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Thereís an awful lot of expectation heaped on the shoulders of a mere escapist comic book movie.  Created in 1966 by Marvelís legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first African superhero in a mainstream comic.  His long-awaited cinematic introduction in 2016ís CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR created tremendous excitement and anticipation after his revelation as an awesome fighting force with a somewhat Shakespearian dilemma beneath the costume.  It is that inner drama, along with the continuance of the action thrills hinted at in his previous appearance that lay out the groundwork for BLACK PANTHER.

Tell me a story:  A child asks his father to tell the tale of how their country came to be.  How a meteor made of the powerful alien metal, vibranium, crashed to Earth and began a war between five mighty tribes.  That battle ended when one warrior ingested the luminous, vibranium-infused, ďheart-shaped herbĒ that connected him to the panther goddess, Bast; who granted him superhuman powers.  Four of the warring tribes bowed to the first Black Panther king, while the Jabari tribe remained outliers, rejecting the magical rule and the technological progress the alien-powered vibranium pushed forward.  Wakanda rose as the wealthiest, most scientifically-advanced, and utterly secretive nation on the planet, hiding their wonders completely from the outside world.

From Wakanda to an Oakland, California housing project in 1992: two men plot the beginning of a war.  Using powerful weapons, they will force the end of the systematic oppression that has encouraged the drug epidemics, gang wars, and enforced poverty that has led to the slaughter of black people around the globe by the thousands.  Problem is, those weapons arenít those menís to take.

King of the African nation of Wakanda, TíChaka, has come to reclaim his armoury, which should never have left his lands.  Sending his brother, Prince NíJobu, out into the world as a spy has backfired.  Seeing the devastation of those who look like himself, NíJobu became convinced that Wakandaís isolationist ways had turned a blind eye to black people everywhere.  NíJobu is so sure that Wakandaís great resources can level the playing field stacked against those of African descent worldwide, that he even recruits a white South African arms dealer called Klaue to assist him in removing the weapons from Wakanda, to distribute around the world.  TíChaka, betrayed, means to bring his brother home for judgement; until a sudden burst of rage results in NíJobuís death at his older brotherís claws.  TíChakaís attempt to cover up the incident, will leave behind much more than an averted international scandal.

Many years pass, and again venturing out into the world outside of Wakanda brings devastation, as a bombing by the vengeful terrorist Zemo ends the life of King TíChaka.  Wracked with guilt over not being able to save his father and fraught with worry over his ascension to his throne, Prince TíChalla lives in a world of doubt.  While trained his entire life by his father for the role he would inevitably assume, and beloved and supported by his entire kingdom, TíChalla is unsure: There are still so many things he doesnít know, so many things he must newly consider, including the creeping influence of the outside world into his determinedly isolated nation.  That creeping is still going on as the arms dealer Klaue Ė who hasnít forgotten all he knows about the mysterious land of vibranium Ė gets a big assist in his quest to infiltrate Wakanda, in the form of the bloodthirsty mercenary, Erik Killmonger, who seems to know an awful lot about the African nation.

So many hopes seem to rely on this film, as the first Marvel superhero movie centered around an African hero -- a king of the wealthiest, most scientifically-advanced country on the planet -- starring an almost entirely black cast, crafted by an African-American filmmaker.  All the positivity presented in the very framework of Wakanda is a beautiful aspiration for all people, but especially people of colour.  The idea of a land where African intelligence, culture, unity, and complete self-determination is the rule of every day, would have been a welcome sight at any time, but is made even more poignant by these trying and terrifying days when those at the heads of government actively polarise and set races over and against each other.  The inherent vision that BLACK PANTHER represents is so massive, and its presentation such a cause of celebration, that the quality of the film almost seems irrelevant, but it is also important that the film be justified in the belief and expectations of those who want so much to support it.

Happily, overall, it satisfies.  On its surface, BLACK PANTHER is a rip-roaring ride, awash in futuristic effects and bombastic action that absolutely places itself amongst the highest echelons in the Marvel movie pantheon (pantheron?).  Underneath, itís even more impressive as a character study, elevated by the strongest acting seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, led by Chadwick Boseman who gives a mesmerising performance as the young man on a precipice of massive power and responsibility, and unsure if heís worthy or capable of seizing it.  The jewel of Bosemanís performance is set amongst the presence of an incredible supporting cast, that is invested in their roles and aware of the significance of what they are creating with this so-called ďcomic book movie.Ē

That said, it ainít perfect.  Director Ryan Coogler showed his dramatic chops right off the bat with his aching, heartbreaking adaptation of real-life racism and loss in FRUITVALE STATION, and progressed to take over Sylvester Stalloneís beloved characters in CREED, and mould that world for a new generation.  One thing Coogler hasnít done is all-out comic book action and visual effects; and it shows.  Action scenes are some of the most important elements to any Marvel film, and while they are numerous, many of the set pieces lose their power due to terrible shot choices: Quick cut photography and odd angles that literally cut out or away from impact, ruin many of the scenes in the first half; including a particularly messy casino brawl.  

Another unpleasant surprise was the lack of style in many of those battles.  One of the standouts in CIVIL WAR was the sheer beauty of Black Pantherís fighting technique; a graceful, sinewy combination of African Engolo and Chinese Wing Chun, that made it clear the man was part cat.  That mesmerising style isnít evident, but for small flashes as the CGI Panther leaps through the air.  I was also sad to be disappointed by TíChallaís royal guard, a squadron of impressive, shaven-domed ladies, who are meant to be some of the deadliest fighters in the world.  For their big showdown, we suffer from the poor camera angles again, as well as choreography that was less sharp and innovative than I expected.  I was surprised how much the movements of team acting together reminded me of a lesser version of the Amazon battles in WONDER WOMAN.  That was truly breathtaking; this, not so much.

Thereís no real standout original action piece in the film, either.  A number of the things we see are variations of moments from other films, including as recently as AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, which featured a high-octane car chase through Seoul, South Korea.  This time, we have a high-octane car chase through Busan, South Korea, but itís at night with lots of neon, and in this instance, more fun than ULTRONís murky sequence.

Speaking of CGI, with the advent of the super high-technology that is Wakandaís pride, comes a tactile loss to the viewer when the action simply looks too fabricated.  So much of what we see is clearly computer generated, and it strips a level of reality and danger from the already-fantastical proceedings.  Perhaps that was thought to be okay since itís a comic book movie, after all?  (I still want a rhino doll, though.)

What Director Coogler does best is ďheart,Ē and to that end, this film has no flaw.  Chadwick Boseman, whose acting has been on deeper, more cerebral level since his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42, and his surreally perfect take on James Brown in GET ON UP, is absolutely the king we needed.  Educated, keenly intelligent, yet achingly sheltered in his way, as the pampered prince of an isolated kingdom, Boseman not only shows us TíChallaís immense dignity and poise, but his humanity and even his humour.  Right off the bat, the Black Pantherís coolness after demolishing a troop of human traffickers is blown when faced with his former love, Nakia, for the first time in ages; his long drawling ďHiiiiiiÖ.Ē brings to mind a junior high school boy in awe of his first crush.  Boseman finds and keeps TíChallaís humane goodness, even after facing the disillusionment that his beloved and revered father was flawed, and in many ways, very wrong.  

Cooglerís lucky charm, Michael B. Jordan returns to the directorís side as heís done for every feature, playing the yin to TíChallaís yang in Erik Killmonger, aka, NíJadaka.  They are mirrors of each other; whose roles, but for the vagaries of fate, couldíve been completely reversed.  Jordan -- pumped up diesel in opposition to Bosemanís sinewy leanness -- makes no bones about his malice; he is literally covered in self-administered scars all over his torso, each mark denoting a dead body -- yet we never lose sight of this being a deeply wounded person, who had been wronged from the time he was born.  Ultimately, there is an imbalance and more than Killmongerís cries for personal vengeance and acting that out in the name of oppressed black people everywhere, TíChallaís justice is much simpler and clearer, and he is ruled by it, even when it works against his own interests.  Yet, there is a lingering sense of what might have been, and what kind of relationship TíChalla and NíJadaka mightíve had had he been raised to his proper station? 

Our veterans are a joy to watch, like Ms. Angela Bassett as TíChallaís mum, the widowed Queen Ramonda.  Bassettís natural power and dignity are a perfect fit for the loving mother, who even in her grief at losing her mate and king, smiles and supports her son and precocious teen daughter, because she knows TíChaka is still with them.  (Side Note: It was a bit of a rub to finally see the woman who I wished for years had played the X-Menís Storm, facing Stormís future love, TíChalla, in Wakanda, with a head of long white and silver hair.  Iíd bet she still could pull Ororo off, but itís all creepy now.)  Forest Whitaker is a Rafiki to TíChallaís Panther King, as the wise man of the tribe; TíChallaís guide through the spirit realms, and keeper of the secrets suddenly blowing up in TíChallaís face.

For all the dignity and control of the performances by Boseman, Jordan, and Bassett, there is Andy Serkis, who I hope ordered extra eggs for all that ham.  Serkis art loosed, playing his one-armed arms dealer Klaue/Klaw with complete lack of restraint.  (Coogler allows his actors free reign, which can rub a little raw with some occasional overacting early on that mellows to a simmer by the filmís second half.)  His exuberance works in the scenes between Klaue and the endlessly nonplussed CIA agent and Wakanda guest, Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman.  Many laughs come at ďcoloniserĒ Rossí expense; one of the funniest during his interaction with Winston Duke, who stands out as MíBaku, the haughty, mighty leader of the Jabari tribe, who revere the ape as Wakandans cherish the panther.  

The girl power of Black Panther is just as impressive as its profile and diaspora.  TíChallaís main supporters are the women around him; the aforementioned Queen Mother, his ex-(and future?) lover Nakia, played by the luminous Lupita Níyongo, his gorgeous and terrifying general, Okoye {THE WALKING DEADís Danai Gurira}, and his loving relationship with his genius little sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. 

Shuriís intelligence and technological brilliance puts Tony Stark in the corner with a dunce cap.  It is inferred that much of Wakandaís futuristic arsenal is due to this talented 16-year-old, including and especially the varieties and functionalities of Black Panther suits and weapons.  Her inventions are comic book fiction at their best; a peek into technological marvels not yet dreamed of.  She also has the pantherís share of funny lines:  When presented with the bullet-ridden Ross, who took fire to protect Nakia, Shuri exclaims, ďGreat, another broken white boy for us to fix.Ē and preemptively raises her hand during the challenge to TíChallaís kingship, so they can just go home and she can remove her uncomfortable corset.  Sheís the cutest.  One small setback in that pro-matriarchy feeling comes during a time of crisis, when Queen Ramonda, Nakia, and Shuri escape the palace with the heart-shaped herb, thinking to entrust it to a possible enemy; their reasons for taking that risk instead of ingesting it themselves feels pretty thin.  Iíd have died to see what a super-powered Shuri could do, though sheís more of a thinker than a fighter -- not that sheís too shabby in the combat department.

BLACK PANTHER is going to do a lot to bring audiences to cinemas, and perhaps get them to read about this character, whose existence and world was remarkable from the word go.  It is also going to begin a lot of conversations about our present, real-life society, and the power and influence of film upon it.  To that end, the expectations and hopes the audience have for TíChalla as a true, inspirational hero beyond his super powers and claws, are summed up by his address to an international council, where he states that in times of trouble, ďÖThe wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.Ē 

Is BLACK PANTHER the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?  Not quite; but it is way up in the top tier and has nothing but potential for its inevitable and well-deserved sequels.  What BLACK PANTHER is, is an incredible and important moment that will mean very much to very many, and is, at its core, simply a great time at the movies.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Feb 15th, 2018



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