It’s Good to Be King (Black Panther, 2017)

Black_Panther_PosterCreated by comic book icons Jack ‘the King’ Kirby and Stan Lee, Black Panther has seemed like a character Marvel wants to really make active…but struggles to figure out how to make him work best.  Initially being a guest star in the pages of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, T’Challa (the titular Black Panther) got solo stories starting with 1973’s Jungle Action # 5. The series was not a top seller, and Marvel cancelled it. They tried to continue the Black Panther in his own series, which lasted until 1979.  They tried again in 1988, with a mini-series. This was followed by an appearance in Marvel’s anthology series Marvel Comics Presents in 1989.  1990 saw another series.  But it was 1998 where Black Panther found some footing.  Christopher Priest began his run and truthfully, he cracked the code with an incredibly engaging series. It lasted 62 issues (Priest wrote 60 of those issues). They worked on a new series in 2005 with Reginald Hudlin. 2016 brought back the Panther in his own series led by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This, for me, has come the closest to rivaling Priest’s terrific run.

While the Black Panther film was announced a few years ago, we did not get to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe take on the character until Captain America: Civil War.  I really enjoyed his introduction.  The film only hinted at a larger Wakandan culture, and so now is the opportunity to explore it deeper. This is a spoiler free review (so story references remain vague).

Opening with a young boy asking him to tell the story of home (Wakanda) before bedtime. This works rather nicely, filling us in on how Wakanda was built on Vibranium, how five tribes were united under a single king who was granted powers via plant life altered by the vibranium. Wakanda grew more technologically advanced than any other nation.  They sought to hide from the world.

The film quickly establishes that while the world believes that Wakanda is a low tech third world country, it is a vibrant high tech society. T’Challa and his family are still reeling from the events of Civil War, and it is time to T’Challa to take the mantle of King.

Of course, there are those who oppose him.  The weapons supplier Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and first introduced to audiences in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a mysterious young man called Killmonger are collecting Wakandan tech.

T’Challa struggles with his role as king. Heartbroken over his father’s death (again, in Civil War) and struggling with the role of Wakanda in the world.  His ex-girlfriend Nakia believes that Wakanda should be sharing it’s riches with the world…to be a beacon for the world, not tucked away. She loves him, but cannot see a place for herself in Wakanda when she has seen such suffering in the outside world.

The film shows us a society which has a richness of history and culture. The costume design is beautiful.  The king’s personal guards are all striking in appearance with lush reds and gold.  They are all warrior women with shaved heads (in one entertaining moment T’Challa, Nakia and general Okoye are undercover and she complains about having to wear a wig).

The Wakandan tech is exciting sci-fi tech that would make Bond jealous.  The Wakandan landscape is a combination a immense futuristic cities and beautiful forests and mountains. There are some fight scenes set amongst giant waterfalls that Director Coogler and his cinematographer use lighting and sunsets to amplify the sequences with intensity and beauty.

I really liked the characters in this film.  For T’Challa, it carries over his lessons learned from Captain America: Civil War.  T’Challa is merciful and a good man.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown…this film shows T’Challa struggling to be a King and Protector and not being blind to the world around him.

The women really steal the show in this film.  Okoye is a formidable warrior and guardian.  Nakia is intensely stubborn in her dedication.  But she also is in love with T’Challa (who is also very in love with her).  His mother is a woman of pride and wisdom (Angela Basset is just regal and beautiful).  And then there is his sister Shuri.  She is a fun character who lovingly spars with her brother.  She is a brilliant scientist, but her youth presents a more brash attitude. She is like a super competent “Q”.

Everett Ross (created by Christopher Priest in his 1998 series) appeared in Civil War, but we did not get a real feel for the character.  Here we find him seeming over-confident at first, but he rises to the challenge of helping the Black Panther and his family. While he begins seeming a bit like he might be the comedy relief, he becomes a character who shows himself as heroic and willing to risk himself for his friends.

Killmonger is a villain with a good back story.  He wants to rule the world, but not in some cheesy maniacal ruler fashion. He wants to rise his people up to subjugate the colonizers. Klaue is just after money, and shows no arc…but Andy Serkis seemed to have a lot of fun in the role.

Full of action, heart and punctuated with some great humor, Black Panther was worth the wait.  I would easily categorize this as one of Marvel’s best.

Player vs Player (Captain America: Civil War, 2016)

Marvels_captain_america_civil_war_posterCaptain America: Civil War was a risky gamble.  It has a bloated cast.  I mean, Captain America is joined by practically everyone (Except Thor and the Hulk).  The film was also going to be introducing us to a couple Major Players in Both the Black Panther and Spider-Man.  There was always the possibility that this would be so bogged down, we would have Marvels first failure…the first Marvel film that outright sucked.

And the film should be a huge mess.  We are being introduced to characters left and right.  And as usual, the villain of the film is pretty thin.  And yet, somehow?  The film works.  It stand and manages to remain extremely engaging.  The film is dealing with the fallout of collateral damage we have seen through the previous films.  All that destruction we have seen through the Avengers, Thor, Captain America the winter soldier.  Culminating in an event in this film in which an attempt to save people kills several visiting Wakandans.

The United Nations is determine to intervene.  And Tony Stark, after being confronted by an angry and heartbroken mother (Alfre Woodard) whose son died in Ultron’s Sokovia attack, is determine to see it happen.  He, quite understandable, sees a need for Oversight.  And this is what sets off the Conflict within the Avengers.  Steve Rogers is certain that being shackled and having to get permission to fight the bad guys is a bad idea.  We of course, sympathize with Cap, but one of the things the film does very well?  The character motivations.  They make sense.  You understand why they choose the way they do.  And the the fact that certain characters miss the villain’s big plan is quite believable.

The film is action packed, but not at the expense of the overall story.  The characters get meaningful exchanges and yet, the film avoids feeling overly bogged down by a sense of self importance.  The events matter, questions are asked, but without the self aggrandizing approach other Super-hero films had recently.  Not naming names.  The cast does great work with the script they were given.  They bring the characters to life.

And then there is the humor.  This is by no means a light film, but it has very effective humor.  The film is not afraid that if we laugh we might miss “the important and heavy epic story being told”.  These people are friends.  They have history.  They care about each other.  And that is what gives the story it’s real conflict and weight.  But it is also those established relationships that allow the fun.

Of course, the big question was…Spider-Man and the Black Panther-will they work?  It is nice that we do not get an origin story (it should be pretty clear that T’Challa was already the Black Panther, he is not becoming the Black Panther for revenge).  But he does get a nice story arc focusing on the thirst for vengeance, leading him to wisdom in his new role as King.  Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa as young, confident royalty.  And yet, when he suffers lost, he gains a restrained ferocity.

And Tom Holland?  He is Spider-Man.  The portrayal of Spidey in this film was almost instantly lovable.  His rapid fire chatter was dead on.  He looked great in costume and his position of siding with Tony makes complete sense.  I am genuinely excited to see both Spider-Man and Black Panther’s solo films.

James Gunn (Director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films) said this was the best Marvel film to date.  And, in the end, if it is not actually the best?  It is pretty darn close.  This is a terrific adventure and worth seeing.

Direct Sequel vs Kinda a Sequel

Zack Snyder has commented that in his mind, Batman V Superman is actually the Man of Steel Sequel.  There is a Man of Steel 2 on the Warner Brothers slate-with talk of George Miller directing (which would be exciting)-but Zak really feels this is the true follow-up.

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And this feels like it is becoming an issue with both Marvel and DC films.

In the early days, the Marvel stand alone films were allowed to focus on the hero.  There might be a cameo, or a supporting role (Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  But the films were primarily focused on the hero’s journey, while the larger Avengers story-line might be lightly hinted at.

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But Captain America: Civil War seems to be suffering the same problem as Batman v Superman… so stuffed with heroes, it feels more like “Avengers: Infinity War-Prologue”.  They are feeling less like proper films in a franchise and more like the setup films.  Adding Spider-Man to Civil War only enhances that.

I kind of get what they are doing with Batman v Superman, because Warner Bros has been playing catch-up after trying to determine how to get that Avengers cash without totally looking like they are trying to copy the the actual Avengers formula.

So we are getting long movies full of heroes, all while they give less and less room for the title character.  Part of what I enjoyed about both Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy was they had connections to the greater shared universe they inhabit without losing their own spirit.

I worry both DC and Marvel will be making it near impossible to allow even their solo movies to be focused on the hero whose name occupies the Title Card.

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