Monday, February 19, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to roll along with Black Panther, featuring one of the first black superheroes and a character first introduced in Captain America Civil War. Although I'm not black, I've seen how much this movie has meant to African-Americans of my acquaintance and I saw some very positive reviews, so I hoped it was good. I had President's Day off, so I went to go see it.

And now the review...

The Plot

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the African nation of Wakanda, which despite its rustic, backward appearance has very advanced technology based on vibranium, to be formally crowned king after his father's death. There we meet intelligence agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o)--who is also his ex-lover--his regal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his smart-alecky tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).

Unfortunately, the arms dealer and troublemaker Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom we last saw hobnobbing with Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is back. He's made an alliance with Special Forces veteran Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who seeks use Wakanda's advanced technology to avenge the mistreatment of black people by Western society.

Trouble ensues...

The Good

*The worldbuilding is very well-done. I'm not familiar with African culture, music, etc. beyond television documentaries and books for the most part, but the dancing, music, etc. sound very African. This article here goes into more detail about the effort and research that went into developing Wakanda for the film. The use of Lesotho in particular as a basis for "primitive" Wakanda makes a lot of sense--Lesotho retained its independence in part due to its mountains, much like how Wakanda's mountains allow it to maintain itself in isolation from the outside world.

*There are a lot of laugh-out-loud and delightfully smart-ass comments from the characters. I particularly liked Shuri, T'Challa's sister who reminds me sometimes of my own little sister. Even the grim Killmonger gets some snarky lines, which I enjoyed as well. The Stan Lee cameo is also pretty funny.

*The cast in general is very impressive. A lot of big-time names in this movie.

*The political and cultural grievances that drive Killmonger are unfortunately quite real. I have an M.A. in world history with a U.S. History minor and I'm well aware of slavery (and its successor, convict leasing, which is not as well-known), colonialism, the assassination of people like Martin Luther King Jr., guns and drugs in the 'hood, etc. I liked how they made Killmonger, an orphaned child of the ghetto, since that makes him a foil for T'Challa, the wealthy and well-respected ruler of the one African country never to be colonized.

(Ethiopia was briefly conquered by Italy and Liberia was a fiefdom of Firestone rubber despite retaining its political independence.)

*Ulysses Klaue is a white South African and although he's not above doing business with blacks, that doesn't mean he doesn't have his cultural prejudices. He describes the Wakandans as "savages" and refers to Killmonger as "boy" at one point--not necessarily out of any personal meanness or maliciousness, but it's still disrespectful. That's a nice little bit of personality/cultural quirk there.

*The movie is only rarely dull, and those parts are typically at the beginning. Once Killmonger arrives in Wakanda it never lets up.

*Nakia's and T'Challa's breakup seems to have been caused by philosophical differences--T'Challa supports the country's historical isolationism like his father, while Nakia wants to use their technological advances to help others. When we first meet Nakia she's pretending to be the prisoner of a group of African warlord-types who are taking women in headscarves to an unknown but probably unpleasant fate--they reminded me a lot of the women captured by Boko Haram--and one of their soldiers is a child or young teen. That a spy working for an African superpower would focus on solving problems in Africa makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

*Although Wakanda's architectural styles are very African, a lot of the technology they have (monorails, hover-bikes and boards) are the same or more high-tech versions of real-world technologies from outside Africa. Another character is wearing a Western suit and tie, albeit with a rather different color scheme. Wakanda is supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world, but yet they've developed pretty much the same technology tree in isolation from outsiders? Europe got the dhow sail from Arabs and gunpowder and the compass from China; they didn't independently develop them themselves.

In the comics, Captain America's shield was made of Wakandan vibranium, much like how uranium from the Belgian Congo was used in the atomic bombs. There's also back-story of contacts between the U.S. and Wakanda during WWII. It would've been more interesting if Wakanda's wealth and technological advancement was less extreme of a secret--there's trade and intellectual exchange with the outside world, even if the Wakandans hold the best cards close to their chest so to speak. The African kingdom on which Wakanda was based dealt with Europeans from a position of strength due to its wealth and geographic defenses rather than hiding and Wakanda could be the same way. Perhaps they could have alluded to T'Challa's grandfather having met Howard Stark or something similar to build deeper connections with the wider wider of The Avengers and explain the technological and cultural overlaps. Wakanda does have agents, diplomats, etc. in the outside world who could have brought in concepts like bikes, monorails, etc., but there's nothing indicating they brought with them monorail plans, machine tools, etc.

I'd always figured Wakanda was like a petrostate, using the wealth from its vibranium to build an advanced society, but that requires trade. Even if they kept the full extent of their wealth and power secret to avoid getting conquered by greedy outsiders, I think they kind of overdid it a little bit.

*One character is kind of a loose end and we don't know what exactly happened to them. Given their relationship to T'Challa, I would think there'd be even more emotional resonance involving their actions and the film would be sure to mention their fate. Their actions were foreshadowed well, but could have been foreshadowed better and, given their actions and relationship to T'Challa, they'd have more conflict about it.

*There were a couple of look-at-my-watch moments, but not many.

The Verdict

Like a black version of Dune or Game of Thrones and a worthy member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lots of real-world issues are explored without being preachy and annoying. 9.0 out of 10.

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