Thursday, February 15, 2018

Microreview [film]: Black Panther

The best Marvel film I've seen--by far...

I have a confession to make: I just don't love superhero films. I've loved superhero comics since I was a kid--and, at several points in my life, collected them. But the film adaptations rarely do it for me. Sure, there are plenty that I've enjoyed on first view, but only a few that I've actually wanted to see again. The ones that make the cut can be counted on one hand: Batman (1990), The Dark Knight (2008), The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). And even with those, the law of diminishing returns applies. Black Panther is different; this is a film I think I could see twenty times or more.

Black Panther is, at base, a very well made blockbuster. It does a good job integrating back story with foregrounded action--not always a guarantee in this genre. It is well-paced, with a tight balance between action and character exposition. The acting performances are almost uniformly good, and it looks and sounds brilliant (more on that later). Also, it contains a plot twist that is genuinely surprising, but which also feels intuitive. These qualities already mark it as a cut above most superhero films. This is not just Save the Cat for the Nth time.

But it's the richness and wonder of Black Panther's world-building that truly sets it apart. Much has been made about how Black Panther centers blackness, and how rare this is in blockbuster action films. To me, though, it is more striking and significant that it centers Africa and African-ness.

Watching the film really underscores how uncommon this is. In most cases, Africa is the backdrop to a film about a white protagonist (e.g. Blood Diamond). This is often the case for Hollywood films set in Asia as well (e.g. The Last Samurai, The Great Wall). However, China, Hong Kong and Japan have strong film industries as well, so films that center Chinese- or Japanese-ness are pretty easy to find in most countries. African films, on the other hand, rarely penetrate the global consciousness...which means that the rare Hollywood film will be all that many audiences ever see of Africa. Making matters worse, the Hollywood view of Africa is almost monotonically focused on deprivation.

Exceptions to the rule are rare--there's The Lion King, which is about animals not people, and Coming to America, 90 percent of which takes place in Queens. Both have an almost exclusively American cast. Here, though, we have a film with an African protagonist, a mostly African supporting cast and set in a modern African society. Many of the actors are either African or of recent African descent as well. The main white character, played by our own English Scribbler Martin Freeman, is the sidekick--a role usually reserved for a black actor.

This is meaningful to me personally. As a kid I loved Fantomen, the Swedish iteration of Lee Falk's The Phantom. The comic was very progressive for its time (1930s), offering a sympathetic view of Africa and Africans and a negative view of their colonial exploitation. As I grew older, though, I realized how The Phantom relegated black Africans to side characters in what should have been their own story, and so robbed them of agency. I've always wondered why the many reboots of this otherwise excellent comic franchise didn't just make the Phantom black. To my knowledge, it hasn't happened yet.

The Black Panther comic introduced in the 1970s was, in some ways, a response to The Phantom, as well as all the other African stories centering white saviors. The film feels like a powerful response to every white savior film ever made.

An amazing Jack Kirby cover too! 
Another interesting element of the film is that it also centers women. More than half of the film's central characters are women, and they are strong, independent women as well. Danai Gurira is electrifying as General Okoye, leader of the elite Dora Milaje warriors, as is Lupita Nyong'o as spy and T'Challa love interest Nakia.

None of this would matter much if the film were bad or mediocre--but it is in fact an exceptionally well-made blockbuster, first and foremost for the reasons I outlined above. However, it is also exception for how meticulously writer/director Ryan Coogler built Wakanda. The sets, costumes, rituals and institutions are draw from African cultures and symbols, as well as the modern tradition of Afro-futurism that gave us the comic character Black Panther in the first place. The effect is stunning, from a visual perspective--as well as unique within the genre. The soundtrack and incidental music are also really striking, enhancing the sense of place as well as dramatic tension throughout the film.

I also appreciated that Black Panther, in the best Marvel tradition, invites us to sympathize with the villain's cause, even as we recoil from his chosen methods. I won't get farther into it, for fear of spoiling the movie for you.

Since this is Nerds of a Feather, I'd be remiss if I didn't nitpick something--nothing is perfect after all. I have two relatively minor complaints. First, there are a couple moments when the film goes overboard with the CGI, in a way that will look dated in just a few years. These are relatively few and far between, though. Second, there is an element to the central plot twist that doesn't make a lot of sense unless you add more own exposition. This did annoy me, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the film.

Black Panther is the best blockbuster film I've seen since Gravity, and the best superhero film I've ever seen. By a mile.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10.

Bonuses: +1 for world building; +1 for centering Africa and Africanness; +1 for going beyond the Save the Cat formula.

Penalties: -1 for too much CGI at a couple pivotal moments; -1 for element of plot twist that, on consideration, doesn't make a lot of sense.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10. "Mind-blowing/life-changing."