Sunday, 4 March 2018

Black Panther

What to do about a mega-blockbuster film that is beloved by critics and viewers alike but also represents Hollywood, Disney and Marvel in far too obvious ways? I could, like my favourite critics, just assume that superhero films will be full of pointless violent action and just get off my moral high horse, ignoring that ‘given’ and focusing on all the things Black Panther does right.

And Black Panther does do a lot of things right. Among those things:
  1. Black Panther is full of black actors, with just two white actors thrown in (Martin Freeman as a CIA agent and Andy Serkis as a villain). It’s great to see so many black actors get a chance to show what they can do (the acting is excellent) in a setting where they represent the most advanced and powerful country in the world (in the heart of Africa!). 
  2. Related to the above, Black Panther satirizes a world in which so many people in so many countries are poor and oppressed while the rich and powerful countries, instead of trying to help, hide behind walls to protect their wealth and privilege from those who might in some way endanger their comfortable way of life. Great stuff!
  3. Related to number 2, the idea of using your country’s wealth and technology to violently impose your will on others is also satirized.
  4. Also great are the references to slavery and colonialism, especially as it relates to Africa.
  5. Character development is not a strength of superhero films, but Black Panther does a first-rate job.  
  6. The primary villain (also black) is treated with an unusual amount of respect, with a well-developed back-story and a resolution that is, at the least, not typical of Marvel or superhero films.
  7. Women who are not themselves superheroes play an important role in the film, in various ways showing themselves to be the equal of, or even superior to, the men around them.
  8. The cinematography is amazing, even though the film is made for 3D (I watched the 2D version).
Before I list what Black Panther failed to get right, let’s quickly review the plot: There’s a small country in the middle of Africa called Wakanda. Thanks to a meteorite made of vibranium that crashed into the country centuries before, Wakanda has become the most technologically-advanced country in the world. But in order to keep their country safe from those who would destroy or exploit it, Wakanda is hidden from the world. 

T’Challa (Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) has recently returned to Wakanda to take the throne. But he has no chance to relax before it’s discovered that vibranium has made its way into the hands of a white criminal arms dealer named Klaue (Serkis). Klaue’s plans for world domination are cut short by one of his own men, called Killmonger (seriously?), played by Michael B. Jordan, who is actually a Wakandan by the name of N’Jadaka who takes this opportunity to challenge T’Challa for the crown of Wakanda. Can T’Challa stop his relative from taking over and declaring war on the rest of the world? With the help of the women in his life, including his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa may have a chance, but W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his best friend and advisor, wonders whether N’Jadaka may be right about a war. 

As superhero film plots go, Black Panther’s is relatively imaginative. Indeed, I would argue that Black Panther isn’t a superhero film at all, but rather an adventure film about the hidden country of Wakanda. That is by no means a criticism - I’ve had my fill of superhero films. But here are the things Black Panther failed to do:
  1. By far my biggest complaint is the endless and pointless violent action sequences in a film aimed at young people. With all of the imagination on display, the utterly pointless action scenes seem only to be filling some kind of requirement to please the action-loving masses who can make Black Panther into the mega-blockbuster it is. As I said above, most viewers (and critics) would be advising me to accept this fact, get off my high horse and appreciate Black Panther for what it does right rather than blasting it for doing what almost all superhero films have been doing since day one. Unfortunately, when I live in a world where school children are getting shot because guns and violence are so much a part of our culture and history, I constantly need to ask whether the world needs more violent action films aimed at the young, most especially if those films are otherwise trying to be progressive and say some very important things. 
  2. Speaking of those important things, much of the dialogue involving the social justice issues of our time is, while spot-on and very welcome, relatively superficial. The opportunity to make nuanced developed arguments about how our world fails the poor and oppressed, in so many ways, is largely wasted (but this is probably way too much to expect).
  3. This applies also to the often-positive way the villain is handled. With this start at an imaginative take on the villain, why sacrifice that imagination to make so much of his character, and the violent scenes he is involved in, so typical of all the other Marvel films? There was an opportunity here for really intelligent dialogue between the villain and his enemies, dialogue that could easily have led to some form of reconciliation instead of violence. That opportunity too was wasted.
  4. Why does a country as advanced as Wakanda still allow its choice of leader to be challenged through mortal combat? Given that fact, and the ever-present weapons, how can N’Jadaka claim that Wakanda has lost its warrior status and its will to fight and how can the film, with all its unnecessary violence, be somehow championing nonviolence?
I’m not saying that Black Panther is a bad film. On the contrary, I think Ryan Coogler has made an amazing superhero film, one of the best ever, and I hope it’s a sign of more good things to come. What I’m saying, though, is that, given its premise and its obvious attempts to say something constructive and life-affirming to the world, Black Panther could have been so much better, even going so far as to challenge/satirize the very way superheroes fight their enemies instead of relying on the pointless required violent action. ***+ My mug is up, but I’m not as unequivocal about the brew inside as many are. 

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