Black Panther (2018)

black-panther-posterToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

Created in 1966 by Marvel founder Stan Lee and artist/author Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics.  It’s took 50 years – and the rise of Marvel to the level of multi-media powerhouse – for him to make his big screen debut in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Two years later, he has a movie of his own, and it’s a lot more than just another spin-off; it’s a watershed moment in the cultural narrative.

It’s not that its story is anything unexpected; on the surface, the film largely adheres to familiar formula.  T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is heir to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which is secretly the world’s most technologically-advanced society.  Part of his role as ruler is to assume the mantle of Black Panther, a warrior-protector who defends the country with the help of superhuman powers bestowed through ancient tribal rituals.  His transition to the throne is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael P. Jordan), who seeks to use peaceful Wakanda’s superior resources to dominate the rest of the world.  It’s up to T’Challa and a handful of loyal supporters to defeat him and regain control over the country’s fate.

This hero-versus-villain scenario – though executed with the cleverness, style, and technical expertise that has become the well-established standard for these Marvel films – is typical fodder for blockbuster entertainment, which aims for thrills and not much more; but “Black Panther” has its eyes on a higher prize.

Thanks to the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” is the vehicle for a wide-ranging array of cultural messaging.  This is no safe, middle-of-the-road adventure; Coogler and Cole have made a barely-concealed political allegory in which Wakanda becomes a stand-in for (among other things) America itself.  Struggling between its self-preservationist isolationism and its role in the global community, it becomes a nation divided; its leadership, plagued by past failures and uncertain of future direction, is usurped by an outsider with an extreme ideology who seeks to subdue or silence any opposition to his agenda; and its citizens must choose between patriotic duty or resistance against the ominous course set by the new regime.  Add to this the fact that the resistance is largely driven by smart, empowered females, and the parallels are hard to miss.

More significant than the Trumpian overtones, yet profoundly complementary to them, are the ways in which “Black Panther” embraces and celebrates black culture.  It’s reflected in every aspect of the film, from the colorful costume and scenic designs, which incorporate heritage and history into its imagination of an Afro-centric futurism, to the exploration of social themes that not only recur throughout but form the very basis of the story’s central conflict.  T’Challa’s struggle is not just with an arch-villain; it’s a conflict between opposing ideas of social justice.  Do we right the wrongs of the past with education and leadership, or do the subjugated strike down their oppressors and change the world by force?  This is, of course, a superhero fantasy, so it’s no spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t end with an all-out race war; still, it’s significant to note that “Black Panther” does not oversimplify these questions, and that it takes pains to present all sides of the discussion in a sympathetic light.

That all of this comes through so clearly is a testament to the talents of the movie’s creators and cast.  Director Coogler navigates his way through the dense trappings of the sci-fi setting without ever losing track of the story’s heart and soul – or its big ideas.  Boseman brings the charisma and fire he displayed in Black Panther’s “Civil War” debut, and he deepens the character with a vulnerability that makes him a hero even more to be admired.  Jordan’s turn as Killmonger gives us a complex, human antagonist who earns our empathy, instead of the kind of caricatured “bad guy” that would turn the movie into a one-sided parade of tropes.

The rest of the cast is no less important, and no less impressive.  Lupita Nyong’o, as Nakia, is no mere love interest, but a force to be reckoned with.  Danai Gurira, as Okoye, general of Panther’s bodyguard, is a fierce and imposing presence whose wisdom is every bit as formidable as her physical prowess.  Letitia Wright, as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and chief technical mastermind is impish and irreverent, providing a hip and youthful energy while establishing herself as a supremely capable and self-sufficient heroine in her own right.  This is a trio of proud, smart, compassionate women that could fully support a movie of their own.

Representing the older generation are Angela Bassett and Forest Whittaker, both regal and indomitable as T’Challa’s mother and advisor, respectively.  Martin Freeman reprises his “Civil War” role as CIA agent Ross, using his much-loved deadpan befuddlement to great effect; though essentially serving as a “token white” character, his likable persona serves as an important reminder that unity in the cause of justice is not defined by race.  Andy Serkis, the movie’s only other significant white actor, gives a gleefully colorful performance as the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue.

All these stellar contributions blend together into the whole; no one element outshines any other, and “Black Panther” shines all the brighter for it.

As good as this film is, though, its importance does not lie in its quality.

The movie’s opening weekend ticket sales in North America outstripped anticipated figures; its global take for the weekend shattered myths about the overseas performance of movies featuring non-white actors.  It had the highest gross for a February opening in history, and the fifth highest of all time.  Black audiences turned up at theatres in droves, sometimes as part of school and church groups, often dressed in clothing celebrating their cultural heritage.  There has even been a campaign to register voters at theaters showing the film.

The impact of such a film – one that fills an oft-lamented gap for mainstream movies featuring people of color – should have been a no-brainer.  For a major studio release to be so unapologetically “black” is a major step forward that is long overdue.  To be sure, Marvel’s film comes in the wake of such surprise successes as “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” and feels connected to last summer’s “Wonder Woman,” which delivered a similar shock to the system, as well as Pixar’s Latino-themed “Coco.”

Even so, “Black Panther” feels like the crest of a wave.  The Hollywood industry, like any other business, is motivated by money; this movie has made a lot of that, already, and will certainly make much, much more.  The studios will receive that message, loud and clear, and if history is any indication, they will clamor to jump on the gravy train.

Hopefully, at long last, that will mean more movies about and by non-whites.

Whether or not it will also encourage a more inclusive atmosphere for other unrepresented groups – like Latino, Asian, or LGBT audiences – remains to be seen.

Advertisements

Thor (2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

ImageImage

Today’s cinema adventure is a double feature: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the two 2011 entries from Marvel that introduced audiences to seminal figures in the then-upcoming Avengers blockbuster, further establishing the groundwork begun in the successful Iron Man franchise and setting up key elements of the story arc which unites all the films.   In the first of the pair, Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, is exiled by his angry father to the distant planet earth, precipitating a rebellion in his home world which threatens to wreak destructive havoc in both places; in the second, set during the second world war, scrawny weakling Steve Rogers is transformed by a secret government experiment into a super soldier who leads the battle against an insidious threat rising from within the ranks of the Nazi Reich.  The two films bookend each other nicely, thematically speaking: both feature heroes who rise to greatness, one by breaking through his own arrogance to find humility; and the other by holding on to his pure-hearted nature after being bestowed with super-human powers.  Both scenarios are familiar variations of the “Hero’s Journey” myth, and as such fit snugly into the comic book milieu from which the characters and their stories are drawn; and though the production teams for each film are, for the most part, comprised of different artists, under the guidance of Marvel and its mastermind, Stan Lee, both maintain a strong visual and thematic connection to the printed form of the source material.  Indeed, thanks to the heavy use of CG effects in creating the worlds of these films- which at times almost erases the line between animated and live action filmmaking- they seem like gigantic, moving comic books; the only thing missing is the presence of bubbles for the dialogue and thoughts of the characters.  This, of course, is precisely what the creators of these spectacles have intended; and on that level, they have succeeded in spades.  However, it is that candy-coated quality that handicaps both of these films, as well: in making the impossible come to life in such a clearly artificial setting, they distance us from the characters and the story, keeping us constantly reminded that what we are seeing has no real weight or consequence in our lives and preventing an emotional connection much in the way that Brechtian theatre-of-alienation tactics were designed to do; unfortunately, the purpose of that presentational technique was to provide a detachment that would allow an intellectual connection instead, and here, there is so little food for thought that the effect (for those not dazzled into submission by the visual trickery) is closer to boredom.  Between the two films, Thor fares somewhat better: though marginally more far-fetched in its content, the mythological connection provided by its use of Norse gods and goddesses as an integral part of the plot allows us, somehow, to more comfortably suspend our disbelief and buy into its premise of our world being caught up in a conflict of all-powerful titans.  Indeed, the storytelling aspect is strong enough- almost- to avoid being overwhelmed by the computer-rendered spectacle surrounding it, largely thanks to the direction of one-time Shakespearean golden-boy Kenneth Branagh, whose extensive experience with classical narratives makes him well-suited to the mythic themes in play.  Not so sure-handed at the helm is Joe Johnston, whose Captain America starts out well enough as it chronicles the eager young hero’s transformation, but then seems to move aimlessly through its progression of set pieces, content to rely on action and mood to keep us interested until it reaches the last one; rather than the unfolding of an archetypal tale, this second film feels instead like a piece of nostalgic fluff, a cliché-ridden WWII adventure souped-up with wish-fulfillment fantasy, trying painfully hard to avoid irony in its handling of the gee-whiz jingoism of its subject matter by masking it in nostalgia (mainly provided by the bathing of every scene in a golden-hued light in order to remind us that we are watching a story set in the 1940s).  This lack of real direction is exacerbated by the hollowness of the characters: whereas in Thor, the screenwriters (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne) invest time and attention to the development the characters and their relationships, in Captain America the scribes (Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) have relied on the familiarity of the stock types that populate their film, establishing identity with glib one-liners and giving mere lip service to the bonds and rivalries that determine their loyalties; in both, the players are little more to us than obligatory ciphers required to fulfill a formula, but at least in Thor, they have real personality.  The cast lists of both movies are dotted with ringers: such heavy hitters as Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgârd and Natalie Portman (Thor) and Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hugo Weaving (Captain America) all add prestige and interest to the proceedings, and manage- with varying degrees of success- to elevate the material to a level that at least gives the illusion of substance.  As for the titular heroes, Chris Hemsworth as Thor does an adequate job of enacting his transformation from entitled blowhard to compassionate champion, and Chris Evans as the Captain manages to capture the right blend of sincerity and aloofness; but, perhaps partly due to the inherent limitations of the characters, both actors ultimately comes off as little more than eye candy (not that this is a bad thing- part of the traditional appeal of this kind of escapist entertainment is the beefcake factor).  The production of both movies, as mentioned before, is breathtaking, presenting us with glossy, hyper-real visions of the Marvel Universe; united by cohesive production design (Bo Welch for Thor, Rick Heinrichs for Captain America), they continually wow us with movie magic that reminds us of how far we’ve come from the days of actors hanging on wires in front of projected skyscapes.  The musical scores, provided by Patrick Doyle (director Branagh’s long-time collaborator) on Thor and Alan Silvestri on Captain America, are appropriately stirring.  In fact, every technical aspect of both films is top-notch, Grade-A, best-of-Hollywood stuff; but ultimately, though Thor has its strengths, they both come up short in the long run, big on style and spectacle, but lacking in the kind of genuine depth that can make movies of this genre into a more meaningful experience.  There is certainly entertainment value here, but even that seems strangely lacking; both pieces feel more like prologues (which they are) than stand-on-their-own experiences, setting the stage for things to come and somehow failing to provide the satisfaction of real closure.  Of course, this is the nature of comic books- each segment ends in a cliff-hanger, ensuring that the reader will rush out to buy the next edition as soon as it is available.  Thankfully, in this case the next edition is The Avengers, which succeeds where these two predecessors have not- but that’s another review.

Thor http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/

Captain America: The First Avenger http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

—————————————————————-

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

The Avengers (2012)

Image

Today’s cinema adventure: The Avengers, the long-awaited 2012 action/fantasy feature from director Joss Whedon which unleashes the combined force of most of Marvel’s top superhero characters and has ensured, with its record-smashing box office returns, that the flourishing “comic book” genre is here to stay- at least for now.  The plot, of course, could have been lifted from any Cold-War-era sci-fi potboiler: when a god-like being from another world brings an army to conquer the earth, a secretive government organization assembles a band of disparate heroes to head off the invasion, forcing them to set aside their own differences- and face their own weaknesses- in order to unite against the common foe.  The details get a bit confusing, unless you are intricately familiar with the plot threads that have been unwinding through the various associated franchises leading up to this blockbuster, or unless you can follow the lightning-fast pseudo-technical jargon with which the various conceits are established; but none of that matters, because unlike many inferior attempts at making this sort of hyper-driven action spectacle, “The Avengers” hinges not on its ridiculous storyline- nor even on the mind-blowing, state-of-the-art special effects, though admittedly those provide a considerable amount of the fun- but on the characters which inhabit it.  The legion of “fan boys” at which this movie is targeted can rejoice that, after decades of clueless studio hacks trying to capitalize on the popularity of comic books without understanding or respecting the material, at long last the genre is in the hands of artists who have grown up with a reverence for it; gone are the days of bland, leotard-clad goofballs with no charisma spewing cheesy platitudes.  Here we are treated to a collection of heroes that we can truly believe in because we can relate to them: full of doubts, anger, trust issues and guilty consciences, they are nevertheless driven by hope to perform the duties thrust upon them; and there is never any question that they have the ability to face whatever the other-worldly would-be conquerors can throw at them, as long as they can overcome the obstacles they generate within their own flawed psyches.  By capturing this element, Whedon (who also wrote the screenplay, from a story by himself and Zak Penn) has captured the key to what makes these far-fetched, over-the-top stories so compelling: they are, in fact, mythology that has been re-invented in a form that appeals to a modern generation.  We see our own psycho-dramas acted out in symbolic form by these idealized versions of ourselves, and through their victories we see the possibility of our own.  To be sure, of course, it’s not the kind of doom-and-gloom mythology that takes us through the dark night of the soul, and it would be completely wrong to think that The Avengers aims at any emotional or spiritual resonance beyond an adolescent level; but still, no matter how many millions of dollars were spent on the CG eye candy, it would have all just been visual noise without that important, cathartic element.  The Avengers seeks to entertain, not to enlighten, but it’s a testament to the talent of its creative forces that it manages to do both.  Whedon has levied his success as a creator of niche-targeted cult entertainment into status as a mainstream artist to be reckoned with, and he directs with a sure hand and a clear vision, striking a perfect balance between action and intimacy and keeping the whole thing roaring along at a breathless pace that makes the two-hour-plus running time feel half as long.  He has considerable help from crack film composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and an army of designers and special effects artists under production designer James Chinlund; and, of course, the work of his cast is exemplary, with the always-delightful Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johansson standing out in particular.  Special mention must be made for the driving force behind it all: comic book legend Stan Lee (one of the Executive Producers of this and all the Marvel films, which are of course his babies), who has brought his remarkable work from the printed page to the big screen (in magnificent 3-D, no less) with meticulous attention to getting it right and a vision that invites comparison to, dare I say it, Walt Disney himself.  Before I am accused of gushing, I should point out that there are quibbles to be made here- the villain, Loki, is not exactly an imposing threat, for all his superhuman powers, and there are numerous points in the film when the perfunctory conflicts between the protagonists threaten to derail the driving pace- and I can’t say that The Avengers and the other films with which it forms a sort of super-franchise (pardon the pun) transcend the comic book genre, as Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman cycle has done.  Nevertheless, in a time when rising ticket prices make it less and less appealing to go to the theater rather than just wait a few weeks for the DVD/BluRay release, it’s a film that delivers what it promises and more; and that’s a feat at least as heroic as any of those accomplished by the superteam of its title.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0848228/

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage