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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Black Panther

Again, I feel I have to apologize for the distinct lack of good movies at the box office this week. I’ve heard incredible things about Abby Johnson’s Unplanned. It sounds like an immensely difficult watch, but an important one. Sadly, I’m traveling this weekend. If a theater near you is showing the movie, I’d take it in. ShaW

BLACK PANTHER

This is, intentionally, the least Marvel-feeling Marvel movie. That has its benefits and drawbacks. Let me explain.

Marvel movies, though filled with fantastic feats and strange locales, are for the most part grounded in reality. That is, they take place in a world that mirrors our own in most respects. Tony Stark’s held captive in a cave somewhere in the Middle East. The big climactic Avengers battle takes place in New York City. Doctor Strange‘s Caecilius attacks NYC, London, and Hong Kong.  The story tracks places we can track, with a few notable changes befitting the narrative.

And even the films that take place off-Earth have a familiarity to them. They feel like they could occur in reality. I’m referring mostly to the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which seem real mostly due to their strong characterization and script. The Guardians speak, laugh, and love like real beings – messily. And the world surrounding them feels full of real people too.

Black Panther is more like the Guardians films than, say, The Avengers. It’s set mostly in a hidden, otherworldly place with unique traditions and rituals, both familiar and set-apart at once. This frees it up to have some fun and doesn’t hobble the film on its face, though the world of Wakanda has several oddities that are never satisfactorily answered.

Vibranium, for instance, is the Applied Phlebotniumof this world-within-the-world. It’s already made some appearances as Cap’s shield and Ultron’s body. We’ve never once in that time heard that it can somehow power the things it makes up. If kimoyo beads and the Black Panther’s suit draw their light-up life from vibranium, in other words, why haven’t we ever seen Cap’s shield glow?

And we never figure out the extent of vibranium’s powers, or why they didn’t show up before. In this film it largely functions like magic. Need a bulletproof car? Vibranium! Want to stabilize a dying man? Also vibranium! How about creating a super-advanced wristwatch-enabled video calling system, hard light shields embedded in ceremonial war capes, or spears that double as sonic cannons? You guessed it: vi-freaking-branium.

Yes, yes, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I see you there, Arthur C. Clarke. But the Marvel movies always provide some token explanation for their magic, at least. This one doesn’t.

The existence of vibranium and the stark unreality of a super-secret Wakanda made from it are where the fantasy elements of Black Panther begin to overwhelm its grounded elements. And it just snowballs from there.

Events happen because they look cool or the plot demands them – the most notable being an admittedly fun car chase with absolutely no police response in the middle of a big South Korean city. There’s odd lapses in logic too. It takes Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having an utter ball) directly telling Bilbo-Baggins-as-CIA-agent that hey, isn’t it weird that the king of a third-world country runs around in a spontaneously generating, bullet-stopping catsuit? Because it never occurred to hyper-competent Agent Ross to maybe look into that before now. And why is a portion of Wakanda perfectly OK with living outside the space-age hidden capital, waving at the ships as they pass by, in what’s probably a squalid existence?

But the worst part of the turn to fantasy here emerges in the scripting, which feels more like a melodramatic stage play than a movie. Characters say things that feel unrealistic, inhuman. Think how Legolas talks in Lord of the Rings. Now give that cadence to all of the characters in the film except Agent Ross.

It’s a real shame, because everyone here does a marvelous job with what they’re given. The brutal and standoffish M’Baku, played by Winston Duke, swaggers and hoots like a gorilla, his characterization perfect. Daniel Kaluuya is subtle as W’Kabi, and Danai Gurira (who I had never heard of before this film) stuns as a suitably determined Okoye. And what more can be said about Michael B. Jordan, one of the best actors working today? His Killmonger is magnetic, even sympathetic, the single most compelling Marvel villain since Loki.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention Chadwick Boseman. He’s fine, maintaining a good if occasionally boring delivery. He adds nothing to the lead role, and removes nothing from it.

The movie’s themes are more philosophical than the usual superhero flick, and hold a special resonance for me as a lover of political philosophy. T’Challa’s father cautions his son at the beginning of his reign that “it is hard for a good man to be king.” Black Panther examines this and other question about ruling others and ruling oneself? Should a wise king share his resources? How does a ruler best balance outreach with defense and maintenance of culture? Should superior cultures subdue other lands to bring the benefits of their advancements to them? And can a king still lead effectively while deceiving others?

The film answers some questions, but leaves others open. Killmonger, for instance, is the poster child for radicalism gone too far. A total lack of moderation makes him a pointed spear in search of prey, determined to right the injustice he sees in the world by killing all the perceived wrongdoers and those connected to them. This crusade isn’t surprising given his background in a broken home made so by T’Challa’s father.

Isolationism, according to the film, is just as bad as radical and overwhelming conquest. M’Baku overcomes decades of resentment to join a community of freedom fighters; T’Challa decides to share his nation’s gifts with others.

The visual effects are occasionally stunning (hello, aforementioned car chase) and sometimes unfinished. The final clash between Black Panther and Killmonger reminded me, with its zooming train and rubbery CGI, of Spider-Man 3‘s Black Suit Spidey/Sandman showdown.

Overall, this is a perfectly fun movie with a few flaws. It certainly didn’t deserve the Oscar nomination it received, but it’s by no means bad, or even mediocre. Let’s hope future movies give Wakanda a bit more grit and a bit less ethereal fantasy.

RATING: 7/10

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