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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

DAMN Good Movies -- BLACK PANTHER


That's right, I'm back once again with another movie take, this time on the movie Black Panther, the latest film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...Wakanda forever!

The struggle to get a Black Panther movie made has been going on longer than you think.  Back in 1992, actor Wesley Snipes (who went on to play Blade, of course) announced his intention to bring the character to the big screen and entered talks with Columbia Pictures, but script problems and confusion with the Black Panther Party affected the film's development.  In 1998, Marvel placed the movie on its film slate, but corporate problems put the project on hold for two years, when Artisan Entertainment announced a deal to co-produce and finance the film.  

That eventually went nowhere, so jumping ahead to 2005, Marvel announced Black Panther would be one of ten films developed by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures.  Marvel spent the next several years trying to develop the film, approaching director John Singleton and a number of writers, but still no movie sign.  Finally in 2014, Marvel announced Black Panther for November 2017, with Chadwick Boseman in the title role.  They spent another year trying to land a director, eventually bringing aboard Ryan Coogler after the success of his 2015 film Creed.

Black Panther opens centuries ago, with a backstory presented as a fable of five African tribes who warred over a meteorite containing the fictional metal vibranium.  A warrior consumed a "heart-shaped herb" that was affected by the metal and gained superhuman abilities, becoming the first "Black Panther" and uniting all tribes (except the declining Jabari Tribe) to form the nation of Wakanda.  Over time, the Wakandans used the vibranium to develop highly advanced technology and hid their advanced civilization from the world by disguising themselves as a poor Third World country.

We skip ahead to 1992, where King T'Chaka, the reigning Black Panther, travels to Oakland, California, to visit his undercover brother, N'Jobu.  It turns out super-shady arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (from Avengers: Age of Ultron) had infiltrated Wakanda and stolen vibranium, leading T'Chaka to accuse N'Jobu of helping him.  N'Jobu's friend reveals himself to be Zuri, another undercover Wakandan, who confirms T'Chaka's suspicions.

Finally switching to he present day, we pick up with events following T'Chaka's death at the hands of Helmut Zemo in Captain America; Civil War.  His son T'Challa, last seen in Civil War, returns to Wakanda to assume the throne and the mantle of the Black Panther.  He and Okoye, the leader of the Amazonesque elite bodyguards known as the Dora Milaje, extract his ex-lover Nakia from an undercover assignment so she can attend his coronation ceremony, along with T'Challa's mother Ramonda and his younger sister Shuri.  At the ceremony held at Warrior Falls, the Jabari Tribe's leader M'Baku challenges T'Challa for the crown in ritual combat.  T'Challa soon defeats M'Baku and convinces him to yield instead of dying during their fight.

By this point, it becomes more than clear that this isn't your typical Marvel movie.  After introducing us to the amazing technological spectacle of Wakanda, Coogler delivers an impressive sight of hundreds of people from the five tribes, all with painted faces and brightly-colored ceremonial costumes, decorating the waterfall's rockface and taking part in the ritual.  It's not Peter Parker crushing on a girl in high school or Tony Stark throwing a glitzy party, that's for sure.

Klaue and a man named Erik Stevens, meanwhile, steal an ancient Wakandan artifact from a museum that contains vibranium.  T'Challa learns that Klaue plans to sell the artifact in an underground casino in Busan, South Korea, and W'Kabi, T'Challa's friend and Okoye's lover, tells him to either kill Klaue or bring him to Wakanda for trial because Klaue was responsible for murdering his parents.  T'Challa, Okoye, and Nakia travel to the casino (which looks a lot like the Macau casino in the James Bond movie Skyfall), where T'Challa learns CIA agent Everett K. Ross, whom he met in Civil War, is the intended buyer.  A firefight breaks out, Klaue escapes, and Okoye, Nakia and Ross take off after him.  A very Bondish car chase through the streets of Busan follows, with T'Challa capturing Klaue with Shuri's help.

We head into the Second Act with Ross interrogating Klaue, who reveals that Wakanda's international image of being a Third World nation is just a front.  They get ambushed by Erik, who extracts Klaue, leaving Ross severely injured intercepting a bullet meant for Nakia.  Oh, and T'Challa notices Erik is wearing a ring identical to his own, which of course pays off later.  T'Challa decides to take Ross to Wakanda, where their technology can save him, instead of going after Klaue.  While Shuri heals Ross, T'Challa confronts Zuri about what happened to N'Jobu.  Zuri explains that N'Jobu planned to share Wakanda's technology with people of African descent around the world to help them conquer their oppressors.  When T'Chaka arrested N'Jobu, N'Jobu attacked Zuri, forcing T'Chaka to kill him.  They left behind N'Jobu's son, Erik, because returning with him would complicate their lie that N'Jobu had disappeared.  Erik eventually became a U.S. black ops soldier, earning the name "Killmonger".

Killmonger kills Klaue, then takes his body to Wakanda as proof T'Challa isn't all that, flipping W'Kabi over to Team Killmonger in the process.  Killmonger is brought before the tribal elders, then he reveals his identity as N'Jadaka, son of N'Jobu, and stakes a claim to the throne.  He challenges T'Challa to ritual combat and after killing Zuri, he defeats T'Challa, throwing him over the waterfall to his presumed death.  Now large and in charge, Killmonger order the heart-shaped herbs to be burned, but Nakia rescues one because once again, it will pay off later.  Supported by W'Kabi and his army, Killmonger uses his new authority to prepare shipments of Wakandan weapons to his operatives around the world.

The Third Act has Nakia, Shuri, Ramonda and Ross heading into the mountains to ask the Jabari Tribe for aid, where they find T'Challa comatose after being rescued by the Jabari in repayment for sparing M'Baku's life.  (Good thing he did that, hunh?)  Healed by Nakia's herb, T'Challa requests help from M'Baku, who isn't quite feeling it and passes.  T'Challa returns to fight Killmonger, who orders W'Kabi and his army to attack T'Challa.  The Dora Milaje, Shuri and Nakia battle Killmonger, who dons his own spiffy Black Panther suit.  In the middle of fighting, Shuri instructs Ross to remotely pilot a jet to shoot down the planes leaving with the vibranium weapons.  

Just when all seems lost though, M'Baku and the Jabari finally show up to help T'Challa., while Okoye calls out her boyfriend W'Kabi, encouraging him and his army to stand down. This leads to the big climactic fight in Wakanda's vibranium mine, where T'Challa eventually disrupts Killmonger's suit and fatally stabs him.  Fearing imprisonment, Killmonger declines an offer to be healed, instead choosing to die a free man.  Reclaiming his throne, T'Challa brings Shuri to Oakland and tells her he bought the building where N'Jobu died to establish a Wakanda outreach center, which will be run by Shuri and Nakia.  The End.

Later, in a mid-credits bonus scene that probably would've made a better ending for the film, T'Challa appears before the United Nations to reveal Wakanda's true nature to the world.  Presumably, he's unaware that he'll probably be lit up on Twitter for not telling the world about Wakanda's advances in technology and health care years ago.

There were a number of great actors in this film who made their characters particularly notable.  Here are some of the things that stood out:

BLACK PANTHER/T'CHALLA -- In his second outing as Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman obviously get the chance to shine more here than he did in Civil War.  His T'Challa is a stoic, noble hero, desperate to be a good king like his father T'Chaka and to do right by his people.  He's sympathetic to what was done to Killmonger as a child, respectful to everyone who serves under him, and even allowed to have a little bit of a sense of humor where his younger sister is concerned.  Boseman is a formidable Black Panther, but he's an even better T'Challa.

KILLMONGER/ERIK STEVENS/N'JADAKA -- Michael B. Jordan proves to be much more effective as a supervillain than he was as the Human Torch in Josh Trank's unfantastic Fantastic Four reboot film from 2015.  Killmonger could've easily been a one-note Marvel villain wanting to take over Wakanda and use it's resources to control the world, but Jordan gives his character considerable depth.  He shows the cultural divide between Africans and their American offspring, bringing something very new to the traditional bad guy role.

NAKIA -- After slumming it as Maz Kanata in the recent Star Wars trilogy, Lupita Nyong'o plays Nakia, T'Challa's ex-girlfriend and a War Dog, an undercover spy for Wakanda placed in other countries to complete missions.  Thankfully, Nakia is allowed to be more than just the Bond Girl to T'Challa's James Bond, with Nyong'o shpwing the heart of a true Wakandan warrior in various scenes and displaying wise counsel for T'Challa.  Hell, Nakia could easily have her own spy movie spinoff and I'd be all over it.

OKOYE -- Danai Gurira takes a break from killing zombies with her katana as Michonne on The Walking Dead and all of us are better for it.  As Okoye, she heads the Dora Milaje, the special forces group that serves as T'Challa's bodyguards.  And like T'Challa, she's a very stoic figure who also gets the occasional sense of humor, especially when Shuri is in the room.

SHURI -- And while on the subject of Shuri, Letitia Wright pretty much steals every scene she's in.  Your new favorite Disney princess is the Q to T'Challa's Bond, providing him with all sorts of high-tech devices...even though she's only 16!  Her teenage rebelliousness makes for some fun, socially awkward moments, especially during T'Challa's coronation ceremony, but the character's intelligence is really what matters most here.  Just imagine what would happen if Shuri, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner were locked in a research lab together...

EVERETT K. ROSS -- Martin Freeman, famous for playing Dr. John Watson on Sherlock, Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie and the younger Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy, positively excels as a white guy placed in uncomfortable situations.  Reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War, Freeman gets to develop Ross as something of a new Phil Coulson here.  He's not just comic relief though, and even gets a couple of decent action sequences.

KLAW/ULYSSES KLAUE -- Andy Serkis, the film's other white guy who was also in The Hobbit (as Gollum), reprises his character from Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Once again, Klaue is a sleazebag from South Africa with zero redeeming qualities, this time filling the role of Killmonger's main henchman until Killmonger decides he's no longer useful.  Klaue gets a great interrogation scene with Ross, spilling the beans on Wakanda's true nature just for shits and giggles

W'KABI -- Hot off his Oscar nomination for Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya is W'Kabi, T'Challa's best friend and head of security for the Border Tribe, which serves as the first line of defense for Wakanda.  W'Kbai is a minor supporting character here, but his resentment of T'Challa's inability to capture or kill Klaue and willingness to support Killmonger make for some great dramatic moments.  Ultimately, he makes the wise choice and stands down, primarily because his girlfriend Okoye was about to rip his head from his body and use it for spear practice.

M'BAKU -- Winston Duke takes what could've been a thankless role, T'Challa's rival for the throne who ultimately helps him to save Wakanda, and turns it into something more special when Nakia, Shuri, Ramonda and Ross show up looking for help.  He trolls Ross into thinking that he's going to eat him before revealing he's vegan, then trolls the others into thinking he's going to help for a moment before refusing them outright.  And yes, let's just be really glad he didn't go by his comics alias "Man-Ape"...

RAMONDA -- Once everyone's favorite pick 25 years ago to play Storm in a movie, Angela Bassett finally makes it into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after playing Linda Lake on an episode of the 1990-91 DC Comics series The Flash and DC's Amanda Waller in Green Lantern.  As Wakanda's Queen Mother, Ramonda is a trusted advisor to T'Challa but she doesn't get to do a whole lot apart from look concerned at key moments and wear an impressive white dreadlock wig.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan "The Man" turns up as a gambler at the South Korea casino, who swoops in after T’Challa wins at a table, suggesting that he’ll look after T’Challa’s sizable amount of chips until the king returns.

WINTER SOLDIER CAMEO -- Sebastian Stan returns as Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, in a post-credits bonus scene that reveals Shuri has revived Bucky from suspended animation, where he's been ever since the end of Civil War.  Time to suit up for Avengers: Infinity War, Buck!

All in all, Black Panther is a major step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe...and for superhero films in general.  With the movie bringing in over $235 million domestically in its first four days, it's already destroyed the notion that the public won't turn out in big numbers for films starring black superheroes, paving the way for potential Marvel movies starring Storm, Luke Cage, War Machine, Deathlok, and others somewhere down the line.  It's proof that if you make a superhero movie with a solid story, strong casting, and great production values, audiences will show up no matter the character's racial or ethnic background.  And even better, the film brings hope and inspiration to thousands of young boys and girls all over the world, who've been waiting and waiting for a major black superhero film that represents them.  So with all this in mind, DC Films...How's your Cyborg solo movie coming along?

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)

3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Logan (2017)
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
7. Black Panther (2018)
8. Man of Steel (2013)
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
10. Doctor Strange (2016)
11. Wonder Woman (2017)
12. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
13. Spider-Man (2002)
14. Iron Man (2008)
15. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
16. Watchmen (2009)
17. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
18. Thor (2011)
19. Justice League (2017)
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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