Black Panther

Recommendation: YES

Spoilers spoilers here be spoilers

Full disclosure: 1) I am not white, 2) I am an immigrant, 3) there are people (myself included) who think I am a damn fool, 4) in general, the MCU has by and large left me bored to tears.

With all that out of the way, Black Panther is the god damned best thing to come out of the milquetoast factory that is Disney/Marvel’s MCU. To be fair, that isn’t a high bar to clear, but things in the MCU had taken a turn for the interesting recently with the similarly refreshing and politically switched on Thor: Ragnarok. I suppose we should feel blessed that within a short few months, the MCU has given us a delightful romp through a nation disintegrating while confronting its horrific colonial past… starring SPACE VIKINGS, and an incendiary critique of the way powerful nations, both white and non-white are complicit in the systemic dehumanisation of entire races of people. There’s more going on under the surface of Black Panther to be sure, and for the most part it muscles past the Marvel house style to remain engaged in its musings for almost the whole runtime.

But yeah, I am happy, giddily so, that the MCU has produced a movie that is a prime example of the value of mainstream “safe” cinema. In the right circumstances, pop entertainment can be a validating and/or confronting conversation with popular culture at large. It can discuss topics that are important to the culture and the people living under it in an intelligent way. And in the best of circumstances it can still be excellent entertainment. And gosh, Black Panther is a damn good entertainment with actual thoughts in its head about race and history and a culture of theft and degradation, whatever its flaws may be (they are choppy, sometimes illegible action and rather poor CGI).

It is important to note that Black Panther is not the first movie to feature a black superhero (Blade 1-3, Catwoman, Steel, FAN4STIC, Iron Man 2 and 3, Captain America 2 and 3, etc). At least one person has also told me that Black Panther is not a film about real life exceptional Black people. To be fair, this conversation arose as a means to question why Black Audiences cared about Black Panther and not biopics of significant Black figures… which is… wrong?? It also arose out of a desire to dismiss the importance of Black Panther. After all it is just another dumb super hero movie, right? But that presupposes that the only legitimate works of art and media are ones that distance themselves from “lower” forms. It’s already a fairly common argument that genre films and animation aren’t worthy of considering as important cultural artefacts (unless they are from specific sources). This ignores the potential of genre films to be ABOUT SOMETHING (e.g. Gojira, the Romero zombie movies, Get Out, Under the Shadow, Snowpiercer etc.). It also unnecessarily limits the avenues for minorities and the issues they face to be depicted in the wider cultural context. It would be a sad state of affairs if, for example, Wonder Woman did not exist because the only legitimate place to tell stories of exceptional women and the power of compassion was a biopic. There is something legitimising about having a group of peoples be represented in the mainstream rather than specific niche genres. Their stories are important enough to be shared and consumed widely. It allows for cultural exchange on a level beyond what a high art or prestige movie would. And there are all sorts of classist implications in insisting the truly important cultural artefacts are those produced for consumption by an elite white tertiary educated audience. Fight me.

Black Panther picks up soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the secretly wealthy and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father, the late king T’Chaka. All things considered, the succession seems to be going well for both T’Challa and Wakanda, until it comes to pass that Wakanda’s public enemy number 1, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has resurfaced. Seeing an opportunity to bring a murderous plunderer to justice, it is decided that T’Challa, his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all female special forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira) set off. In the process, they unearth skeletons from the late king’s closet and things start to get complicated. As it turns out, Wakanda deployed spies to multiple nations to develop a vast intelligence network. One of said spies was none other than T’Chaka’s brother, N’Jobu, who was deployed to the United States, only to be radicalised after witnessing the plight of the Black peoples of America. He is then killed by T’Chaka when he is confronted for assisting Klaue to infiltrate Wakanda and make off with valuable vibranium. It is the consequences of this killing and T’Chaka’s subsequent choice that fuels most of the conflict in Black Panther.

With Black Panther, Ryan Coogler has taken the musty old origin story formula and bent it to his will. The narrative familiarity afforded by the origin story template allows Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to focus more screen time on developing the world, characters and politics of Black Panther. The movie is an absolute triumph of aesthetic. It presents the audience with an excellent and predominantly Black cast inhabiting a world that extrapolates how an East African nation with abundant natural resources would fashion itself with nil contact from violent European colonial powers. Wakanda is a gorgeous fusion of African elements and design queues with near future technologies. The movie presents a rich palette of cultures, all richly research and lovingly displayed. This rich cultural influence permeates the score, which is genuinely the best and most thoughtful and thematically resonant film score in all the MCU, melding percussive and vocal elements with a more traditional western film score to represent Wakanda, while sneaking hip hop beats in edgeways for any musical cue to do with the half American half Wakandan Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/N’Jadaka (Michael B Jordan).

Black Panther starts off interrogating what it takes to be an effective leader of a country that has as much to gain as it does to lose if it opens its boarders and engages with foreign powers. It then goes a step further to ask how such an advanced African nation could sit idly by while it is privy to the horrors of violent colonialism. It is heavy stuff, and it only gets heavier as the film goes on, baking this thought experiment into the very fabric of the film’s drama.

As much as I was enjoying the movie, it wasn’t until a specific point that I truly fell madly, head over heals in love with it. Early in the film, T’Challa ritualistically drinks of the heart shaped herb, a plant infused with vibranium that grants him the powers of the Black Panther. He is transported to a spiritual realm, rich in colour and wonder and populated by the spirits of his ancestors, where he communes with his father about his duty to his country and upholding its ideals. Later in the film, Killmonger partakes in the same ritual, only to be transported to the mundanity of his Oakland, California apartment, peaks of the rich purple sky of the ancestral plane only evident out the windows. It is here that he is greeted solely by his mournful father. There is so much going on in this scene that it would take a while to unpack it all. Killmonger’s appearance shifts to that of a stern faced child, putting on a brave face, symbolic of the still festering trauma and anger driving him, only finally catching up to him when he reverts back to his adult self and openly weeps. This scene is a perfect visual representation of what it is like to be a child of an immigrant, having a vague connection to and yearning for your motherland and culture that is intermingled with the present of your new home in a foreign land. This scene is what gives a beating heart to Killmonger’s previously intellectually driven call to revolutionary violence.

Each character in Black Panther has something to say or contribute to the film’s themes of racism, identity, cultural theft, and revolution. And each character says or contributes these things in big and small ways. The opening narration about the history of Wakanda, for example, is told by N’Jobu to a young Erik, deepening his sense of disconnect from his culture being a second generation immigrant. Ulysses Klaue’s character, delightfully hammy as he is, is constructed around the various forms of theft he, a white South African, perpetrates on successful Black cultures, stealing vibranium and hip hop in equal measure. Shuri (A delightful Letitia Wright) embodies a forward thinking attitude of constant striving for improvement, something that rubs off on T’Challa as he confronts the secret history of his nation. Likewise, Nakia insists on actively aiding foreign populations wherever possible, not wanting to be holed up in a secretive and isolationist nation when there is suffering abroad. Killmonger, himself is an embodiment of righteous fury, challenging the Eurocentric view of western/White cultural, intellectual, and technological superiority. An early scene in a museum has him quizzing a curator as to the origin of various African artefacts before challenging her knowledge and the museum’s right to ownership of ostensibly stolen cultural goods, for display to a predominantly white audience. Coming from a disadvantaged background his emotions are raw and his motive is violent revolution. In opposition is T’Challa, a Black man from a privileged socioeconomic and cultural upbringing, free from the burdens of living under the thumb of a racist country with racist policies. He is a man who can afford the distance to offer a peaceful alternative. Killmonger cannot, and importantly, the film cannot bring itself to wholly condemn him for his drive toward violence, implicating the US military and CIA’s training for the grubbier, more all destroying edge to his actions. After all, it is the conflict that Killmonger brings to Wakanda that spurs T’Challa into positive action, confronting his ancestors and ultimately mobilising Wakanda’s wealth and technology to empower disenfranchised minorities world wide.

It would be disingenuous to disown the anger simmering under the surface. Killmonger may be a hyperbolic embodiment of this, a killing machine honed by military and CIA training to slaughter enemy combatants and destabilise foreign governments for the insertion of a US friendly regime. One need only look at #killmongerwasright to see how this movie struck a cord with audiences. I feel a lot of this has to do with how true the film is to the personal experiences of a young director Ryan Coogler and his friends in Oakland.

I too was angry once, but I grew to be merely tired and sad. Black Panther was a flash of inspiration that worked past my defences and made me feel alive again.

It may be a “stupid superhero movie” but it is the most important superhero movie to be released in recent times.


Captain America: Civil War – Continuity Lockout

Yes (If you have an investment in the MCU and remember story elements from previous movies)

No otherwise

13 movies in and the MCU is only getting harder for those not invested, or in some way informed about, to care about and follow.

This is the new world we live in, where franchise film making is ever present to the point that Universal is giving their stable of movie monsters a shared universe reboot, and even James Bond movies are slave to carving continuity where there should be none.

Yet where Bond, Universal, and more recently, DC have failed, Marvel have (through tight control and strict formula, with its own problems) managed to create a juggernaut that, at the best of times feels like a lived in and fully realised world. They have done to the silver screen what continuity driven television, or for that matter, what Super Hero comics have been doing.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. By virtue of being big, expensive things that take time to make and come out between instalments, having such a heavy reliance on narrative beats from close to a decade worth of movies will necessarily make following the MCU a difficult and potentially onerous task for the casual film goer.

This is where Captain America: Civil War stands. Plot elements and character beats from previous movies all come together to drive a rich character story, that just so happens to be layered upon a middling narrative. It feels like the least casual watch friendly of the MCU movies, actively demanding a knowledge of the MCU as a whole to fully appreciate all that the film has to offer. While certain of the MCU movies (Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, for example) could rightfully be criticised for serving as glorified advertisements for future instalments, the majority, and in fact, the best of the MCU could stand alone as their own entertainment. Take a look at Guardians of the Galaxy, or even at Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

That said, while other MCU movies serve the dual purpose of serving to set the pieces for succeeding films, while also developing their own characters, the two Captain America sequels have been tasked with a triple purpose of setting the board, developing Cap, and remixing and recontextualising the events of the MCU to keep things fresh. Winter Soldier pulled the rug out from under us regarding the nature of SHIELD and past events of the MCU (think back to the scene in Iron Man 2 where the government attempted to gain control of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit technology and shudder at the realisation that it was Hydra pulling the strings there).

Herein lies the problem with Civil War. Having a larger number of pieces on the board to violently shake around, the majority of the film’s forward momentum is dedicated to reaching back into the past and messing with it. The film’s actual stand alone plot, while delivering a villain that is more complex and sympathetic than the majority of MCU villains, relies on screenwriting tricks and narrative contrivance that almost sinks whatever good will I had for Civil War as a stand alone piece of entertainment. Imagine if you will The Joker’s level of omnipotence, without the implicit and sometimes explicit understanding of The Joker more as a narrative device than as a character in his own right, and you are getting close to the problem with Civil War’s villain and narrative arc. That Civil War has in any way a compelling villain compared to the larger MCU says more to damn the quality of villains of this franchise than to praise Civil War’s.

So as a stand alone film it is the weakest of the Captain America movies, and among one of the weaker all around MCU entries. That’s not to say it is completely devoid of merit. The action scenes are more competently staged than those in The Winter Soldier, though they may come across as superfluous at times and are hampered by the ugliness of the digital format, and the third act actively narrows the conflict down to what works best and ends up as a vicious, personal climax rather than the exhausting and pointless escalations to 20 minutes of CGI Armageddon that was for so long the MCU house style. Still, without a baseline investment in the MCU and its goings on, Civil War comes dangerously close to being a tedious, nothing movie.

Civil War’s plot is kicked off by a mission to tie up some loose ends introduced at the end of Winter Soldier that goes horribly wrong, resulting in civilian casualties. This sets in motion one of the grimmest, most emotionally charged films in the MCU. The Avengers are faced with an ideological struggle, that creates fractures in their unity , and leads to the titular “civil war”. The “war” in question is much smaller in scope than what I have been lead to believe its comics namesake, with the battles being mostly those of words. Positions are set up and countered, there are appeals to emotion and authority, and it is ultimately bruised egos, psychological distress, and stubbornness that lead to the fists flying and men falling from the skies. There’s rich character interaction going on here, and the emotional and ideological wrestling is much more interesting than the film’s strides to be political. It doesn’t really have much to say about the validity and morality of extrajuduicial and extragovernmental foreign interventionism beyond what the characters themselves bring to the table. The third act jettisons all pretence of Civil War being a political thriller in the vein of Winter Soldier to focus solely on small scale emotional stakes.

Tony Stark is once again pro-registration and Steve Rogers is anti-registration. Stark’s stance is informed by the guilt and previously implied PTSD he suffered at the hands of his hubris and the harm and destruction it precipitated. It has cost him his relationship with Pepper Potts, has led to the events of all three Iron Man movies, and to the destruction and loss of life that Ultron caused. He cannot seem to keep himself in check, and believes UN oversight will be able to keep the collateral damage low.
Rogers, on the other hand, has witnessed first hand what unquestioned adherence to authority can result in. SHIELD was a front for Hydra, that almost led to their victory and millions and millions of deaths. The possibility of allowing Hydra or another such organisation prevent the Avengers from acting in the best interests of Earth is something he cannot abide. Thinking back even further to Captain America: The First Avenger, Rogers knows what it’s like to have an overwhelming desire to help and be unable to act due to the chain of command deciding they have a better, more politically friendly use for him.

Civil War in general is at its best when it is pairing up and squaring off its characters. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barns are effectively two of Captain America’s best friends, trying to see who is the secret actual best friend. Black Panther and the film’s villain are men driven by vengeance. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are two leaders on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The Vision and Scarlet Witch are two beings struggling to deal with a world that fears their awesome power and potential for destruction in different ways.

The film sings along without having to dedicate too much time to developing character or introducing their positions because the remainder of the MCU has done most of the heavy lifting for it. And this is the crux of the problem. Civil War is at its best when it is an experiment in franchise film making, allowing it to be a conversation as much with its audience as it is with its franchise history. But its reliance on its franchise history makes it one of the most alienating mainstream movies I have seen in recent history. These are not Easter eggs to be enjoyed by the franchise faithful, these are the basic building blocks of the film’s worth as a piece of entertainment.

And if you come into Civil War without the pre-requisite context? Why should you care about Tony Stark showing Steve Rogers his father’s antique fountain pens (aside from the fact fountain pens are amazing)? Would you even notice the dramatic reversal when it’s Steve who pulls an unconscious Bucky out of the water? Do you even know who General Ross is, and why he is particularly pleased to mention that the Avengers have no idea where Bruce Banner is? Why would Black Widow ask Clint if they are still friends?

And with a middling narrative holding together the remixing, referencing, recontextualising, and character moments, why would you want to sit through a film this long? It is a film of contradictions, trying to please too many masters. It attempts to be a political thriller when it is actually a character drama. It is a tense mystery film that pauses the mystery to deliver bombastic and mostly inconsequential set pieces. It is a film with a politically engaged message that doesn’t bother to think its politics through beyond what feels right to position its characters for a third act confrontation. It is a focused character study with an expanded cast of characters that mostly get overlooked.

Ultimately I enjoyed Civil War, but only because I took the effort to follow the MCU enough to understand its place in the modern cinematic landscape. Without my (admittedly flimsy) understanding of the MCU, I would have been entirely uninvolved, as my friend who saw it with me was. It is worth noting that he has seen almost every MCU film , and has enjoyed the majority of them. However, he engaged each one as a stand alone film.

The question then becomes, is it okay to critique a film for working within the conventions of contemporary mainstream franchise story telling, when it does so better than its competition? Is it okay to say that the 13th film in a long running franchise is not good as a stand alone product? What happens when keeping informed enough to enjoy the franchise becomes more of a chore, an obligation to a machine designed to synergise and push corporate product?

The aforementioned continuity driven television is becoming more and more a thing in this age of Netflix and DVR. Yet the way Netflix has changed the media landscape does not mean that all forms of media should follow this route. The reason Netflix works is because it facilitates binge watching. The medium facilitates the form. Netflix shows have their seasons produced to completion before being made available to the binge watching audience. There is no down time between episodes, only between seasons. A film franchise cannot indulge in this luxury.

But the fact it took 13 movies to get to this stage when the DCEU took 2…

Is it fair to blame Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Young Adult movie adaptations and the MCU for this trend?