Thoughts on Black Panther

Finally got out to see Black Panther while it was still in theaters. My reaction is definitely ‘good not great.’ It was…fine. There was a lot to like about it, though on the whole it wasn’t really that impressive to me as a film, or even compared to the rest of the Marvel universe.

First the good things; visually it’s great. After the oddly dull Ready Player One, this is more like it. The colors, the costumes, the sets, it’s all fantastic to look at. The CGI gets a little lame at times, but mostly it looks fabulous.

Character-wise, the villains are exceptional. Andy Serkis kind of steals the show at Ulysses Klaue, the eccentrically-evil arms dealer. I really wish he’d had a bigger role, though to be fair Michael B. Jordan as ‘Killmonger’ is amazing. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him before (haven’t seen Creed), though from what I had seen of clips and word of mouth I knew he’s an excellent actor, and yeah, he is riveting in this role as a guy so full of rage – and understandable rage – that it’s made him a monster. He doesn’t scream or rant, and is actually kind of understated, but you feel his all-consuming anger every frame he’s on screen.

I also really liked Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA operative introduced in Civil War (kind of odd in a film called Black Panther that the two white characters ended up among the most memorable). It’s kind of unusual to see him playing a badass, though he does get plenty of out-of-his-depth moments. I liked the sister character: she was cute and had personality, though…well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our hero, honestly, I didn’t find him as interesting in his own film as he was in Civil War. In that film, he was every inch a king; an intensely dignified, dead-serious character who knew exactly what he was after and what he was due, but who nevertheless was moved by the spectacle before him to choose justice over revenge. Here…he’s kind of just the soulful protagonist. He wants to do the right thing, and sets about trying to figure out what that is. He still had formidable dignity and he was by no means a bad character, but I wasn’t impressed by him the way I was in the previous film.

I will say, though, that I really liked a scene where he has a vision of his father, which seems to be going for the tired ‘I’m not ready to be king’ route, but turns into something more personal and more interesting instead.

As for the plot, again, it wasn’t all that interesting, partly because it seemed to kind of veer about some: first it’s him claiming the throne, then him going after Klaue, then him fighting Killmonger. These things ultimately tie together, but it could have used a lot of streamlining to feel less choppy.

Speaking of streamlining, we have a few too many characters, especially since the majority are pretty dull. For instance, we have T’Challa’s sister, girlfriend, and his female general (sidekick? Bodyguard?). That is at least one too many badass female warriors (more on that subject later): for instance, why were the girlfriend and the general necessary to the film? Neither has a very distinct personality or role to play in the story: could they not have been combined? Or if that’s not possible, then could the sister have been made into the girlfriend instead (that would have given the latter a personality)? You see my point: we have several characters who kind of blend together and clutter up the story. Merging one or two together would have made for stronger characters and a more efficient film.

And there are some plot holes, including a major one involving the villain’s backstory. There’s also a bit at the end that is really stupid. Granted, it’s in the service of a nice moment, but if you want that moment then stage the final battle differently, because as is it’s ridiculous.

By the way, granting that Wakanda has spies all over the world, why is one of the most important agents running low-level crimes in the LA slums? How does that benefit them? Why would he even be in that environment? Wouldn’t he be stationed in the government, or in business, or somewhere that might be remotely relevant to Wakandan interests?

I could talk about the politics involved, but I don’t think it really matters that much; the film is obviously pandering to a certain audience, but it wasn’t too bad, and, really, I wasn’t invested enough for it to make much of an impact.

One thing I will say, and this goes back to the point about the characters, is this: Wakanda looks great, but it never felt quite convincing to me. The idea seems to be an extremely traditional society, with a hereditary monarch, trial by combat, ancestor worship and so on blended with sci-fi technology. That’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Apart from their form of government, the characters basically act like modern Westerners. That kind of makes sense for the sister, because she’s established as being rebellious and we can buy that she’s imitating western culture, but what about all the rest? Part of the problem is they’re so bland, but they just talk and act like any other Marvel film characters.

In particular, the fact that all the women in this society are warriors and scientists feels false to me. Wouldn’t a society like this, with royalty and nobility and all the rest have firm gender roles? And, more to the point, wouldn’t that be more interesting than what we got? To have strong, marked female characters in a notably different cultural milieu? It’s not even that I think it’s a bad choice: it’s just boring (I really wish Hollywood would realize that we’ve long since reached the point where it’s less imaginative to have an action girl than would be not to). We have seen badass female warriors and scientists before, they don’t do anything fresh with the idea, and it feels out of place with the world they are presenting.

I thought the first Thor movie did this sort of thing a lot better. Granted, Asgard had amazon warriors too (or at least one), but the important point is that Asgardians, as a rule, acted like people from a different culture, while the Wakandans by and large don’t, except in very specific ways. Consider the famous scene where Thor smashes the coffee cup, then politely acquiesces when told that’s not how we do things around here. That, to me, feels like how that kind of character would act. Then here we have a scene where the king of Wakanda and his girlfriend just walk about in the marketplace and nobody seems to care. Also, the back-and-forth about who would be king worked better in that film because Loki was directly involved from the beginning and we could see how he was manipulating things to his advantage. In this one…well, when you think about it, Killmonger could have enacted his plan at basically any time, which begs the question of why much of the first half of the film was even necessary.

It’s even worse because there’s an opening scene with T’Challa’s father that does capture a starkly different cultural feel, where he meets one of his agents and the man immediately kneels and snaps at his friend to do the same before begging permission to allow the friend to stay in the room. That was a really good scene, and set a tone for how different this culture is that is kind of forgotten for most of the rest of the film, with only sporadic exceptions.

Speaking of the beginning, the opening exposition giving the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther is one the worst I’ve seen, at least for this kind of movie. It’s framed as young T’Challa asking his father to tell him a story, but there is not the slightest effort to write in a way suitable for the device. It sounds like he’s just reading off of the Wikipedia page. Visually it’s great, but from a writing perspective it’s terrible.

That’s kind of the film as a whole to an extent: it looks fantastic, but apart from the visuals it lacks imagination. It’s not a bad film by any means, and the good elements are really good (again, Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and makes for a great villain), but as a whole, it’s just kind of serviceable.

 

Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

Doctor Who and Swiping Male Characters

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You know, I’m not really a big ‘Doctor Who’ fan. I’ve watched several episodes from both the classic and the modern series (Tom Baker’s my favorite), and enjoyed them, but I just haven’t really gotten into it.

That said, I do have an opinion of this ‘making the Doctor a woman’ gimmick. And make no mistake, that’s what it is: a gimmick. It’s not a groundbreaking development, nor a brilliant twist of storytelling, and certainly not an kind of (ugh) great step forward. It’s a gimmick, pure and simple; a way to grab attention, and try to shore up their feminist credentials so that the right kind of people won’t turn on them.

I will say, in their defense, that given the nature of the Doctor, this one makes a little more sense than, say, making Thor a woman (not making that up, by the way; they actually did it) or, God forbid, making James Bond a woman (more on that below). The Doctor of course periodically regenerates into a new body and personality, so you could argue this works given the rules of the story. But…no. Even with a character like the Doctor you need some continuity of personality, so suddenly switching him to being a woman just doesn’t work. You can’t fundamentally alter a character in that way, even one like the Doctor and expect people to be happy about it, especially when it’s accompanied by insulting accusations of misogyny (because the only way the Left knows how to argue is ad hominem).

It’s a similar problem to Ghostbusters: on paper, a new all-female team of Ghostbusters actually isn’t a bad idea. But one, it was so obvious they were doing it as a ‘statement’ rather than because they actually cared about the characters, and two, the execution was horrible beyond belief.

The real problem with this practice of switching a character’s sex in an attempt to be ‘relevant’ or whatever the current term is, is that it’s basically the equivalent of swiping one kid’s toy because another kid is crying that she wants more, when the obvious thing to do would be to just buy her some toys of her own rather than stealing someone else’s. To the fans of the Doctor who have stuck by him all these long years, having him drastically altered in this way to appease non-fans must seem like a complete slap in the face. Now, if they came up with a really cool female Time Lord and gave her a spin-off show, and did it well (that’s really the key to any story: doing it well), the fans would eat it up. It has nothing to do with misogyny: it has everything to do with seeing a beloved character twisted to score political points.

It’s even more galling when you consider that the other kid has lots of toys of her own, but keeps menacing her brother’s.

The days (assuming such days existed: this topic invites selective blindness like few others) of a lack of female heroes is long over. Women headline about half the shows on TV. Wonder Woman just came out and was fantastic. Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years. The last two Star Wars films were headed by women. There’s obviously a huge market for well-done female leads, so there’s absolutely no need to co-opt existing male characters.

The only reason, as far as I can see, for trying to swipe male characters and turn them female is because they generally have better name recognition. So, certain people think “everyone knows who James Bond is, so if we turned him into a woman (Jean Bond?) we’d have a ready-made super-popular female icon!”

Except it doesn’t work that way, since male and female characters are typically written and characterized very differently. One of the reason Wonder Woman was such a good film is that she was written as a very feminine character. Yes, she could throw tanks around and engage a dozen men at once, but she was also warm-hearted, kind, and nurturing. Black Widow is an engaging character because she’s not just a deadly spy, but she’s also the nurturing heart of the team; the one who gives them pep talks and warm hugs when they’re feeling down. The contrast between her cold-hearted behavior on the battlefield and her warm-hearted behavior off it is what makes her so much fun to watch.

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Well, that and the…obvious reasons.

If you tried to write James Bond as a woman, it would be grotesque. No one except an obsessive feminist would want to see a woman act the way Bond acts. He’s fundamentally a male fantasy figure: the cool man of action who sleeps with every beautiful woman he meets, kills bad guys left and right, and defends king and country with his wits and sheer badassery. He works because he speaks to the male psyche. Make him a woman doing more or less the exact same thing, and it would be unbearable. Most women don’t fantasize about acting that way, and most men don’t like seeing women act like that.

Now, if they wanted to make a female equivalent of Bond: a super-competent and alluring female spy who defends queen and country with wit and moxie, and (once again) if they did a good job of it, that would be great. Female spies can be a lot of fun: just think of Honey West, Emma Peel, or, again, Black Widow to name a few. But there’s no need to coopt male characters out of a misguided feminist urge. There are already lots of good female protagonists running around, and nothing at all preventing anyone from making more. But leave established and beloved male characters alone if you don’t mind.