Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Revolution in Marvel Movies: The Power of “BLACK PANTHER”

Some would say that no other movie ever released has been saddled with the same level of hype – and responsibility to live up to that hype – like the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie of 2018 released by Disney and Marvel Studios.  It chronicles the solo adventure of a character from Marvel Comics that first appeared in the MCU during the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”; a character that initially was perceived as potentially having difficulty headlining a major motion picture for the fact that he, his supporting characters and narrative corner in the universal setting has been perceived on film as a so-called “minority”. Well, “Black Panther” has begun premiering all over the world through the middle of last week and, having seen it over the weekend, I can chime in with so many online who would proudly say “The King is Here” and “Long Live the King”.
It’s no hyperbole to say that there have been astronomically high and very specific expectations going into the production of “Black Panther”, based on a superhero from Africa. Naturally the character would be portrayed on Hollywood by an African-American actor, the cast is predominantly black of several countries of origin, and even the director is African-American. Ryan Coogler has been on the helm of seven films, only three of which are feature-length. But his 2015 work “Creed” was a critical and box office darling with some major film award nominations. “Black Panther” is his third film, and it has now become the biggest box-office debut for an African-American director. But more on the movie he was on the helm of.
Marvel Studios’ MCU has been one of the most astounding developments of contemporary cinema: a series of interconnected movies (and TV series) following a general stable of characters in a carefully laid-out universe. More recent installments of which have been really selling the woven overall plot (in preparation for the next “Avengers” film later this May, but more on that later). What makes “Black Panther” refreshing is that, while the titular character made its MCU debut as part of an ensemble cast, his solo outing here (not strictly an “origin story” like the first films in the verse, more like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” last year) dials down on the greater plot points from past installments, providing a self-contained narrative that while springing from its predecessors manages to stay coherent by itself.
In “Captain America: Civil War” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Prince of the isolated African kingdom of Wakanda, becomes King following the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). But already he carries the mantle of the Black Panther, the Wakandan hero-figure and protector, whose title is usually held by the king and passed down to his heir. After his brief involvement in the Superhero Registration Civil War, T’Challa returns to his homeland to be crowned, and here the true wonder of Wakanda is revealed to the MCU audience.
Far from its outside appearance as a Third World nation, Wakanda is actually a highly-advanced hidden power, whose entire tech development and infrastructure runs on Vibranium, a wonder-mineral metal mined from a meteorite that crashed into their land millions of years ago. The presence of vibranium under the soil has enhanced the vegetation and animals of Wakanda, such as the “heart-shaped herb” that is the source of the Black Panther’s superhuman physical abilities. The country of Wakanda itself is a showcase of Afrofuturism, in that while its civilization is high-tech, the people still hold to tribal allegiances and traditional cultural mores. T’Challa for instance must first face challengers to his ascension in ritual combat before affirming his kingship, like he does with dissident chieftain M’Baku (Winston Duke).
Anyway, once his rule is secured, T’Challa’s next concern is the mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has long ago stolen samples of vibranium in Wakanda without ever being caught. Hoping to bring him to his nation’s justice, T’Challa pursues him to South Korea with the help of a surprising ensemble of powerful and fully-realized female characters. There’s Okoye (Danai Gurira), head of the all-women royal guard the Dora Milaje; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan “war-dog” or spy in the outside world (and T’Challa’s “ex”), plus the King’s own little sister, the teen super-genius Shuri (Letitia Wright) who develops her brother’s equipment and makes his “swag” vibranium-mesh costumes.
But Klaue’s schemes may be more complex that it initially seems. From information provided by T’Challa’s reluctant ally CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), it is revealed that a former US special-forces operator is also involved: Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) alias “Killmonger”. But behind Erik’s “angry black dude” demeanor is a connection to Wakanda that takes T’Challa by surprise, and a plan that’s rooted in some relevant social issues pertaining to the African diaspora that’s going on to this day.
Producer Nate Moore gave a simple description of the plot of “Black Panther” as “The Godfather” meets the James Bond movie franchise. That does quite capture the gist of it, with the leader of a family with authority over a secret group hidden from the mundane world, facing the upheaval wrought by somebody coming in with new ideas on how things must be done. Ryan Coogler must be given a lot of respect for his deft hand at controlling how the themes in his movie are treated. There are so many shout-outs to the perceptions regarding the place of a “black man” in the world, but it never gets preachy, nor does it feel like a socio-political agenda being pushed.
Another element of the movie that is something of a stamp for the MCU as a whole is the humor. Detractors of the franchise have decried the “executively mandated” insistence of putting funny scenes in an otherwise serious movie about superheroes, and individual MCU directors have to decide how much laughs each movie really needs. Thankfully, producer Moore was proven right in his other statement that any comedy in “Black Panther” will be less blatant than can be found in, say, “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor: Ragnarok”. The reined-in take works.
Finally, there’s much to be said about the film’s soundtrack. Playing on the multi-diversity angle, “Plack Panther” features background music rooted in African tribal song and dance one moment then shifting to some cool tunes from the African-American music scene. All this can be credited to composer Ludwig Göransson, who handled the instrumental score, and Kendrick Lamar, who curated the songs which then went into the official “Black Panther” soundtrack with music “from and inspired by” the film. Serving as the key lyrical song of the soundtrack is “All the Stars” by Lamar and SZA.
In closing, “Black Panther” may, under a critical and unbiased eye, may not have completely embodied the ideals that were put forth about it before its premiere; some of the CGI effects came off as less polished compared to its MCU fellows for instance. But in a way, no other movie really could have handled the pressure this movie, its cast and its director have been through in order to resonate with the global audience. Not only did “Black Panther” deliver, it delivered beyond everybody’s expectations. It’s great. Wakanda Forever.
Photo courtesy of marvel.com


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