Black Panther: Step Into the Spotlight

Kevin Feige was wrong.

It’s rare that anybody gets to say that about the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let’s just enjoy that moment. Feige was wrong. He was wrong about audiences not wanting to see female-led and people of color-led superhero movies. He was wrong that it wasn’t the right time. And I hear you, dear reader, saying, “but he had to satisfy Marvel and Disney executives too!” To which I respond: the company that has made billions off princesses? They instead chose to make lackluster sequels of snarky white dudes rather than take a chance on a person of color or a woman?

Though I’m poking fun, it’s true that the MCU has made 17 very successful movies fronted by straight, white, men, of varying levels of quality. Women and people of color were partners and sidekicks, Black Widow, War Machine, and Falcon, but that was never anything more than a consolation prize. Feige, to his credit, said, “oh thank god,” for Wonder Woman. He knew, at that time, that he was eventually producing a Captain Marvel movie, and Black Panther was in production. The proof of concept was no longer his responsibility, it was no longer a “risky” investment. Suddenly, he was willing to discuss the Black Widow movie fans had been begging for. And after Black Panther, he’s willing to discuss Shuri, Okoye, and Dora Milaje-centric films. Black Panther and Wonder Woman have proven to studios and audiences that these films are not only going to be successful when they’re well made, but that people are hungry for them.

img_0216

However, the first teaser trailer for Black Panther was surprisingly…boring. Despite the focus on the South Korean car chase, it felt somewhat flat. Very Marvel, much superhero. Dominated by the voices of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman (and an unseen John Chani), it didn’t tell us much about T’Challa or Wakanda, but had lots of CGI action. It didn’t inspire a lot of conversation beyond, “Oh look, another Marvel movie.” This trailer was disappointing for me because Ryan Coogler was directing, Chad Boseman was back in the Panther suit, Michael B. Jordan was the amazingly monikered Erik Killmonger, and Danai Guairari and Lupita Nyong’o were in this! Not to mention the always stellar Andy Serkis, and Martin Freeman. What an amazing cast and crew! But it didn’t seem exceptional, just standard Marvel fare, which is getting a little boring.

The second (or official) trailer, however, brought us right into the world of the Black Panther. The beauty of Wakanda was evident in the photography, the colors and vibrancy of the textiles and architecture alongside the advanced technology of the MCU’s world. Shuri (Letitia Wright) showed up, and OF COURSE brother and sister have an adorable secret handshake! Michael B. Jordan showed up and lit things on fire. Danai Gurira was a BADASS. It looked like Boseman was going to do more than deliver monologues into the middle distance, and might even have a little swagger. Suddenly, this movie felt right. Whoever redid the trailers gave it the right music and the right moments to reinvigorate the buzz. Thank goodness.

shuri tchalla handshake.gif

I can’t speak to what Black Panther means to black audiences. But I know that Representation Matters, and it’s important to see yourself on the biggest screen, to be inspired to be your best self, the hero of your own story. There are some incredible pieces that I highly recommend you read here, here, and here. Hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe trending on Twitter let people tell us what they’re thinking as this movie is delivered to us.  I’ve previously discussed how non-black audiences should understand and respond to the extremely racist online commentary that you’ll find under any posting on social media that has congealed from the terrible cancer that is the underlying horror of the internet. It’s important for us to listen, see, understand, and learn. And in this case, be entertained with. A movie that does both is rare. But Black Panther finally gives mainstream audiences another story to tell about Africa.

black-panther-trailer-wakanda-people
The production design drew from many different African cultures across the continent to create the fictional country of Wakanda

Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero to light up the big screen. Subsequent to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970’s, there were few superhero movies that allowed people of color into the lead. Meteor Man (1993) and Blankman (1994) took the comedy route. Steel (1997), starring Shaquille O’Neal, took the “holy moly this is terrible!” line. Spawn happened (in 1997), but avoided every reference to being a black superhero movie. They all seemed like watered down versions of Foxy Brown and Shaft at best. The Blade trilogy (1998-2004) featured Wesley Snipes as the Daywalker, a vampire hunting, supernatural creature with the coolest sunglasses and raddest old hippie sidekick in the biz. Blade was one of Marvel’s early cinematic hits, even though it was more modest than the returns it sees with the MCU. Blade is, at best, a cult classic, it did not age well. These movies all had their moments, but came and went quickly, not lasting long in the cultural zeitgeist. They were so ephemeral many media outlets seemed to struggle to remember that there even were black superheroes prior to Black Panther, or maybe managed to get Blade but stumbled after that.

Black Panther has become a full movement. And if not an end to a cultural hegemony, at least we can see it from here.

img_0214
(copyright Entertainment Weekly and Marvel)

Ryan Coogler has created the first Marvel movie that clearly states its political purpose.  Wakandans call Americans “colonizer,” Killmonger wants Wakanda to bring furious vengeance to the African Diaspora, a character early on states the plight of the black American and institutionalized racism. To ignore that would be to ignore part of the identity of this film. And it’s never felt more relevant, particularly as certain politicians have called African nations, “shitholes.” I wonder what he would think of Wakanda, an African nation that was never colonized and had the opportunity to use its own resources to enrich the lives of its own citizens and revel in African excellence.

Dave Schilling at Birth.Movies.Death sums it up beautifully:

Movie criticism has reached a point where it’s simply not enough to say whether or not something is good. The thumbs-up-thumbs-down paradigm of Siskel & Ebert feels woefully passé to most cinema observers. What are the sociological implications of a movie? What is the significance of the symbolism? Is the film uplifting the downtrodden or reinforcing stodgy norms? Some will blanch at the modern critic’s invocation of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, or the nods to Ta-Nehisi Coates, but to do otherwise is to negate the power of film to inspire and to educate. Black Panther is the opening of a door wider than it has ever been — a blockbuster unashamed of its blackness, concerned with the feelings of that audience, but broad enough to let everyone into the party. In that sense, it’s a miracle.

***Freeze! Spoilers from here on in. If you haven’t seen the movie, go watch it and come back, I’ll wait…***

MBaku-Man-Ape-Throne-Black-Panther-Marvel-Comics-min
The view from M’Baku’s throne room in the mountains

Ryan Coogler has crafted a thematically and visually rich film within the framework of a Marvel superhero movie.  He neither breaks nor subverts the model, but rather makes it his own. The familiar story beats are there, but he builds tension and intrigue to layer into a scene. It deeply reminded me of Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman in design and emotion. His characters have depth and are well-rounded, which is in part a gift of the actors he hired. It’s easy for the audience to fall in love with them, like when Okoye breaks her serious countenance as one of T’Challa’s bodyguards to cheekily wink at Shuri, or when T’Challa and Shuri are in any conversation together, or Nakia’s confidence, and W’Kabi’s (Daniel Kaluuye) friendship, love, and deep pain. Danai Gurira’s facial expressions can flow from confidence to affection to determination in microseconds and you never doubt her.

okoye wink

Black Panther opens with the origins of Wakanda and vibranium, the metal that Cap’s shield is made out of, and powers their advanced technology. The country has lived in solace and hidden its resources and people away from the world for centuries, neither accepting nor giving help to the world around it. The story told by King T’Chaka to his young son, T’Challa, is beautifully animated, and reminded me of how Wonder Woman had given the origins of the Amazons in a similar way.

We then cut to Oakland (to the cheers of my fellow Northern California audience members), Ryan Coogler’s hometown, and to children playing basketball outside a large tenement building in the early 1990’s. Inside, two men review a plan for American Black Panthers to do some damage, one of whom has a Wakandan accent. He jumps at a sound, and realizes what is coming at a knock on the door. When his compatriot asks if he should let the “two Grace Jones-looking chicks” in, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) replies, trembling, “They will not knock again.” and King T’Chaka enters in his Black Panther regalia behind two Dora Milaje. We learn that, as a member of the War Dogs, Wakanda’s network of global spies, N’Jobu has revealed Wakanda’s secrets to an outsider. N’Jobu sets up the primary conflict of the film, he wants to help the people he sees around him, and he has the resources and power to do it, so why shouldn’t he? He is, after all, brother to the King. It doesn’t matter, Ulysses Klaue (remember him from Age of Ultron? He was there briefly, and somewhat inexplicably) now has vibranium and too much information, N’Jobu will face justice despite his royal bloodline.

Black-Panther-TChalla-poster
Heavy is the head

This movie takes place approximately one week after the events of Civil War, T’Challa has had some time to process his father’s death, but it’s still very fresh. He returns home to mourn his father, accept the throne, and face the challengers to his succession. First though, he retrieves his ex and friend Nakia, who is on a mission as a spy for Wakanda in a nearby country. He wants her to come home for the funeral and his inauguration, he needs her support so much he interrupts her mission. T’Challa takes out a dozen bad guys with very large guns, but when faced with a furious Nakia, he freezes with a barely breathed, “Hiiii…” finally showing a crack in that regal countenance he carries with him most of the time, he stumbles over what to say to her. His feelings for Nakia are evident even through the mask of his Panther suit, merely from the inflection of his voice. Good thing the Panther has General Okoye to watch his back.

nakia
“You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”

We get to see the Golden City, capital of Wakanda, as Okoye flies them home in a ship SHIELD would love to have. Flying past the border, protected by a community that looks quiet and pastoral, through the faux canopy of the rainforest, and into the Afrotech futuristic city is stunning. A shining city with touches of African design is the fantasy version of a country that was never crushed by colonialism and slavery, that was able to use its resources to build itself into a technological powerhouse. The film asks what Wakanda’s responsibility is to the world, and specifically to Africa and its descendents. Everyone has a different answer, but it is up to T’Challa to decide the future of his nation.

golden city

T’Challa, as King, selects whom he wants surrounding him. Being King surely comes with royal intrigue and drama, and he must surround himself with people he trusts. And he is surrounded by women. He trusts his mother Ramonda (a regal Angela Bassett), his brilliant sister, Shuri, his ex-girlfriend, the spy Nakia, and General Okoye and the Dora Milaje. His mother and Okoye represent the traditional ways of Wakanda, whereas Nakia and Shuri are the progressive, forward-looking, members of his retinue. Coogler does a beautiful job showing us the tension between old and new throughout his film.  At one point Shuri gives Nakia a Dora Milaje uniform to wear, but Nakia scoffs, “I’m not Dora.” But Shuri admonishes her, “It’s armor! Put it on!” We may save ourselves with the technology of the future, but we defend ourselves with the traditions of our past.

img_0215-1

The costuming of Black Panther cannot be praised enough, and I have Oscars on my mind because it’s that time of year, but if Ruth Carter doesn’t win all the awards I’ll eat my hat. The details in the Panther costume of the tiny triangles throughout are meant to evoke the “sacred geometry” of Africa. The red of the Dora Milaje, which Okoye sticks to even outside Wakanda, is taken from the traditional looks of the Maasai of Kenya.

okoye

Shuri is uncomfortable in a traditional costume, she prefers her more modern looks.   Ramonda is resplendant in mourning white that looks so intricate I’m sure it was 3D printed.

ramonda

Nakia is always seen in a knockout green, and apparently because of that color choice, all Lupita Nyong’o’s scenes had to be shot in blue rather than green screen.

img_0227
A very natural chemistry here

Every scene featuring the Dora Milaje was stunning. From their presence at both challenges to the king at the waterfalls, as members of T’Challa’s retinue, to their beautiful fight sequence with Killmonger in the final fight (which elicited audible gasps from people around me in the theater). Much like the Amazons in Wonder Woman, I felt that we didn’t spend nearly enough time with them. I would happily watch an entire film of General Okoye training the Dora Milaje and hanging out with some war rhinos.

img_0232
The Dora Milaje in full regalia

One of T’Challa’s first responsibilities as King is to bring back Klaue, who has resurfaced, to face Wakandan justice. This is of particular emotional importance to his friend W’Kabe, whose father was killed by Klaue. T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye travel to Busan, Korea, and track Klaue to a casino to give us a perfect 007 vibe. Nakia easily sidles up to the lowlifes running the place, and gets her friends in, her spycraft is an easy and natural place for her. Meanwhile, T’Challa never lets the arrogance and disgust leave his eyes, and Okoye chafes under a wig. T’Challa spots Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), an “old friend” on a similar mission with the CIA, adding more complications, as Okoye hisses, “Americans,” to her compatriots.  As Klaue (Serkis, having the absolute most fun) enters the scene with what seems like a few dozen henchmen, we know it’s a set up. Tensions ratchet and tighten until finally everything springs apart with a smile and a tossed wig as Okoye gets back into her element, happily stabbing people. Gurira’s stunt work with the spear was stunning, she hauls around a katana at her other job, so unique weapons are becoming a bit of a niche thing for the actress. The fight scene is well choreographed, and includes a long take that is impressive, if a little kitschy. The action moves into the car chase scene (that doubles nicely as a car commercial) while also having a bit of fun with Shuri, who revels in her part of the action. The sheer joy shows on her face as she tells T’Challa (and us) about how awesome her inventions are makes you smile along with her. This is an excellent example of how to make a fight scene intimate and simultaneously far reaching. Coogler employs the mix again at the end of the film but in a scene I was less impressed with.

img_0234
“Let’s have some fun!”

But Klaue’s re-emergence is merely a vehicle to introduce us to Michael B. Jordan’s glorious Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The child left behind in the beginning of the film, the son of N’Jobu and therefore the cousin to T’Challa, he has a legitimate claim to the throne. He spent his life learning to kill and take down regimes, and then came for his birthright with righteous anger. He is Malcolm X in his willingness to use violence to achieve his means, to T’Challa’s Martin Luther King Jr. Jordan exudes danger and violence in this film.

Marvel movies have been rightfully criticized for their lack of intriguing villains, but Jordan steps into the role with ease. Part of the reason is the immediate empathy you have for his story, part is the electric energy Jordan brings to the role. I was reminded of how in Fruitvale Station he had gone from a boy who tried to save a dog and loved his little girl, but quickly snapped into a man who could be quite intimidating. Jordan has said he was trying to make up for the dismal Fantastic Four movie (he shouldn’t be the one to apologize for that, he was easily the best part), and if anything could make us forget it would be his onscreen presence in Black Panther.

killmonger fire.gif

Killmonger struts in, violence incarnate, monologuing about the plight of black people left to suffer while Wakanda flourishes, telling the Wakanda council his plan to arm War Dogs around the globe with Wakandan technology and weapons, or quietly discussing Vibranium art in a museum. He uses every moment on screen to exude his pain and anger. He’s a “ends justify the means” sort of guy, but he leans into the same ideas Nakia is pressing T’Challa on. Bring Wakanda out of the shadows and help the world, specifically the people who look like them and haven’t had the luck to be born in their small corner. Killmonger will use any means necessary to achieve his goals.  Killmonger stands head and shoulders above most MCU villains, and is seriously considering kicking Loki’s feet out from under him.

killmonger
Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger highlights how a great villain can make or break a film

The one scene I was unimpressed with was the final fight between Killmonger and T’Challa on the sonar train tracks under the Golden City. It’s another moment of overwhelming CGI pixels being smashed together in lieu of great stunt choreography being assisted by CGI. I am fairly convinced that part of the fight, as the two men fell into the mine, was recycled from Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. The computers simply substituted Killmonger and T’Challa for Quill and Ego. The remainder of the scene between W’Kabe’s tribe, the Dora Milaje, and M’Baku’s late arrival was very fun. War rhinos, guys! War. Rhinos. (12/10, would pet.) However, the final fight was a bit of a letdown. We know T’Challa appears as King of Wakanda in Infinity War, which might take some tension away from that ultimate battle. However, that one flat moment didn’t hurt the rest of a stupendous film.

Black Panther also moves very, very quickly. There are some moments that felt rushed, namely W’Kabe’s willingness to throw in with Killmonger after T’Challa’s failure to bring Klaue back for Wakandan justice. I would venture that this is a product of trying to get the movie into a certain time frame. At 134 minutes, Black Panther has the current longest runtime of any MCU movie (Infinity War will likely break this record). A few moments from the trailers were clearly missing, so a director’s cut might show a few of those edited moments that didn’t make the final theatrical cut.

tchalla returns
Return of the King

Black Panther works well as a stand alone Marvel film, with more tenuous ties to the MCU at-large. This film could easily be watched with little knowledge of what had come before it. Considering how underused T’Challa was in Civil War, one could simply skip over most of that movie to the end credits to see Bucky Barnes put into a coma in Wakanda (“another white boy to fix,” Shuri quips when T’Challa brings Agent Ross to her in hopes she can heal him). We never see another infinity stone, though fans have been speculating that the soul stone is hidden somewhere in Wakanda, based on the fact that part of the Infinity War trailers clearly takes place in T’Challa’s home country. That separation from the rest of the MCU allows this movie to breathe, and tell a lot of story in a little time. There are subtle easter eggs throughout, but at no point does Iron Man make an appearance to be snarky and tell T’Challa how to do his job.

ramonda snow

Black Panther is a resplendent, rich, fun, and well-rounded entry into the MCU and superhero movies. It deserves to be discussed in the same breath as The Dark Knight and Wonder Woman. It’s funny, but relies less on quips (Shuri picks up most of the quip work) and more on situational and some physical comedy. It’s fun, but it has a serious message to convey. It’s political, but tells a fantastic and entertaining story. T’Challa stood in front of the MCU’s United Nations in the mid-credits scenes, and told us, “There is more that unites than divides us. We should work to build bridges, not barriers.” When an unnamed member asked, “What can you possibly give us?” T’Challa smirks.

Wakanda Forever. A.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s