“Millions of years ago,” Movie narrates to us, “a special effects meteorite made of vibranium – the strongest substance in the universe – struck the special effects continent of Africa. Five special effects arms rise from the soil to represent the Five Tribes that would form the special effects country of Wakanda. A special effects panther god named Bast chooses a special effects warrior to become the first special effects Black Panther, by drinking from the special effects flowers. The special effects Wakandans developed special effects technology more advanced than other special effects nations, so to keep vibranium safe from the world’s chaos, they vowed to keep it hidden in their special effects city, hidden under a canopy of special effects jungle.”
So begins the tale of Marvel’s greatest superhero – Special Effects.
The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), BLACK PANTHER, follows the fortunes of T’Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), after he returns from Vienna where his father, King T’Chaka, was killed during a Captain America movie. Before he is crowned the new king, T’Challa is challenged by M’Baku (Winston Duke) who wears a gorilla mask, to imply he is going to take T’Challa roughly from behind as if his ass is pink and swollen.
T’Challa wins because his ass is black and tight, and M’Baku is banished, to await his return in the third act as the deus ex gorillabuttocks. T’Challa is proclaimed as not only king, but Black Panther, Protector of Wakanda, anointed by elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker, adopting an accent somewhere between Saw Gerrera and Idi Amin Dada, so that he can pronounce it “Bleck Pentheh” and get away with it).
Besides drinking from the special effects flowers that grant him super strength and a panther’s libido (hence the cologne “Sex Panther”), T’Challa also has the latest special effects technology to help him fight other special effects. His sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) shows T’Challa her new vibranium special effects weapons, like Q showing Bond around the lab. Even his Panther boots have become special effects by now, as I wait for the movie to find its human actors amongst the eye-damaging greenscreen…
I wanted an actor – I got one: Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger explodes in our faces like the Sex Panther cologne! Oh, praise to Bast (and praise to #basta, for the killmonger Michael Avenatti!)! In his opening scene, Erik steals a vibranium axe from a UK museum, and it’s the most compelling clichéd scene you will see in modern cinema, Jordan inhabiting his role like he was born into it. He’s the new Olivier, the sexier Pacino, the blacker Oldman. Jordan is everything you want in an actor AND a movie star: power, masculinity, authority, gravitas, sex panther!
Erik was a Wakandan child abandoned in America by T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, 25 years ago. Now he’s back from wars in Afghanistan, and back for revenge on Wakanda, body-scarred with a notch for each of his kills. And every woman in the audience volunteers to count each notch on his V-shaped body – with her tongue. To think Wakanda’s overthrow could have been avoided if King T’Chaka could’ve just found some room on his special effects jet for this little kid. Erik seems like your stock superhero villain, but his endgame is the shock to our jaded senses – his endgame is noble altruism (but it’s written to appear like untamed fascism).
You see, Wakanda is a technologically superior African nation of steel spires and vibranium-powered monorails, disguised under a hologram of verdant forest, keeping its technology and weapons secret from the outside world; tech that could decide the fates of nations; weapons that could raise up downtrodden races if emplaced in those enslaved hands. This is Erik’s goal: to become king of Wakanda in a fair, legal battle with the reigning Black Panther, and then to arm the downtrodden of the world with Wakanda’s weapons (specifically, the black race that he identifies with), so that they may conquer their captors.
The weird part about the goal of this villain is: we all kinda agree with him!
It is this storyline charged with moral ambiguity that saves BLACK PANTHER. The “villain,” Erik, actually opens the eyes of the hero, T’Challa, to the fact that T’Challa’s own father did something morally questionable. And the hero agrees with the villain. Thus it may be T’Challa’s own doubt about his father’s purity that makes him cede the Panther mantle to Erik, seeing as Erik had, in T’Challa’s eyes at least, won the moral high ground with that revelation.
BLACK PANTHER is well-written (by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), with justice and ethics clashing against might and right. For example, the Panther clan is mighty and righty, but they ignore the injustice beyond their special effects borders. They can easily help their African brethren in other countries by seeding the leaders of those communities with vibranium weapons, but refuse to do so. Are they then still “right” to leave suffering in the world? But would it be right to force their weapons on others to “become free”? The question becomes more selfish, for every world leader must ask: Just how far beyond their borders are they prepared to defend human rights, if there is no reciprocal benefit to themselves in doing so? For that is obviously the case with Wakanda – a self-sufficient sovereign nation that does not rely on imported goods, so does not bother with alliances, or obligations to defend other peoples, races or nations.
Then there is the other side of the paw: when the outside world discovers how advanced Wakanda is, there will be the raconteurs who want to own that tech, copyright it, mass-produce it; there will be the wardogs who seek to conquer Wakanda; there will be the intrusive journalists, the paparazzi, the social media, the haters, the cheapening of a luscious culture; gods forbid TMZ walking the streets of Wakanda interviewing people on who Black Panther should be dating…
Erik Killmonger does not take these reciprocal/alliance/TMZ aspects into account when petitioning T’Challa to help the downtrodden. Ultimately, he’s requesting the country does something for nothing. And when he does take control, he starts sending out those weapons, as promised. But for every expense, there must be income to balance the books, yet Wakanda is making nothing in return for their aid, their time, their pilots, planes, supplies… Does this mean Erik is purely altruistic? Erik is painted as fanatical in retaining his king-hood – he orders the special effects flowers destroyed, “I’m-a burn it all down!” to block other Panthers from rising – yet he is providing the aid he promised to suffering peoples, races and nations. Is he, in fact, the true damaged hero of BLACK PANTHER?
And here’s an unnoticed character flaw in our hero T’Challa: Erik might rave unto the dawn about arming Africans in other countries, enslaved by poverty, racism and distrust, and T’Challa just dismisses him as a crazy nigga; T’Challa doesn’t heed anything Erik says – until Erik brings up the crimes of T’Challa’s father. Only then does T’Challa have an epiphany of moral responsibility. That’s mighty white of him.
Did writer-director Coogler see the contradiction in his lead character? Or was he too busy trying to direct action scenes like an ophthalmologist’s nightmare?
If it weren’t for the moral dilemma coiled within the plot, the badly-directed action sequences would ruin this movie. Most fight scenes, we cannot focus on the actors who have gone through all that fight training only to suffer under the editor’s knife with crash-cuts enough to slice through a sharknado. And the fighting we DO see clearly, well, isn’t really very creative. This ain’t Jackie Chan, or even JOHN WICK. The mind-numbing camera swirls and careens across special effects cars, special effects aircraft, special effects tribespeople, even a special effects hospital bed, and ultimately, two special effects Black Panthers fighting near a special effects train.
In this last fight between T’Challa and Erik, during every break in the punching, their masks inexplicably dis-integrate off their faces, so they can spit a few insults at each other, until they resume the fight, whereupon the masks magically re-integrate over their faces. Firstly, HOW are they doing this? Willpower? Magic? A button on their palms? A sound they make? And secondly, WHY are they doing this? There is no tactical purpose for losing the mask every time they need to speak or emote. I’ll tell you why: It’s because the filmmakers know the special effects have gone too far – we need to identify with the characters and their emotions, and so need to see their faces, otherwise, we’re looking at five solid minutes of computer game whizbangery. And no person over 30 signed up for that.
And that’s another reason the combat is lame – it’s special effects combat, with physics laws broken, bad motion arcs, innumerable edits; it’s not two actual craftsmen (even though actual combat craftsmen were involved in the training of the actors!). What a waste of talent – for the actors and fighters who put their hearts into the combat ballet. The filmmakers might have wasted their money on all the training, but they really squeezed their money’s worth from the special effects departments!
I don’t place all the blame for the eye-boggling commotion and cartoonish timbre on Coogler’s shoulders, as he has proven himself a thoughtful, introspective director with FRUITVALE STATION and CREED (both starring the mighty Michael B. Jordan). The blame surely should be parceled out amongst corporate Marvel policy and too many cooks (like producers Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito and a busload of editors) all stirring the broth, and cackling hubristically over PANTHER being the first Hollywood tentpole superhero movie MADE by black people STARRING black people, for ALL peoples, almost forgetting the “people” at the heart of this tale. Indeed, I believe it is Coogler’s steady hand that salvages the characters, despite all the corporate pokers and special effects junkies.
And let’s face it: Audiences are not considering the film’s demerits as glaring, because of that larger social phenomenon of its pervasive BLACKNESS. At last, a predominantly black movie that isn’t about slavery; at last, a superhero for black kids to emulate; at last, a different-hued society not predicated on the scraps left begrudgingly by Whitey; at last, a self-contained culture that stands tall on its own merits, and doesn’t have to exist in relation to white society. And the fact I haven’t mentioned its blackness up till now must mean I’m racist.
Andy Serkis reprises his role (from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) as crazed Ulysses Klaue, the arms dealer without an arm. And Martin Freeman reprises his role (from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) as Everett Ross, the new Agent Coulson. Both Serkis and Freeman reuniting since their turns in those HOBBIT movies as Gollum and Bilbo respectively; the only two white boys on set, they were known affectionately as the “Tolkien White Guys.”
Lupita Nyong’o (QUEEN OF KATWE) is Nakia, Panther’s ex-girlfriend, brought along on a mission just to keep his hormones charged, as far as I can tell; Sterling K. Brown (THIS IS US) is excellent as Erik’s father; Angela Bassett is regal as T’Challa’s mother; Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT) is a tribesman whose alliances go any way the wind blows, and he’s got some tasty special effects rhinos. And John Kani is old King T’Chaka, while his real-life son, Atandwa Kani plays Young T’Chaka! Now that’s panther-cool!
Danai Gurira (ALL EYEZ ON ME) as General Okoye leads Panther’s Imperial Guard of shaved-headed women warriors called the Dora Milaje with ferocious efficiency. There comes a moment that is probably too close to American Politics for comfort, when the maniacal despot Erik defeats the sober, reasonable leader T’Challa, and Okoye must decide whether to mutiny against Erik or serve his new government. She chooses to serve begrudgingly, tears edging her eyes as her previous boss is left for dead. We can’t help but relate her decision to the Republican Congress who toady to the Dumbo Donald administration, instead of doing their duty and imprisoning the traitorous felon.
And T’Challa’s family comes off as whiny, after he is defeated by Erik in lawful battle. They go cryin’ to the gorilla king M’Baku that T’Challa was murdered, but M’Baku quietly avers, “If it was done in the ritual way, then it was less of a murder than a defeat.”
People of color will find a deeper resonance in BLACK PANTHER than those who have taken for granted their privileged lives. And downtrodden races can rightly find black empowerment in this superhero that is not an underdog, but an alpha dog in every sense of the word, to the point he is an elitist who doesn’t want to share his riches and knowledge with outsiders! Other than that paradox, PANTHER’s heroes and anti-heroes are remarkable men and women: powerful warriors, intelligent scientists, regal rulers, loving, noble and good-looking. And Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa the Black Panther is wise and humble even outside his character; an inspiring icon and role model.
Even the “villain” Erik is so noble and principled (and swoll!) that T’Challa’s final deed for him is a bittersweet gesture, showing Erik the beauty of the special effects city. And we weep for Erik, for his principles, his tragedy and his truths: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
Like the cologne, it stings the nostrils. In a good way.