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Leaping Over the Low Bar 2: A Black Panther movie review (no spoilers)

So I saw Black Panther and I for one am shocked — SHOCKED I SAY — by the lack of white people representation in this film. Ok, maybe not… the token two white members of the principle cast had far more to do than I expected they would. Martin Freeman was quite good in it in fact. And Andy Serikis was… there too… yep.

So yeah, now that that’s out of the way, I can get to my thoughts on the movie as a whole. I find myself comparing it to my thoughts walking out of Wonder Woman. It was good. Not great. But good. I enjoyed it. And I realize that by just enjoying it, I’m sort of positioning myself to be in a problematic place on the internet. You see, much like Wonder Woman it simply isn’t a great movie. But, as the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, The Weekly Planet, often point out, the internet only allows you to have two opinions on movies (particularly “geek movies”). It must be the best movie ever or the worst movie ever. You’re not really allowed to just kinda like something. Much like Wonder Woman was in 2017, Black Panther is not the best movie ever. It’s not likely to be the best movie of 2018. It very well may not even be the best superhero movie of 2018, at least not objectively. Wonder Woman certainly wasn’t for 2017… Logan was (sorry… but it’s true).

But they didn’t have to be.

What it had to be was average. It had to be successful. It had to be viable. The experience wasn’t really about that. It was about representation. In fact, neither Wonder Woman or Black Panther ever made any secret of that. They never pretended to be more. This was Marvel Studios doing an experiment. Can we make a viable Marvel movie that doesn’t star a strapping muscular blonde white dude named Chris? All Black Panther really had to do was be “good enough.” It had to be “adequate”

It was better than that. I don’t remember the last time I have been to a movie theater and saw that many black people that excited. Certainly never for a superhero movie. It was almost a cosplay event. People were there in their best dashikis and gomesis. People were wearing brand new Black Panther t-shirts. They were into it! And… and this is maybe even more important… there were white people there too. Maybe half the audience. And they seemed to enjoy it… at least as much as they enjoyed… I dunno… Doctor Strange or something. In fact, yep. It was better than Doctor Strange.

The nice way of looking at this film is to say that Marvel wanted to make sure that young black kids growing up across America finally had a hero that “looks like them” on the screen to idolize. And yeah, it definitely did that. But I prefer the more cynical view. It was a proof of concept film. In much the same way that Wonder Woman was about seeing “hey, can we make money if we put a chick on the screen?” this was “hey, can we make money if we book a brother on the screen.” And the answer is “if the movie doesn’t suck, then yes… and in fact, because everyone is so starve for representation, they’ll cry tears of joy and thank you for it.” So it wasn’t really a movie about being a movie. It was a cultural experience. It was about doing a thing.

The problem is we live in franchise world now… and that trick only works once. After you get past the novelty “hey look, black dude” you can’t rely on people to just come back without a reason. It’s part of why people didn’t just flock to Justice League just to see Gal Gadot be Wonder Woman on screen again. So how was Black Panther as a movie?

It was better than it had to be.

Like many Marvel franchise openers (especially from Phase 1), it was essentially Comic Book Stock Movie Plots #1 and #2. And it was good at being them, but there wasn’t much more than that. There were quite a few things that I liked about it. It was pretty. It was very very pretty. The cast was good, especially Michael B. Jordan. In fact, Jordan shined. I’ve had my eye on him for a while, ever since he had a recurring role on Parenthood (shut up!). And that kid is going to get an Oscar someday. Because he treats every performance like it’s an Oscar caliber role. I mean, this one isn’t. But he went for it and acted his ass off like it was. Furthermore, unlike Wonder Woman, this doesn’t fall apart in the third act.

That’s not to say it’s without problems. Where Wonder Woman beats this is having a pure moment (No Man’s Land) to hang itself on. This film doesn’t have that. There’s a scene that I *think* was maybe supposed to be that… it’s not. There’s nothing massively memorable about it. A big reason is that it’s trying to be a real movie instead of just a highlight reel to make a cool trailer from (though there was some of that too). But it needs more to get there. I also, for the most part, liked the special effects a lot better than I liked them in Wonder Woman but I didn’t actually like them. Much like in the old Spider-Man movies, I was constantly aware that he was a CGI character in some scenes (in one in particular)… and it was pretty bad in those.

But it certainly wasn’t awful. And in fact, it comes in at better than average. It’d be worth seeing even if it wasn’t really the first of it’s kind (and it’s not really… It’s just that cultural memory is shitty so people forget that they’ve been able to watch Blade movies for 20 years… and they fucking loved them.) And the cultural event makes it even more noteworthy.

So I will end with the same thing said for Wonder Woman. Will it be the film that everyone looks back on in 20 years and says “this changed everything?” No… it’s just not going to be. There are too many others, many of which  will feature women black people and chances are one has to be better than this… especially with less pressure on it. But it doesn’t suck. And given what it has had to compete with… that’s a high accomplishment.

I’m just sad that I’m going to have to listen to people complaining about how it has been snubbed for the Oscars in a year.

★★★¼☆ (3.25 out of 5 stars)


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