Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Salem (Finally) Watches A Movie: Black Panther

Well, I finally saw it. After all the hype, the backlash, and the culture wars going on around Black Panther, I finally got to see it and make up my mind for myself.

That's all I really wanted, world. I wanted to make up my mind for myself. I didn't want to be told that Black Panther was a cultural milestone or that it was racist against me (somehow. I'm not quite white enough for the ethnostate, sorry guys). I wanted it to be a good movie.

Our story starts on Sunday, the day I'd originally planned to see the movie. I woke up reasonably early for me, just in time to catch the last matinee at 12:30. I made it with time enough to spare, taking into account missing most of the pre-show commercials and preview trailers. I pulled into the parking lot of the Winrock Theaters, and... just kept driving. And driving.

There were no parking spots. I'm not sure if the movie was sold out or not; I never even got a chance to ask. Every single spot in the Regal Winrock theaters of Albuquerque was filled. I'm not even talking about "It was too full to park my unreasonably large van because I haven't figured out how to fit in a space without two empty ones on either side" full; I'm talking "Every single spot was full and I'd have had to park at Toys R Us a mile away just to see if there were still seats open" full.

So instead, I took the day off Wednesday, slept in late, and caught the 3:45 IMAX showing, which was damn near empty. And here's where my thoughts begin:

You're all wrong.

  • Black Panther is not "alt-right." Yes, Wakanda is xenophobic. Yes, it does have barriers and walls and hides from the world. It's an ethnostate, if not on purpose. It's a bit violent, especially its ritual combat for the throne. Wakanda could have been considered "alt-right" about two generations back, but T'Chaka, late of Civil War's catalyst event, had begun outreach programs, notably in Lagos. Sure, no one had been invited to Wakanda, but it was progress. Progress that was carried forward under T'Challa. 
  • Neither is the movie about you. It's an excellent portrayal of a deeply traditional society that had a massive technological advantage, but as the villain of the piece shows, it's a society with no real connection to American culture. As a movie based around a culture, though, it works very well. To the hidden disappointment of many, it is neither documentary nor fantasy.

With that out of the way, was it good? Did it stand on its own merits? In a word, yes. It's a very good movie, and a very worthy induction into the MCU canon. Visually, it was very striking, and my only complaint was that the movie shifts very, very quickly between dark and bright scenes, and these tired old eyes don't adjust quite as quickly as they used to. Set design and art direction deserve all the applause they get in this film. The movie's story is not overly complicated or simplistic, and flows well.

The cast is mostly excellent.

  • I make no secret that I was disappointed at Chadwick Boseman's casting, as I was rooting for Chiwetel Ejiofor to be cast as T'Challa. My consolation prize of him appearing as Mordo in Doctor Strange was satisfying, at least, and Boseman has won me over. He seemed almost too confident in Civil War, but in his solo debut, he has a lot more range on display, showing youthful vigor and moments of self-doubt that perhaps Ejiofor wouldn't have delivered on as well. 
  • Of special note is his chemistry with Letitia Wright's Shuri, his little sister and Wakanda's science whiz. Their playful bickering lent for the most authentic brother/sister combo I think I've seen in this genre of movie. 
  • Andy Sirkis was hamming it up, almost like a villainous Drax (see Guardians of the Galaxy) and was having waaay more fun than anyone else on-screen... it's a shame what happened to his character. 
  • Danai Gurira is excellent as always, and has a scene-stealing moment during a fever-pitched battle near the end of the movie. 
  • And finally, the memes are right about Michael B Jordan: this is the second Human Torch that Marvel has redeemed, as his Killmonger chews the scenery maniacally, almost out-hamming Sirkis at times. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a good villain, but he's certainly on the higher end of MCU villains; better than Ronan or Stane, but not quite to the level of a Loki or Hela.
  • While Martin Freeman turned in a standard Martin Freeman-level performance, I couldn't help but wonder why he was there. Aside from the obvious ties to Civil War, there really seemed to be no purpose for his character. Even the one time he actually did take action near the end, it's something that Shuri easily could have (and basically did) done earlier. 
  • As for Forrest Whittaker, he was... well, he was Forrest Whittaker. I suppose Morgan Freeman wasn't available.
Was it perfect, though? No, it wasn't. It deserves the good reviews it's getting, but it's certainly not flawless:
  • The opening is very weak, with literal narration providing the backstory of Wakanda with some tech that you don't even realize until later in the movie is Wakandan showing a sort of sand-sculpture representation of the warring tribes that formed Wakanda and the events of the world around it. Fortunately, the movie rights itself and spends the rest of its runtime showing and not telling, even if that runtime does seem to stretch on longer than it needs to. 
  • The pace is good, but it easily could have been 20 minutes shorter or so and been even tighter.
  • Some of the effects missed the mark, and Panther does not look nearly as fluidly realistic as he did in Civil War, and the battle between he and Killmonger, both wearing panther suits, had little impact as neither of them looked very real. The CGI at times felt very unpolished and reminded me of Blade II or the Matrix movies.

The movie could be criticized for having an inconsistent message to it, but I like to chalk that up to different characters actually having different motivations. I respected greatly how, on the whole, it takes a rather moderate view. The traditionalist characters strongly believe that Wakanda should not become involved at all in the outside world, and when Killmonger comes on the scene, he's very clearly parroting activist talking points in a cartoonish manner, wanting to use the resources of Wakanda not to uplift others but to destroy the world and rebuild it to his will. Neither of these views ultimately win out, as at the end of the movie Wakanda seems to have a new goal: benevolent outreach programs, to share its tech and resources with those in need.

All in all, this was a satisfying movie. It earns its place amongst Marvel's top films. It's not going to change the world, and it doesn't really need to... unless you're one of those people with an irrational need to see yourself represented physically on-screen (a viewpoint which I don't understand how anyone who enjoys sci-fi or fantasy can hold), you'll like it. If you were a fan of Avengers-related comics, you'll like it. It respects the source material and translates it very well.

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