Black Panther

black panther movie 2018 posterBlack Panther (2018), Rated PG-13
Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright
Rating: four stars

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Let’s talk about Black Panther as a movie first, before I speculate about the social statement baggage so many are foisting upon it.

After the death of his Father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to his reclusive, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Before he can assume the mantle of king, he has to prove his worth to sit on the throne through ritual combat.

Challenges come from both within and from outside Wakanda, and, in order to lead Wakanda into the future, T’Challa has to overcome them all. With help from C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa sets out to secure his place as king and keep Wakanda from being dragged into a war, even if that war might have, at its core, an understandable justification.

From this perspective, and in comparison to many other Marvel movies, this is a “small” film in the sense that there’s no threat of ultimate global destruction from invading aliens or god-like artifacts. T’Challa is challenged to discover what he stands for and what that means to those he loves, his country, and the rest of the world.

In that light, Black Panther succeeds, and succeeds very well. Plenty of action, great effects, a story of challenge, growth and (some) healing. T’Challa is more man than hero, struggling to find a place in the world for himself and the people and country he cares about, as well as with what his responsibility is to those less fortunate than himself and his countrymen.

He learns that his revered father wasn’t the man he thought, that even legends can make mistakes, and that these mistakes can have consequences (the consequence here being Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan). How will he integrate this new information into his world view? Will he be able to surmount the mistakes of his father and move past them?

If you’re a Marvel fan, or superhero movie fan in general, Black Panther is an obvious choice. Even if your tastes fall to more of a James Bond or Jason Bourne flavor, chances are you’ll have some fun here as well.

But we can’t just leave the discussion there. A lot has been made about the “social” implications of this movie. Movies are stories, after all, and stories are how we pass along values and lessons, either by examples of what to do, or, in some cases, what not.

Rip out the comic book aspect and we’re left with a story about the leader of an isolationist global superpower taking a good, hard look at the question about the moral responsibility to help those less fortunate. What do those who have everything owe those who have nothing? The movie poses the conflict between maintaining an isolationist policy and cultural purity versus helping others and risking exposure and cultural dilution.

In the after-credits, there’s a pretty specific dig: “But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” Hmmm, I wonder who that was meant for?

It’s pretty easy to see what the writers were going for, and the movie makes a not-so-subtle political statement about what those who have the means to help should be doing.

That said, I think it missed an opportunity. As a villain, Killmonger fell short. He’s not “bad” because he wants to “help” the under-represented? So bad things for good reasons? That’s supposed to make him complex?

His plan is pretty poorly thought out and his method of help has the potential to do more harm than good. He comes across more as an amoral sociopath with a vendetta than someone trying to right a wrong and make things better. They took a stab at a justification for what he was doing, but it was a muddle between personal vendetta and a sincere desire to help, and neither was all that convincing.

Perhaps Killmonger is supposed to represent the type of “help” the United States offers? If that’s the case, than his blundering, ill-conceived aggression seems apropos.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was left with a sorta of rich-guy-better-than-poor-guy taste in my mouth, as in only the elevated and privileged are competent enough to help, or can see the whole picture, or can understand the type of help needed. The poor are too base and unrefined to see the forest for the trees. Ugh.

So the end verdict? See it for fun, not politics.

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