Saturday, February 17, 2018


Note: If a movie set in the kingdom of Wakanda disturbs you more than one set in Asgard, the problem is with you, not the film.

In the summer of 1966, two Jewish men at the height of their creative powers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, invented T'Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, in Fantastic Four #52. Later that year, in an apparent coincidence, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in Oakland CA. Ryan Coogler's film crosses the streams, as it were, by having its villain's origin story take place in Oakland. The film as a whole is an inevitably troubled attempt to reconcile Marvel Comics's vision of an African utopia with the grievances that set the real-life Black Panther movement on a violent, self-destructive course. The Wakandan mythos has been elaborated upon extensively over the last half-century by comics writers white and black, but Lee and Kirby gave us the basics. Wakanda is a hermit kingdom that retained its independence throughout the era of European imperialism by winning the resource lottery, being the point of impact of a meteorite loaded with the miracle mineral vibranium, and developing technology advanced even by western standards. Modern comics and the new movie escalate the original premise by making Wakanda definitely the most technologically advanced country on earth. Its politics, from what we see of them, remain retrograde, perhaps by virtue of the "resource curse" that allegedly afflicts oil-rich authoritarian states. The monarchy, in theory, can be held by any of the nation's five native tribes, each of which can challenge the hereditary succession after a monarch's death. The elders of four of the tribes -- the fifth remains aloof as a rule -- act as an advisory council for the monarch, but we see no evidence of any democratic or representative element in the government. This strikes me not so much as an authoritarian premise but a signifer of the intended radical otherness of Wakanda; were it a constitutional monarchy it would be too much like the familiar western world and have less of a lesson to offer. In any event, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole take further steps to show us that however gratifying an Afrocentrist fantasy Wakanda may be on the surface, it really isn't a utopia but rather more a mirror than an antithesis of the good old U.S.A.  

Black Panther is a staged debate between isolationism and interventionism, and over what form humanitarian intervention should take. Wakanda is isolationist by tradition, reserving its scientific marvels for its own use and keeping them secret from the wider world, fearing both attacks from the great powers and an influx of refugees from its immediate neighbors. The kingdom has an extensive, secret network of "War Dog" spies around the world; inevitably, seeing the mistreatment of black people in much of that world, some spies become "radicalized" interventionists. The Wakandan establishment takes extreme steps to suppress the interventionist impulse. Perhaps the most extreme step was taken back in 1992 by King T'Chaka, father of T'Challa. The king himself went to Oakland to take his own brother into custody for conspiring with a European mercenary, Ulysses Klaue, (Andy Serkis resumes his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron) to steal vibranium from Wakanda for use in liberation wars against racial oppression. The brother ends up dead. His oprhaned son grows up to become Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, the second former Human Torch to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe), an elite American soldier with a long-term agenda to claim his Wakandan birthright and resume his father's work, again in alliance with Klaue. When the white man outlives his usefulness, Killmonger uses the corpse of Wakanda's most wanted man as his foot in the door of the kingdom. From there, he claims a blood-right to challenge T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) for the throne. Apparently victorious in mortal combat, he organizes the mass export of weapons of mass destruction, having missed the lecture at supervillain school about always verifying your kill -- though the problem may be that they don't actually teach that class there. His incomplete education aside, Killmonger is an enigmatic inkblot onto which viewers can project any number of nightmare visions. For some, he will be black rage incarnate. For others, he might represent neocon overreach in his belief that he can rid the world of evil with the shock and awe of Wakandan tech. For others still, the irresponsible, bellicose and sometimes boorish usurper may resemble a black Donald Trump.

Intriguing as Killmonger is, the film is called Black Panther but its hero is a relative cypher. There's not much of a "hero's journey" here, though I suppose there's something archetypically mythic about his several symbolic burials and emergings. T'Challa has to come to terms with the dark secret of his father's fratricide, and he recognizes the need for a middle ground between isolation and interventionism after fighting Killmonger, but that's about it as far as character development goes. The film is too busy introducing the sort of support team no self-respecting superhero can do without these days, including his techie sister, a virtual Antonia Stark (Letitia Wright), his sometimes War Dog girlfriend (Lupita Nyong'o) and a token white CIA agent (Martin Freeman) the king picks up during a jaunt to South Korea. In a way the film is more about Wakanda than it is about T'Challa; imagine a Thor film set almost entirely in Asgard and you'll have an idea of how Black Panther feels, for good and ill. There's an immersive folkloric quality to much of it, though I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't help being reminded of The Lion King by some of the music and rituals and the whole usurper storyline. In other respects, Wakanda is disappointingly generic, perhaps resembling Asgard too much in its mix of mythos and superscience. One can imagine all of Marvel Comics's fantasy nations -- the movies have only scratched the surface to date -- looking the same way, at least superficially.

Coogler's film arrives as perhaps the most instantly overrated film of our time. The auteur must have seemed the ideal director for an Afrocentric Marvel movie on the strength of Creed, an updating of the Rocky series that shifted the focus to a black hero (Jordan is for all intents and purposes Coogler's on-screen alter ego) while giving Sylvester Stallone an Oscar-nominated showcase. His hiring shows Marvel's continued willingness (see also Thor:Ragnarok) to invite idiosyncratic talent to look at superheroes with fresh eyes. Black Panther ends up being a more generic Marvel movie than Ragnarok was, and as an action movie it doesn't really rise to the high standard set by the last two Captain America movies. Like many directors, Coogler films too close to the action, sacrificing the clarity of fight choreography by doing so. The best fight scenes are the two formal challenges to T'Challa at a sacred waterfall, probably because they have the least to do with CGI, while the final fight between T'Challa and Killmonger is pretty much videogame stuff stupidly obfuscated by the villain wearing a Black Panther costume of his own. It's part of a multi-fight climax that reminded me disturbingly of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, from the exotic clash of costumes and CGI animals outdoors to the tense pause as hero and villain waiting out a passing train on opposite sides of the track. So it's not the greatest superhero movie ever or even the greatest Marvel movie, but rather a solid mid-tier MCU outing that gets by more on the strength of its concepts than on overall execution. It's the sort of film I expect to see surpassed by a sequel that inevitably will be less about Wakanda and more about the Black Panther himself.

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