Countdown to Endgame #18: Oh Man, It’s Black Panther Time

As The Avengers: Endgame approaches, Team Midnight has committed to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films released to date in chronological (story) order: 22 films in 8 weeks. Follow along with us.

A celebration of black brilliance, independence, and beauty – saying things like “overdue” or “about time” about this movie feels insulting to the truth of how important Black Panther is in our cultural context. Rooted in our horrific history of colonialism, human enslavement, and violence – Black Panther is a suitably complex and joyous story of leadership, excellence, kindness, strength, and integrity in a richly imagined world of African people who evolved independently, without the brutality of white exploitation. The implications of this story being told right now at this scale are rich and multilayered: from the countless kids who got to see themselves as any one of many different kinds of hero in this story for the first time to the way this movie put money in the pockets and advanced the prestige and careers of black filmmakers to the real fact that because of Black Panther, the word “afrofuturism” was JUST added to dictionary.com, we’re still feeling the ripples of the cultural impact of this film and imagine we will continue to for many years to come.

So, our silly criteria just don’t matter very much. Black Panther wins in all the ways that are actually important.

With that said… bring on the stupid stuff! Black Panther builds off of the events in Captain America: Civil War, following T’Challa as he returns home to Wakanda after losing his father in the bombing of the United Nations. In addition to T’Challa, we run into Ulysses Klaue and Agent Everett Ross again, and meet a bunch of new characters who will play a role in the films to come.

Heroes: King T’Challa / The Black Panther

“In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

T’Challa is a superhuman warrior and prince slash king of Wakanda, a city built on top of mountain of vibranium that came from outer space. Isolated from the rest of the world, Wakanda is so technologically advanced that it barely seems like earth.

Other heroes:

  • Shuri
  • Okoye and the Dora Milaje
  • Nakia
  • M’Baku
  • Agent Everett Ross
  • Bucky Barnes / The Winter Soldier

Villain: N’Jadaka / Erik Stevens / Killmonger

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

When Erik was a child, King T’Chaka busted N’Jobu, his father and King T’Chaka’s brother, orchestrating the theft of vibranium from Wakanda in order to arm the African American community in Oakland in racist 1990’s America. King T’Chaka executed N’Jobu for this, and left Erik – who was then only a young boy – to fend for himself.

Villain Complexity Rating: 5/5

Killmonger, played by the always brilliant Michael B. Jordan, is way at the top of the list of reasons Black Panther is great, and is easily the best one-film antagonist in the MCU. Trained by the CIA special forces to infiltrate, destabilize, and assassinate, Erik has been murdering people for Uncle Sam for quite some time… though the CIA had no idea that he was just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to ditch the day job and go after the big payoff: Wakanda. Erik is ferocious, slick, powerful, great at the spy game, and makes both art museum hipster and scary army guy look good… though what makes the character shine is the softness and pain always so present in Michael B. Jordan’s eyes. The revolution he intends to start with Wakanda’s armory – an effort to turn the world right-side-up through counterviolence, enacting justice for all the wrongs black people have suffered in one powerful uprising – is, in his eyes, a liberation long overdue. And he’s not wrong – but as T’Challa says, it’s not the Wakandan way.

“What’s at Stake” Rating: 0.5/5

Killmonger wants justice for hundreds of years of oppression, brutality, and violence. Even if this revolution comes at the cost of thousands of human lives, in the grand karmic scale of things, it would be a rebalancing. It doesn’t appear that Killmonger wants to enslave the whole world or create a big brother-like police state or bring about mass genocide or anything. He wants justice. So the “stakes” or the “bad stuff” really isn’t that simple.

What did our hero(es) learn?

Though uncovering the real story about his father’s past is painful, the big lesson T’Challa learns is that – in order to be a good king and a good person – he must end the traditions that have led to thousands of years of Wakandan isolation from the world and extend a hand to help the rest of the world rise up.

Heroism Rating: 5/5

T’Challa’s heroism is growth from a deep well of character, depth, and integrity. The guy isn’t capable of a wrong move, every single time doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is. And it’s often hard: as the new king, he’s up against others’ high expectations, political agendas, and doubts in his capability to lead all while grieving the loss of his father. Plus he’s badass: he catches the bad guy, saves the shady guy’s life, and engages in two bouts of ritual, one-on-one combat in order to defend his throne. When Killmonger defeats him, though he very nearly dies, he and a small band of badass women decide to return to fight the entire Wakandan army for clemency on behalf of an unknowing world. And in the end, victorious, he offers his cousin the breathtaking beauty of a Wakandan sunset for his final moments. Kinda reminds you of that nice note Cap sent Tony.

Visual Aesthetic/CGI Rating: 3.5/5

This one is tough to rate. In column A, you’ve got the detailed, gorgeous visuals and production design. The costumes, the dreamscapes, the soundtrack, the Wakandan skyline, the beautifully imagined advanced tech, even the typeface – Black Panther is thoughtfully stylized down to the smallest detail, absolutely stunning and entirely unique in this stack of films.

And then in column B, you’ve got the smattering of gummy body CGI. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of that – and it really gets in the way of fully engaging in the story at critical moments. The final confrontation between Killmonger and T’Challa, for example – such an important moment, the entire movie hangs on it – and yet, there are no human bodies or faces, just cartoon mansuits and Mr. Fantastic fight moves in a green screened universe. So, a lot in column A and a lot in column B and we end up somewhere in the middle.

Heroic Cinema Saturation Index

Betsy Rating: 4/5

What stood out to me most in my first viewing – and still resonates after seeing it a few times – is how exhilarating it is to experience the beautiful Wakandan world the filmmakers have created. Some of the visual effects are my favorite in all of the MCU – the spectacular landscapes, the otherworldly city, the costumes that so elegantly straddle the worlds of african tribal artwork and a utopian future not yet achieved. Kendrick Lamar’s inspired soundtrack, so many great performances – the talent involved in making this movie is just an embarrassment of riches and it is so fun to hang out with.

T’Challa manages to be magnanimous, wholesome, and enduringly respectful while constantly pushing against the explosive edge that comes with being one of the fiercest superwarriors in the world. And the ladies… the LADIES! We’ve got a brilliant genius sister, a savvy spy girlfriend, fearless and powerful bodyguard, and the most elegant and commanding mother of all time hands down. And geez, Michael B. Jordan. I don’t know if I still just see Wallace in his eyes, but no matter how many mean things he does or how fierce he fights or how big his muscles get (and they are quite impressive), there’s something soft and vulnerable about him always and I wish I could just stop everything and give him a big hug pretty much all the time. He’s so brilliant.

The cartoon-body CGI does unfortunately bother me, and takes away a bit from the impact of the emotionally complex story writer/director Ryan Coogler so lovingly created. With the exception of the South Korea casino scene, the fight choreography doesn’t quite hit the highs of some of the other Marvel shows – and the movie just starts to hint at some really interesting Wakandan political subtext that I wish we would’ve gotten to explore more fully.

But that’s all details, and pretty minor and silly details at that. We needed this story, told with such joy, at this moment, and I’m so grateful for all the ways it continues to ripple out, seeding the transformation of our future.

Justin’s Rating: 4/5

It wasn’t lost on our crack team of Midnight Movie Lab Science Research Specialists that, prior to this film, most people of color to appear in MCU films looked dubiously like sidekicks to their slightly more impressive white hero bros. Sam Wilson has his own stuff going on, but he follows Cap around like a little brother and makes a regular habit of pointing out his own shortcomings in comparison to Cap’s greatness. War Machine is literally made from Iron Man’s cast off bits and some dumb old Justin Hammer missiles, but Rhodey isn’t just rocking Iron Man knock offs, he’s also less smart, popular, and wealthy than Tony Stark. I’m not saying that having these more human foils for the more super of superheroes isn’t a good idea, and I know they’re both black in the comics, but it’s not a great look there either. With Black Panther, Marvel Studios demonstrated a willingness to take representation of non-white people beyond the counterfeit equity of its prior films. Obviously (hopefully), it was always going to be a mostly black cast, but asking Ryan Coogler to write and direct acknowledges that representation needs to go deeper than what we see on screen.

The results were well documented, with Black Panther obliterating global box offices for weeks and months with its authentic heart, complexity and humanism. It was so popular that I started to get annoyed with people telling me how great it was, but I can be kind of a grump. That’s not true, I just got burned back in 2009 by everyone cooing over Avatar so gd much that I’ve still never successfully watched it (maybe because it’s fucking garbage). Thankfully BP is SO much better than Avatar based on its filmic merits alone, to speak nothing of James Cameron’s racist dumpster fire of a script. I honestly don’t know how I got on this, but I hate James Cameron. That said, I don’t think I liked Black Panther as much as most people.

I love the visual style of this film for the most part. Wakanda is at once alien and African, a thriving nation full of vibrant citizens and natural beauty offset by otherworldly structures and pervasive breakthrough technology. The costumes and character designs are stunning, perhaps the best yet in the MCU. It’s a visually ripe and vital film, but feels carefully constructed to stop just short of surreal, keeping us grounded here on earth – which is why the Panther suit CGI is so confounding. I don’t know how this stuff works, like if it’s a budget thing or if Coogler’s inexperience with CGI on this scale is showing, but everyone looks great except for T’Challa when he’s doing badass superhero things in the Panther suit. It’s bad, like Avatar bad, except it’s ten years later and there’s no excuse for this. Plenty of people have told me it doesn’t bother them, but this gummy human shit is so distracting it takes me right out of the scenes. The entire final confrontation between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger is regrettably rendered almost entirely in this way, so instead of a visceral clash between men who are bound to each other as much by pain as regret, their tears and sweat and blood commingling and spattering across the screen with each desperately forceful blow landed, we get a goddamned Mortal Kombat match. It looks goofy. Goofy! Such a shame to blow the kind of momentum they had going to this point on a technicality. It’s maybe not even that it looks bad but that it had the potential to look so good.

Speaking of Killmonger, I love this villain. He’s a physical manifestation of all T’Challa’s private doubts about Wakanda’s secretive nature. Where T’Challa was raised with love to respect tradition, N’Jadaka was abandoned and learned to survive by disrupting it. Each of them wants in his heart to lift up black people the world over, but N’Jadaka has learned through pain that he doesn’t have time to wait for diplomacy because people are suffering and dying right now. The brilliance of this villain is that he’s allowed Coogler to make a film that is at its heart about white supremacy. Talk about heroics. Even though I find Michael B. Jordan’s bravado to be a bit over the top at times in this film, the dude has the colossal ethos to back it up. I get the impression from Fruitvale Station and the Creed films that Coogler is somewhat operatic in his leanings, and I think it holds back his films from making a full emotional connection with audiences, or at least with me. Still, that last line from Killmonger gets me every damn time.

T’Challa is without a doubt an easy hero to admire. His origins are unique in the MCU by way of being something of a blend of existing heroes – the royalty and magic of Thor, the strength and moral compass of Cap, and the technology and resources of Stark. In many ways, he represents the best version of each. Which, again, is admirable, but I’m not convinced it’s interesting. For all of Black Panther’s complexity, Black Panther is himself a little light on nuance. I’m confident that the future of this character is headed in that direction, hopefully borrowing from the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reboot of the series to provide him with the tarnish he’s lacking. Or, maybe Thanos really did kill him. Yeah, that’s probably it. There’s no way they’ll make like 18 sequels to this movie.

OVERALL: 3.7

Black Panther is streaming on Netflix, or if you don’t get down with that, you can pay a few bucks to rent it through Vudu or the Google Play/iTunes app stores. There isn’t aren’t any unmissable MCU connects here, but if you’re one of the 4 people who hasn’t seen Black Panther, it’s time to fix that shit!

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