Sunday, February 18, 2018

Godspeed you, black emperor


Okay, the first thing you should know is that I liked it. The second thing is that I get to write about race in American discourse, so... yippee.

Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler
With Chadwick Boseman (King T'Challa), Lupita Nyong'o (Nakia), Letetia Wright (Princess Shuri), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Angela Bassett (Queen Mother Ramonda), Forrest Whittaker (High Priest Zuri), Daniel Kaluuya (W'Kabi), Winston Duke (M'Baku), Martin Freeman (Everett Ross), Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue), and Michael B. Jordan (Erik "Killmonger" Stevens)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Okay, the obvious thing first: there's no way to talk about Black Panther in a vacuum, as just one more superhero flick amongst a legion of superhero flicks.  This is true, even if I would strongly prefer to do that, and even if I'm going to try to do that.   So while it really ought to go without saying, I will say the words anyway, just to be perfectly clear: I'm aware that I could never know what it's like to be a black person in America, sitting down to the first movie about a black superhero ever made with the full backing of the world's premier superhero movie studio—a movie which you could argue, convincingly, is also the first blockbuster in any genre ever explicitly made for a black audience first, and a white audience (and everyone-else audience) second.  It's times like these, then, that it's important to remember that nobody ever really measures up to the platonic ideal of the "cinema viewer" when they watch a movie; everyone who sits down in a darkened theater sits down with their whole lives behind them, and that makes a difference every time.  The thing is, I expect it makes more of a difference this time than usual.

So I'm happy (honest!) that Panther makes people happy, because those adorable reaction videos of kids who loved this movie more than make up for anything else, even when "anything else" includes a great deal of dreary professional film criticism, issued from some rather prominent perches in the film critic hierarchy, and written by people who've been trained and paid to at least try to approach that platonic ideal—but who've decided, instead, to largely abdicate that responsibility and write about how important Panther is to black people in America, or how their politics align with director Ryan Coogler's, or how a movie released in February is already one of the best movies of 2018, solely because of what it's about, rather than how it's about it.  Still, as that first point is basically a factual question, I'm not about to dispute that this movie is legitimately important.  On at least one count, in fact, it's almost unbelievably shocking—because, with all due respect to Disney (who have, in fairness, been pretty good these past few years about quietly diversifying their various universes, including Marvel's), the idea that any piece of extruded Disney cinema product could ever be this nails-in-a-bat politically-engaged would've seemed more implausible than the plots of all seventeen of their previous superhero romps put together.  And yet I'm just not that interested in pretending this movie does things for me that it simply didn't—or, in some cases, objectively does not do for anybody, like (say) "have an all-black cast," or "pass the Bechdel Test," these being the kind of claims forwarded by the kind of viewer who, having found Panther to succeed on one axis, has decided it must succeed upon all of them, all at once.

But enough of that horseshit.  Our story, of course, concerns T'Challa, the Black Panther, who was last seen in Captain America: Civil War riding out a largely-parallel subplot that, with just slight reworking, would've made for a perfectly good movie of its own, as he tracked down the murderer of his father, King T'Chaka of Wakanda, and decided which was best in life, to be vengeful, or to be just.  He chose wisely, we're meant to suppose, and we catch up with the prince on his way back to his African home, on the eve of his coronation as the new king, requiring the convocation of all his friends and family and allies.  (And Panther makes a play for that "all-black cast," anyway, with its veritable who's-who of black actors filling out our new monarch's home life.)

Wakanda, it bears pointing out, has a history; or, perhaps even more accurately, it doesn't.  Having built their nation long ago atop a giant store of the world's strongest metal, vibranium, over the millennia the five tribes of Wakanda have used the catchall scientific magic of the metal to accomplish a civilization that rivals any nation of the West (even within the Stark-drenched milieu of this Marvel Universe); and the Wakandans' luck of the geographical draw has afforded them both the cause and the capability to hide their treasure behind a holographic illusion and a centuries-long campaign of disinformation.  Thus, to all outward appearances, Wakanada is naught but a poor and dusty nation, so useless that even the colonizers didn't bother colonizing it.  But this hermit policy has also meant isolating themselves from the great mass of Africans who were colonized, and who suffered from it, and who suffer still.

On this dark note, then, we turn to Oakland, California, from whence hails a certain ex-soldier—black ops, natch—this being Erik Stevens, nicknamed "Killmonger" for his proficiency, presumably by goofy 1970s people.  Wakanda's isolationism has been the very defining feature of Erik's life: for rather than growing up amidst the Afrofuturist splendor of the land that bred him, he was born on the other side of an ocean, and for the worst of reasons abandoned there in America, where life was never, ever going to be as kind to someone of his particular hue.  Now a mercenary, Erik's joined forces with Ulysses Klaue, an adventurer-thief who's made his fortune off the vibranium he stole from Wakanda decades ago; but the exiled son has plans for Wakanda, and its place in the world, that go far beyond Klaue's mean desire to sell precious metals to the highest bidder, and King T'Challa might not sit upon his new throne for very long.

One thing I'm surprised more people haven't mentioned is how similar this plot is to Thor, with a little bit of Thor: Ragnarok thrown in, except pitched in the vastly more down-to-earth register of a fable about race and nation.  (It surely has Thor's most compelling element, namely the courtly drama centered around an angry outsider usurper driven by issues of abandonment and identity.)  But I shouldn't be too surprised, I guess; after all, that down-to-earth register winds up making all the difference in the world.  And whatever else about the reaction to Panther might be hyperbolic, the one thing that absolutely isn't is the praise for Killmonger as the definitive reversal of Marvel's trend of nobody villains.

The concept alone is already incredibly meaty: what we have is a man who has (correctly) identified everything wrong with both Wakanda and the world at large, but then, because of where he came from (and the scars, physical and spiritual, he carries with him), comes to the worst possible conclusions about how to fix those problems, becoming in essence a black supremacist bent on creating a black planet, always just one white guy away from shouting out loud, "I learned from watching you!"  He's understandable, and often sympathetic.  And he is always very surprising: the single last thing I ever thought any superhero movie would ever be about would be a villain whose goal was, effectively, white genocide, and that is just Goddamn brass.

But when we get Killmonger, he comes wrapped in the best package possible, too, namely Michael B. Jordan, this film's undeniable standout and increasingly proving his bona fides as one of the best young actors working today.  Jordan approaches the material with a gratifying playfulness that somehow complements the dignified rage and terrifying idealism driving the character, rather than ever undercutting it—one of Panther's most overt pleasures is in the interplay of the pompous grandiloquence of the Wakandans and their Hollywood-African accents against the utter Americanness of their would-be prophet.  And, because it's Jordan, and because it's Oakland, and because Coogler would rather you not forget, you are fiercely reminded of Fruitvale Station and Jordan's rendition of Oscar Grant, if he were resurrected and angry.  (Happily, you are reminded of Fantastic Four not at all.)  Jordan dominates the movie so thoroughly, you wonder if it's even fair: Chadwick Boseman, surely no acting slouch, gets T'Challa, who opposes Killmonger with muscle and a vibranium suit and an awful lot of moral constipation.

Say what you want about the tenets of black nationalism, T'Challa, but at least it's an ethos.

It isn't fair, in fact: Killmonger is the most interesting figure in this movie by an almost silly margin; whereas the second-most interesting figure in this movie, (which, recall, is named Black Panther!) is the one Jordan evidently had the most fun playing against, and that's not the Black Panther either, but the one that it seems like Killmonger would be the least likely to have ever had anything to do with in the first place, the white vibranium pirate who makes no great secret of his sour-grapes racism.  This probably has something to do with the fact that Andy Serkis was apparently encouraged to play Klaue as if he were acting in a completely different, much campier and much zippier superhero movie, which works well (up to the point where, for good reason, it can't).

Which gets us to the script itself, which simply isn't that great, from what look like enormous plot holes to the noticeable loginess with which Panther pursues its story, especially in the early going.  (In fact, these are one and the same thing: to the extent Killmonger ever would hang out with Klaue, it is not in the slightest bit obvious why he's still doing so after this movie's begun.)  It also suffers, a little, from an overstuffed cast, with over a half-dozen minor characters milling about constantly and all needing something to do.  (Panther's widely-hailed generosity to its female cast appears to be based mostly on sheer quantity.  It's hard to say who gets the worst of it, but my choice would be Danai Gurira's royal bodyguard Okoye, who gets a terrifically fascinating arc about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism, and then gets it lossily compressed into just two scenes, with approximately as many lines.  Also, you may have noticed I have not mentioned Martin Freeman's CIA agent at all; this is because I do not wish to dignify pandering to my whiteness with a response.  The only thing about Freeman's presence that strikes me as worthwhile at all is that, when you think about the movie's other hobbit-derived white actor, you realize that there's a very big probability that they got cast as representatives of the most consciously racially-segregated film series of the 21st century.)  But Panther suffers the most when it comes to T'Challa himself, who, surrounded by subjects and enemies pulling him to and fro, is the still, somewhat blank center of the film, and while Boseman certainly imbues the young king with charisma (mostly—nobody could imbue the exaggerated schoolboy mooning T'Challa gets up to with Nakia with total charisma), he also underplays him within an inch of his very life.

And the responsibility lies in a plot that is bizarrely content to waste a lot of time upfront, and then has to rush to fill in everything else, especially the world-building that is, or ought to be, one of Panther's strongest aspects.  It makes for some choice visuals of traditional African life as counterpoised against gleaming modernist technology (that nevertheless retains its own idiosyncratic character); and it trafficks in some neat pan-Africanist ideas (I especially like the nod to the 70s pan-African notions that encompassed ancient Egypt).  It very much explains why, beyond the basic optics, that Panther rather demanded a black director; and the appeal of an undiscovered country of black superpeople untouched by Western depredations is, to understate matters, pretty obvious.  (Not everyone will be happy with the way it sits at the endpoint of a very old-school line of orientalist fiction, but I wouldn't be one of them.)  But whether he was just pressed for time or what, Coogler is annoyingly unwilling to show how any of Wakanda's broader society—beyond its acutely dysfunctional law of succession—actually works.  It's the only point where this movie's engagement with reality actually hurts it: in much the same way I don't give a solitary shit about how Asgard works, I'm very interested in how Wakanda does.

Though this is of a piece with the whole, which is both Coogler's most ambitious feature by any metric (and ambition takes it pretty far) and, also, his worst.  (His best remains the punishing holocaust of Fruitvale Station, but Creed is pretty damn fine, too; and Creed is also a movie you may derive proper entertainment from.)  This isn't solely due to the material (which the Coog did help write), but simply because it's his worst-directed.  None of the problems I've described so far are actually fatal—I mean, I like Black Panther a fair bit, so really, nothing here is fatal—but if something here were going to be fatal, it'd be that Panther is a deeply mediocre action movie.  Even by Marvel movie standards!  Which, as you know, are not especially high.

Now, it's a movie that doesn't, to its credit, evidence most of the usual Marvel movie problems: possibly due to its status as a landmark event, it is respectful as hell to the internal integrity of its tale (this time, you have to wait that whole 135 minutes, with the credits, if it's a shared universe cameo you're after); it has a cool soundtrack and score with interesting African accents (though its trailer seemed to promise something much more aggressive, while the most interesting thing that happens, sonically speaking, is when it decides to accompany Killmonger's initial victory by a chanting chorus—that is, a noticeably European musical style); and, above all, it takes itself seriously, something a Marvel movie hasn't accomplished since Civil War, and, because it is a political statement, it comes off significantly more sincere even without being quite as dour.

But what it doesn't do is offer anything that's full-on, grab-you-by-the-throat thrilling, which is something even the lesser Marvel movies, 18 films into their mega-franchise, still usually manage.  (Even a movie that I severely overrated at the time, Guardians vol. 2, which is mostly just an enjoyable candy-colored piece of crap, still has that one unfortgettable setpiece.)  The closest Panther gets is the second of two short mystical journeys (the first is almost lazy; but the second, remixing elements of African iconography with images of its diaspora, does pay off on it), which isn't even an action scene at all.  The next-closest is a relatively-decent fight-scene-and-car-chase that amounts to the last meaningful piece of superheroics for almost an hour and a half.  There are other battles, of course, and I don't want to call them bad, though the two big ones are remarkably redundant, taking place in the exact same location with literally the exact same stakes.  These at least draw upon Coogler's demonstrated strengths for action; Creed, after all, concerns itself with fights in what amount to the exact same locations, for the exact same stakes.  Yet Creed is somehow far more imaginative within its tighter constraints.

The final battle, however, is just pure Marvel Standard, and in the worst way (okay, not the worst way, but not in any kind of good way): overlong montages of armies battling bloodlessy and pointlessly; needless cross-cutting to our token white good guy, doing things nobody on Earth could conceivably describe as dramatic; and two superbeings with ambiguous powers and plot-dependent invincibility, squaring off against the world's most obvious greenscreen, whose later-composited images could not possibly affect them even slightly, and with CGI masks that appear and disappear at the whim of whoever decided it was fucking obligatory that the actors' faces be on screen every time they say a line in superhero movies.  (There's a lot of obvious greenscreen in Panther, incidentally, and it has at least its fair share of wobbly CGI.  So, on that theme of how Panther looks, while you never go to Marvel movies and expect great cinematography, you would think that Rachel Morrison, who shot Fruitvale and Dope, and who got nominated for an Oscar just last month for Mudbound, would be able to bring something more intriguing to the table than one nice sunrise and the mere ability to appropriately light black actors—though I suppose, in this world, that's not precisely nothing.)

Yet it is, all in all, good: Killmonger, and Jordan's performance of the same, outweigh its several sins of omission; thanks to Jordan, and to an ending that depends entirely upon Jordan's efforts, Black Panther could likely have parts that were actively bad, and still be worth watching.  But you necessarily want more out of an event than just "good," let alone a movie whose thematic quality outstrips its visual or narrative quality to this degree, and as much as I wish it were the action-adventure masterpiece folks rightfully want it to be, it's not.

Score:  6/10


  1. ok, OK! the world-building of Wakanda could have been fleshed out to more than just the throne room and the street market. But the colors, Hunter!

    Also, is it just me or has Andy Serkis been hitting the gym?