Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Black Panther

The latest installment in Marvel's comic book franchise, The Black Panther (2018), has been praised by the mainstream media as if it were the cinematic reincarnation of Rosa Parks.  The movie is said to strike a powerful blow for Black equality.  But, alas, the film is awful and insufferably dull to boot.  Coogler, an African American director, has been recruited to give cover to the film's insistent and offensive use of stereotypes about Africa -- imagine if a White director had made a picture about the so-called "Dark Continent" featuring polities that appoint their rulers by "ritual combat" and required the film's heroes and villains to ride around on armored rhinos, showed Amazon-warriors guarding their king with tight blouses form-fitted to emphasize the girls' perky nipples and staged battle involving troops literally chucking spears at one another.  A member of the Wakonda five-tribe council wears a six-inch plate in his lower lip.  People dash around in fetish-masks and live in a stylish city of skyscrapers shaped like the elegant mud towers of Timbuktu -- that is, all of Africa in its most outré aspects both Saharan and sub-Saharan is mashed together in Coogler's epic without any regard for cultural differences.   Of course, our hypothetical White director would be accused of the most arrogant racism if he produced a wild-eyed mélange of this sort, but, as with the use of the N-- word, different standards apply to different folks and the press has generally praised Coogler's incoherent spectacle with words that should be applied to Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright.

The film's plot relies heavily on deus ex machina contrivances including the introduction of a whole new tribe of mountain dwelling warriors about two-thirds of the way through the movie -- these are the "huff-huff-huff" people, burly warriors who either are supposed  to be coughing like lions or huffing like mountain gorillas as their war-cry  We have no idea who they are, but conveniently they are imagined to dwell in a glacial CGI mountain fastness where they can swoop down to the rescue of the hero when he is in peril.  It's the leader of these folks who inadvertently critiques the whole move when he interrupts a tender scene of resurrection, the Black Panther's powers having improvidently (and inexplicably) deserted him to the effect that he has almost died in one of the ritual combats by which the kingdom appoints its dictatorial rulers. (The bad guy, evil Black Panther, hurls the good guy, good Black Panther over the precipice of a waterfall, always a bad idea -- in fact, even a bad idea when Holmes did this to Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls -- because of course a character who has perished in this ambiguous manner hasn't perished at all.)  The husky leader of the mountain gorilla-folk derides the interruption in the action required to restore the hero to fighting status and insists that the Black Panther and his allies get back to their proper work -- that is, hewing and slashing and using explosive shock waves to hurl their enemies hundreds of feet in the air. This, then, triggers a final battle that is ridiculous even by the standards of movies of this sort -- the good guys seem to have super powers that are without limitation and not subject to any rules.  For awhile everyone will fight with great exertion, slinging spears and swords at one another, dodging rhino-knights, and, generally, stabbing and cutting with great aplomb.  But, then, the odds will shift and one of the good guys will be surrounded by a half-hundred enemies -- this poses no problem:  the hero just uses a blue shock wave to blast all his adversaries into orbit, then, reverting to the strenuous hacking and hewing until it's necessary to deploy his super powers again to defeat outnumbering forces.  Of course, it's totally mysterious why the good guys don't use their super powers all the time, or, at least, at the outset to bring this pointless battle to an end -- if one side possesses infinite power, there's not too much suspense as to the outcome.  The final combat also involves a typical confrontation between the two identically matched Black Panthers (in this film you get a good and a bad one) in a special-effects blue void -- here a sort train trestle suspended over an infinite abyss.  This is trite Star Wars stuff involving a bullet train that shuttles back and forth over the tracks, summoned by a magic pebble that one of the heroine's (fighting far overhead on the surface of the world) happens to be carrying in her purse.  As always with these super-hero movies, the film's direction and writing reaches a point of total incoherence where everything is possible and, therefore, nothing matters at all.  And, during the final battle, the token White man (played by the very, very White Martin Freeman) is flying around in a narrow gorge, a slot canyon really, shooting down enemy fighters -- also an effect that we have seen almost ad infinitum and here totally meaningless because there is literally nothing at stake.  In its first half, the movie features a White South African villain named Klaue who is made up to look just like Ohm Krueger and who brings his Boer belligerence to some amusing confrontation early in the film.  After Ohm Krueger/Klaue was defeated I seem to have fallen asleep for a half hour -- the movie lags horribly after this guy is killed -- with the result that I didn't wake up until there was another "ritual combat" at the mock-up of Victoria Falls, probably a better way to elect a head man, I suppose, than an election rigged by Russians.  By this point the film's plot had established itself -- it's a riff on Stalin versus Trotsky.  Wakonda, somehow, is a utopia in Africa that has concealed itself amidst the chaos of the Dark Continent -- it's location is a little obscure but its seems to be somewhere contiguous to Rwanda (those icy mountains) and the Congo.  Wakonda's rulers have preserved against imperialist outsiders the resources of their nation, a magical plant that confers visions and healing and a magical mineral, Vibernium, that can be used to create huge shock-waves emanating from the tips of weapons forged with the stuff.  The Kingdom seems a parody of Trump's America First platform -- Wakonda is a monarchical, quasi-Fascist State where everyone submits their personal autonomy to the power of the King; it's always Wakonda first in that country.  But success has bred an internationalist wing of the monarchy.  One brother, the bad Black Panther, is like Trotsky --he wants to export the Wakonda revolution and, thereby, free the wretched of the Earth; his Stalinist brother wants to keep Wakonda's secrets to itself and consolidate power in the hermit kingdom -- this is the Trump-like good Black Panther.  After dispensing with the Boer villain, the film is about the power struggle between the two Black Panthers.  Needless so say, the film's politics are as confusing as every other aspect of its mythology.  A better critic would have propped his eyes open during the film's incredibly dull middle portion.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak -- as far as I can see the Black Panther's only reliably effective power is to put audiences to sleep. 

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