hold the viewer’s interest. We’re with the Panther, hope it works out in the end.

The production also helped this impression of massively impressive storytelling by finding literally every affordable African or African-American actor worth looking at. More importantly, the cast fits the roles they took instead of giving off the feel of stunt casting because Hollywood almost always selects for Big Name instead of Right Actor. That this doesn’t apply here says someone somewhere in some bleak casting office cubicle deserves a promotion (a window, at least?).

Speaking of casting, there are two white actors who, taken together, stand in for the duality inherent in how white westerners are perceived in the rest of the world. We have the great motion capture actor, Andy Serkis, as Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms dealer infamous for being the only outsider to enter Wakanda and walk out alive with vibranium. Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross, a CIA case officer and former Air Force pilot.

I realize that I’m reaching here, but if I had to find something that went lumpy and pear shaped in this movie the juxtaposition of these two foreigners would be it. The Ross character didn’t equal the bravura performance going into Klaue. Mister Serkis and the movie as a whole let us feel the character as all kinds of batshit crazy, completely impressed with his reflection in the interrogation room mirror. Or the feel that this guy would kill everyone in Wakanda and then calmly finish their dinners for them.

By contrast, the Ross character came off as underwritten as both a case officer and former jet jock. At least, the aspect of Ross’s ongoing friendship with T’Challa came off suggesting it wasn’t the actor but the writing. Mister Freeman has two big moments, explaining that Erik Killmonger specializes in destabilizing governments that piss off the United States and it falls to him to remotely pilot the Panther Jet to shoot down several Wakandan ships about to leave the country to start the global revolution. Both moments landed a little flat.

The explanation scene led me to specifically wish that Mister Coogler and other writers had watched the final scene between Cliff Robertson and Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor where despite a justified revulsion for the tactics of most scared nations and their black ops entities seeking to stave off scarcity we come to understand the why. Just a little more unapologetic dialogue from the point of view of a patriot trying to guide his country through the bloody mess in many global back alleys and who knows?

The remote piloting dogfight failed at the level of visual design and shot construction that we really might unfairly blame the writing in the early script drafts. Yes, a bad guy ship tracked the drone signal back to the remote pilot chair but I still felt the bellyflop. Basically, this is me saying that the dogfight took place on one horizontal plane and thus brought with it the dramatic interest of a videogame where the player has the immortality cheat code. My suggestion would be to take this furball into the vertical intentionally stealing from The Battle of Britain and a couple dogfights from Pearl Harbor (just about the only thing I liked about that monstrosity).

Minor quibbles about minor characters aside, you’ll get caught looking at the CGI eye candy of what Wakanda looks like behind the illusion of a small and seemingly poor but proud African nation. Mag-lev trains. A virtual remote control console easily reconfigured for any type of vehicle including the Black Panther jet. And a boatload of the blue, vibranium’s natural ore state before refinement into something akin to stainless steel. Yes, the look isn’t exactly like what we got in Valerian, just the closest analog.

All in all, Black Panther is yet another amazing example of uniformly great filmmaking from the Disney-Marvel shop. Oh, and please Dear God stay through the credits!

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