Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole

This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.



The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro

Before I go into depth about my feelings on this film, I figured that the best place to start is with my thoughts on the films that came before. Since this film is the final instalment of a trilogy that is a prequel to another trilogy, it is impossible to adequately judge this film without the context of the other films. Before Jackson embarked on this trilogy he of course made the Lord of the Rings trilogy which I absolutely love. Over the years I have acknowledged that the films are somewhat flawed and imperfect, but none of these criticisms have ever been able to diminish my fanboy love for this trilogy. Therefore I inevitably had high hopes for The Hobbit trilogy.

When An Unexpected Journey came out I thought that it was a decent enough start. Like most people at the time I was not convinced that an entire trilogy was necessary for this story, but I felt that the first film was solid enough in its own right. It was clear that Jackson was going for a lighter tone with this trilogy, which is unsurprising since The Hobbit is in fact a children’s book, so I was willing to forgive some of the sillier aspects of this film such as the comic relief provided by the dwarves, the excessive CGI and Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled (that was particularly difficult to forgive). There were many good scenes in this film that balanced out the sillier aspects such as the Dwarven song, the meeting in Rivendell and Gollum’s riddles. Overall it succeeded in allaying some of my prior fears and, despite not achieving the same quality as the original Lord of the Rings films, was still enjoyable in its own right and was a promising enough start for the new trilogy.

I then went to see The Desolation of Smaug and I hated hated hated it. All of my worst fears came true in this film as I saw Jackson fall into the infamous George Lucas Trap, in which the director forgets what it was that made the original films work and sets about trying to outdo the originals rather than trying to recapture them. When Jackson first directed the Lord of the Rings it was the first time he had ever worked on a film this big, so he was naturally cautious to begin with. As the films went along and he grew more in confidence he gradually made the action bigger and made more use of CGI, which worked in this case because the growing scale of the action complemented the growing threat that the characters faced. However when Jackson set about making the Hobbit trilogy, a smaller story with a smaller threat, he was unable to pull himself back. Instead he tried to go bigger, which resulted in exaggerated and ridiculous action sequences that decreased the sense of danger. In the original trilogy there was never really a sense that any of the characters (with the exception of Legolas) were unkillable. Whenever these characters faced any danger, the scale of the action was both great and grounded enough to make the danger feel real. In The Hobbit trilogy however we are constantly presented with over-the-top action sequences that result in these characters surviving relatively unscathed, making it clear that these characters are indeed unkillable. Consequently these sequences are completely lacking in tension because it is clear that these characters are never in any actual danger.

The Desolation of Smaug was the ultimate offender in this regard because it is clear that Jackson was manipulating the action in order to allow the characters to survive to the extent that the action sequences defied reason, physics and logic. An example of this is that bloody awful river chase sequence where every possible aspect is manipulated to ensure the dwarves’ survival. The dwarves are conveniently given the exact weapons they need at the exact time they need them. The elves conveniently show up at the exact time they are needed to save another character’s life. Worst of all is Bombur’s barrel roll in which he is sent into an uncontrollable free-fall that conveniently knocks down every orc in his path, while he is left completely unharmed, before he re-joins the dwarves in a convenient empty barrel that is inexplicably there. It is almost impossible to believe that the characters are ever in any danger when the film allows for so much convenience to take place. The second film did have some good scenes such as those with the Necromancer and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, but these were overshadowed by the grating action scenes and also by the pointless filler that was shoehorned in between like the forced dwarf-elf love story and the unnecessary Lake Town politics.

With all that in mind, I was very cautious when I sent to see The Battle of the Five Armies. However I ended up being pleasantly surprised and found it to be the strongest film in the trilogy. The main reason for this is that I finally got the action that I had been waiting for. For the first time the characters were faced with a threat that actually felt real. This was the first time that I actually felt the stakes of what was happening. This was the first time that I actually felt like I was watching a Lord of the Rings film.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where the second film left off and shows Smaug’s attack on Lake Town. It is a thrilling scene in its own right, even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have worked better as a climax rather than as an opening. When the sequence was over it felt almost anticlimactic. After a year of waiting to see what was going to happen, I was left with the thought ‘is it over already?’ Overall it was an exciting, if somewhat unsatisfying, way to open the film.

In the aftermath of Smaug’s attack the people of Lake Town are destitute and, with their homes destroyed, they are left with no option but to go to the Lonely Mountain and claim their share of the treasure. Meanwhile at the Lonely Mountain tension is building up between the dwarves as Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. His mind is corrupted by this raging obsession and he finds himself unable to trust anyone, not even his own blood. He refuses to share the dragon’s treasure with either the men of Lake Town, nor with the elves of Mirkwood, and calls upon a Dwarven army to come to his aid as he prepares for war.

While this is happening Gandalf is still being held prisoner by the Necromancer until his allies come to his aid. This sequence (which, retrospectively, might have served as a better opening for the film) is exhilarating to watch as we get to see characters who are familiar to us in action as they band together to combat the threat who has now been identified as Sauron. Gandalf is rescued and must race to the Lonely Mountain to warn everyone about the Orc army heading their way.

We all know that the titular battle is going to happen sooner or later so there is a sense of agonising inevitability (in a good way) as we see Bilbo and Bard do all they possibly can to try and prevent a war while Thorin and Thranduil have already resigned themselves to this eventuality. The tension is unbearable, the stakes are high and the resulting battle is epic (even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film). This was the film that I was waiting for after I first saw An Unexpected Journey and it was a satisfying way to end a trilogy which, at the end of the day, really did not need to be a trilogy. If the team behind the franchise had stuck to their original decision to make two films instead, I believe that The Hobbit would be held in much higher regard than it is now. As it stands, The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film in its own right and is a satisfactory conclusion for the deeply flawed Hobbit trilogy.