Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Black Panther": review

[ATTENTION: mild spoilers.]

2018's "Black Panther" has been miscalled many things. Some have claimed it to be the first superhero movie to feature a main character who is royalty, but "Thor" arguably trod that territory, and "Wonder Woman" definitely gave us a bona fide princess. Some have it called it the first superhero movie to feature a black superhero, but the Blade films all went there first, along with plenty of others. Quite frankly, "Black Panther" doesn't break any molds or shift any paradigms. What it is is an entertaining adventure story about a just-crowned king and his fabulously rich country, the fictional land of Wakanda, which seems to sit a bit above Malawi.

The film, directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis. The story centers on T'Challa (Boseman), who has only recently lost his father T'Chaka (John Kani) in a bombing attack seen in the events of "Captain America: Civil War." T'Challa is returning home to become king of his native Wakanda, a land made rich and prosperous by the fortuitous presence of the substance vibranium, which arrived on Earth eons ago via meteor. Five major tribes in the region of the meteor's impact ended up warring over the precious metal until one among their number ate the "heart-shaped herb," a vibranium-infused plant that granted the eater superhuman powers. This man became the first Black Panther, and he united the warring tribes until one tribe, the Jabari, rejected the Black Panther's rule and went its own way, forsaking the path toward modernization that vibranium made possible.

T'Challa picks up his ex-lover Nakia (Nyong'o) on the way to his coronation,* taking her away from a mission to halt human trafficking in Nigeria. At the coronation, T'Challa faces M'Baku (Duke), the Jabari chieftain who challenges T'Challa's right to assume the mantle of king. T'Challa beats M'Baku in ritual combat, sparing M'Baku's life by entreating the Jabari to yield instead of choosing death. Meanwhile, in London, Erik Stevens, who goes by the nickname Killmonger (Jordan), steals some ancient vibranium from a museum. Killmonger works with Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who has arranged to sell Killmonger's stolen vibranium in Busan, South Korea. Killmonger's ultimate goal is to challenge T'Challa for the throne: although he grew up in America and became a murderous black-ops soldier, Killmonger is originally a son of Wakandan royalty—and is, fact, T'Challa's long-lost cousin.

The movie gives us some exciting fight scenes and car chases, plus more than a glimpse of Wakanda's amazingly advanced technology, which blows away anything the much-more-mechanistic Tony Stark has created. Most of that tech comes courtesy of Princess Shuri (Wright), T'Challa's bright, sassy, and wicked-smaht little sister—the Q or Tony Stark of this movie. We also get some insights into one of Wakanda's central dilemmas: it has tried to keep its prosperity a secret in order to preserve its way of life: opening up to the world and sharing its vibranium-based technology could mean the pollution or dissolution of Wakandan culture, which all of the nation's previous kings have been at pains to preserve. The film also allows us a few peeks into the Djalia, the realm of the elders, a plane of existence populated by panther-spirits (and perhaps the panther god Bast) who are actually the king's ancestors. And in terms of action versus dialogue, the film gives us generous helpings of both: this is as much a talky movie as it is an action-thriller.

I had two concerns going into this film: first, world-building. Wakanda has been mentioned in previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, but only obliquely. Before the release of "Black Panther," we already knew of the existence of vibranium, the metal of which Captain America's weirdly behaving shield is made. We also already knew that the metal came from Wakanda, but beyond that, we knew nothing about the mysterious African nation. My second concern had to do with the overarching moral implications arising from the existence of such a fantastical nation. Sadly, in our real world, Wakanda doesn't—and probably can't—exist. There is no over-powered African supernation, but the movie enjoins us to ponder the counterfactual: what if there were such a country? What would its duty to the world be?

To his credit, Coogler does a fine job of both building out this new world and wrestling with the moral questions that come of being a rich, powerful nation that hesitates to help the rest of the earth. The movie fairly represents both the isolationist and the outreach-oriented points of view, and during the end-credits scene, it comes to a definite decision as to how Wakanda now views its future vis-à-vis the planet. As for the world-building: we get sweeping views of one of Wakanda's large cities and vibranium mines, as well as shots of the more pastoral parts of the country that, up to now, have served as a front to mask the fact that Wakanda is unimaginably rich, hidden behind a holographic dome of glamour reminiscent of the magic dome that hides Themyscira in "Wonder Woman." I enjoyed the amount of effort that Coogler and his team had placed on fleshing out this world, which came to feel real to me. Wakandan culture, a fictional product, thoroughly infuses the film: even Wakandan ships look like African masks when viewed from above. My only regret is that there is no real focus on Wakandan cuisine, aside from a quick shot or two of street food on the grill. But costumes, pageantry, ritual, politics, open markets, architecture, and mysticism—the rest of it is all there, and despite all the detail, the movie doesn't feel overstuffed. Hats off to Coogler and the screenwriters for performing a fairly deft balancing act.

As you can imagine, the movie is being endlessly discussed for its political overtones. There's a line at the end of the film to the effect that the wise build bridges while the unwise build barriers. This is an obvious dig at the let's-build-a-great-wall policies of A Certain Sitting US President, and this echoes the sentiment of T'Challa's dour head of security, W'Kabi (Kaluuya), who says earlier on that "immigrants bring their problems in with them." I find this a perfectly reasonable concern, but W'Kabi ends up being a sort-of bad guy, which is probably why he is given that line: all bad guys hate immigrants—duh. There are also moments in the film that hint at racial tension caused by the oppression of blacks throughout the world, and even the normally friendly Shuri takes a stab at lily-white CIA agent Everett Ross (Freeman) when she calls him "Colonizer!"—doubtless an applause line in cinemas with mostly black audiences. (Shuri also jokes, when the injured Ross is brought into a Wakandan medical facility, that she's delighted to be given "another broken white boy" to mend.)

So the film doesn't shy away from politics, but I'm torn about what sort of message "Black Panther" might be sending to black communities throughout the world. On the one hand, it's healthy to hold up a positive ideal, to tell the story of a nation that originally got lucky when vibranium arrived on Earth, but which—through its own effort and will—parlayed that richness into something truly great on a national scale. To that extent, the message that "we can lift ourselves up" is a good one. However, this message comes through the vehicle of what is essentially a pious fantasy: in the final analysis, Wakanda isn't real, so while its image on the silver screen might be momentarily uplifting, once the movie ends, the harsh reality of there being no Wakanda in real life must descend again on the populace. I've already seen expressions of black pride (and, ironically, the sort of ethno-nationalism that would be called Naziesque if this movie's color palette had been flipped to all white), and here again, I'm torn: the pride, in this case, is pride in a chimera.

Whatever its political dimensions, the film, while good, isn't perfect. Without getting too deeply into spoilers, I can say that I thought the final battle sequence was a bit over the top given the armored beasts that implausibly ride into battle (although I did laugh when one beast provided us with a humorous moment), and I also saw a couple plot holes (e.g., how did Killmonger get his superpowered battle suit while Shuri was telling T'Challa that Killmonger must not access Wakandan tech?**—and why didn't Black Panther's suit produce another kinetic-energy burst during Klaue's extraction scene?). The film's biggest problem is that there's no fundamental suspense: if you've been following the online scuttlebutt about MCU movies appearing soon, then you already know that Black Panther will be in the upcoming (also this year) "Avengers: Infinity War, Part I." Actor Chadwick Boseman has said that he's got a five-movie contract with Marvel, so as with Jack Bauer in "24," we know the Black Panther won't be dying anytime soon.

Those complaints aside, I have nothing but praise for Coogler's direction (the man has the chops to do a Peter Jackson-style epic; to be sure, "Black Panther" contains many epic moments), the movie's cinematography, the storytelling, and of course, the acting. Among the cast are some very respectable thespians: Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Isaach de Bankolé all make appearances. Special mention goes to the lovely and physically formidable Danai Gurira as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, who are this universe's female equivalent of the Kingsguard in A Song of Ice and Fire. Also of note: Lupita Nyong'o's cute attempt at speaking Korean during the Busan scene. The Korean audience I was with laughed when she began speaking—whether out of surprise, amusement, scorn, or respect is a mystery. Nyong'o has a strong accent, but her Korean is a good bit more understandable than Jim Carrey's was in his movie "Yes Man." As others have been pointing out, the film's musical score and soundtrack are worthy of purchasing; there's a good mix of rap (including Korean rap) and primal-sounding percussion, as well as a few soaring orchestral moments. "Black Panther" is a visual and auditory treat. The movie capably tells a good story, and while the film lacks suspense, I think you'll find yourself thoroughly engaged.

*I use the term "coronation" loosely, as the ceremony involves no actual crowns. "Throne-ascension ceremony" might be more precise, but that doesn't roll trippingly off the tongue.

**If you're not clear on what my problem is here, let me try to explain. In this moment of the film, Shuri is desperate to let her big brother know that Killmonger is on the loose in Wakanda, and that he could get access to all sorts of tech, given that he had assumed the Wakandan throne after fighting T'Challa. Shuri's choice of verb tense indicates she isn't aware that Killmonger has gotten any tech at all. Shuri is, however, so thoroughly teched up herself that she really ought to be able to tell, via some device on her person, whether Killmonger actually has illegally accessed Wakandan tech. If Killmonger somehow got the second combat suit without Shuri's knowing about it, what does that say about Shuri's ability—remember she's supposed to be a Stark-level genius—to design security systems? I hope you now see why I see this as a plot hole. It's a hole that could have been fixed with a couple seconds of expository dialogue, I think, so perhaps this plot hole isn't that serious. You decide.


John from Daejeon said...

It's beyond sad how fantastical this film makes a country in Africa out to be when the one African country with nuclear weapons is
run by a racist ruling-party that is plunging the country into chaos and the world's media turns a blind eye to it. Luckily, there are a few decent bloggers out there taking their lives into their own hands by showing just how bad the continent has become. No wonder so many are doing all they can to escape their African hell.

Charles said...

Quick point: Killmonger was able to beat T'Challa in ritual combat because T'challa wasn't enhanced by the heart-shaped herb. That drink they give him before the combat takes away the powers of the herb so he can fight as a normal human being. This is why, after he wins the combat, he goes through the ceremony where he drinks the juice of the heart-shaped herb again (although I couldn't figure out how they got that much juice out of such a small fruit) and gets buried in the sand.

Also, I didn't take Shuri's comment on Killmonger getting Wakandan tech to be a reference to the suit. After all, as king he automatically has access to all of the tech Wakanda possesses. Instead, I understood her to be saying that he must not be able to make use of it--that is, to send it outside of Wakanda to start wars of revolution. I don't remember the exact wording she used, to be honest, but that indicates to me that I didn't see any contradiction at the time. I'd have to watch it again to say for sure, though. At any rate, it strikes me as a fairly minor nitpick (although not necessarily without merit, of course) as opposed to a major plot hole.

As for my own thoughts on the film, in brief, I really enjoyed it. I'm with you on the world-building--I think they did an excellent job creating a Wakandan aesthetic that was both obviously African but also felt quite modern and sophisticated. I don't know who did the world design for the film, but they smashed it out of the park. The acting was excellent, too. Oh, and Nyong'o's Korean was also met with laughs in our audience as well. I think it was more amusement, mixed with a little respect, but definitely no scorn. Her "고마와요!" at the end got the biggest laugh.

Kevin Kim said...

My impression was that the heart-shaped herb's power wasn't conferred as a one-and-done thing: you have to drink the essence multiple times to keep receiving its benefits. (In fact, given T'Challa's superhuman performance in "Captain America: Civil War," I suspect T'Challa was imbibing the herb even back then.) So I was under the impression that the drink before the ritual combat with Killmonger was the herb itself, not an anti-herb. That said, my memory could be faulty; I don't think I'll be seeing this movie again in theaters, but when it comes out on video, I'll doubtless buy it, rewatch it, and change the text of my review to reflect what you're saying.

Same goes for Shuri; I'll need a re-watch. But to be clear, I wasn't saying that Shuri was telling T'Challa that Killmonger shouldn't get hold of the suit in particular: I was saying that she was warning against his acquiring Wakandan tech in general.

(Come to think of it, the existence of an anti-herb that nullifies the effect of vibranium in the body raises its own set of questions, including a larger story question about whether the healing power of ingested vibranium should be shared with the world along with Wakanda's other riches, thus taking away Black Panther's uniqueness and leading the world toward a chemical form of eugenics—the creation of a race of, uh, herbal supermen. While the garden of the heart-shaped herb is now presumably gone, I suspect there are wildflowers out there, sucking vibranium out of Wakanda's soil and ready for harvesting/transplanting.)

Charles said...

I'm 100% positive on the pre-combat removal of powers. Zuri specifically says that the Black Panther will now have his powers removed from him, and then afterward he imbibes the herb juice again. It happens twice, and both times T'Challa has his powers removed and then restored again afterward.

The film doesn't say anything explicitly about whether the herb is a one-and-done deal, but the fact that he has to have his powers removed through a special elixir before combat would imply that it is. Also, if it isn't, Killmonger's destruction of the grove would mean that there will be no more Black Panther (although I suspect more plants will be found, knowing what I know about how these things work).

I did a little digging into the comics lore, and apparently the heart-shaped herb is a plant that was mutated by the vibranium mound; I don't think the Black Panther actually has any vibranium in his body, though. Here we are getting into murky waters, though, and the larger question regarding the herb's powers still stands. (Oh, also, the juice of the herb was not originally ingested; it was made into a poultice that was then applied to the body.)

Something else I thought of: In the post-credits sequence, the line you refer to in the review is actually "...while the unwise build barriers." I know it's a subtle difference, but it seems an important one, considering the verbiage of a certain world leader. The Korean translation for "barrier," though, was 벽.

Kevin Kim said...

OK, if you insist. I'll trust your memory more than mine on this point. I've removed the offending text and replaced it with another story-related problem.

As for vibranium in the body: my assumption, based on talks with my comics-nerd coworker, is that there's legitimate vibranium in the herb, and it gets transferred into the body upon ingestion.

Vibranium is one of those magical/sci-fi metals whose properties are whatever the writers need to make the story work. This is why vibranium atoms functioned as they did to form Vision in "Age of Ultron," working with organic particles and the Mind Stone to create a new type of living being. And the inconsistency inherent in vibranium can be seen in the fact that, even though we're told that vibranium stores and releases kinetic energy in potentially near-infinite quantities (Cap's shield takes a hit from Thor's Mjölnir in the first "Avengers" movie, so we know the metal can endure attacks from gods), Ultron's vibranium body can be destroyed by a concerted attack from Vision, Iron Man, and Thor. So why can't it interact directly with the human body, conferring all sorts of special powers?

Kevin Kim said...

This Wikipedia article says that vibranium is a radioactive metal, so it's only the radiation that entered the heart-shaped herb, in line with what you discovered in your research. The article also notes there have been several kinds of vibranium in the Marvel universe, not all of which have been Wakandan.

"This variety of vibranium is a powerful mutagen. Vibranium exposure led to the mutation of many Wakandan natives. Its radiation has also permeated much of Wakanda's flora and fauna, including the Heart-Shaped Herb eaten by members of the Black Panther Cult and the flesh of the White Gorilla eaten by the members of the White Gorilla Cult. Both give superhuman abilities to whoever eats them."

Interesting. If the MCU continues to borrow from the comics world, then there's more than the heart-shaped herb out there for people to eat, and there's no need for Black Panther to be unique.

re: barrier vs. wall

A wall's purpose, at least in the context of T'Challa's speech, is to be a barrier, so I don't see that there's much of a distinction, here, unless you're arguing that the semantic field of "barrier" is wide enough to include non-physical barriers (e.g., language or cultural barriers that reside in the mind). Lucky for me, I didn't put that particular line in quotes, so it's not as though I'm misquoting.