Panther: First Look (No Spoilers)

Well, my date and I got stuck in LA traffic and almost missed it. But that story is for another time.

For African American audiences, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther will be a transformative experience. We have simply never seen anything at all like this: a huge blockbuster featuring a mostly-black cast with effects rivaling Avatar and where every dime of that budget is up there on the screen along with a powerful story that transcends the usual hype to actually achieve the impossible– entertain audiences of all ages.

Yes, in the name of God, bring the kids. I saw no moments in Black Panther that embarrassed me either as a grandpa or a minister. A little rough language here and there, but an efficient, crisp plot that just dances along a disciplined two-hour running length and a cast overflowing with brightly realized individual characters. You don’t sit there struggling to remember who is who, and there is no generic Central Casting dialogue to be found, here. The movie neither insults our intelligence by over-explaining or dumbing-down, nor does it lord it over us with technobabble. It is exhilarating fun. It feels like a block party and, hey, you’re invited. Parts of it are almost as much fun as Thor: Ragnarok, and, special bonus, this film has an actual plot.

There are at least four audiences for this film: Black Panther comic book fans, general comic book fans, African American general audiences and general audiences. This film offers high octane entertainment to all of these groups, but it will be the African American general audiences–who neither know nor care who I am–who will struggle the hardest to make it through the first act of this film without tearing up. The film’s glorious fairy tale of a highly advanced African civilization is enough to drop even the most cynical among us to our knees. A love letter to African Americans, the first half hour of this film had me wiping away tears at the sheer beauty of a people–my people–brought to glorious and amazing life in ways I never could on a static comic book page. Here, Black Panther finally had a soundtrack, and it is the soundtrack of my ancestors, my homeland. It was emotionally overwhelming and something I’d not quite prepared myself for.

Intrinsic to it’s (at times heavy-handed) Afrocentric unity theme, Black Panther is an unapologetically upbeat film. Walking out of the theatre, you can’t help but feel better about yourself and more optimistic and hopeful about your heritage–whatever it is. Some movies want to make you act antisocially or, I dunno, drive really aggressively or beat somebody up. Black Panther makes you want to go home and clean up your neighborhood. Organize. Paint something. It makes you want to retire old, stupid grudges and remember our common causes.

While not specifically a “Christian” film, there is a heavy emphasis on moral responsibility and social acceptance. Most of the characters are deeply spiritual people and even the bad guys– even the worst of them, Andy Serkis’ Klaw– hold advanced degrees. Coogler’s relentless message to young people–black youth most especially–is self-awareness, self-empowerment and tolerance. Michael B. Jordan’s arrogant, hip-hop usurper is a social activist and self-made megavillain who mounts a legitimate challenge to Boseman’s throne. These are powerful themes from which young people of all ethnicities will benefit.

Of course, the real test of any blockbuster is not how many people go to see it but how many people go to see the film more than once. Audiences will make most any well-marketed film a hit on opening weekend; the question is will they return–preferably with their family and friends–for a re-screening, or will they simply scoff up the ten-dollar bootleg or illegal download. Paying actual money usually means the audience not only wants to see the film again, but wants to experience it at the theatre– on the one device most of us still cannot afford to have in our homes: a 40-foot ultra-high definition digital screen.

Most of my African American friends will not go to most movies that do not have Madea in them. Scoff all you want, Tyler Perry’s irascible alter-ego is a huge hit and, whether you think so or not, actually is hilarious. Beyond that, Perry’s films play like the soundtrack of our lives, something many white reviewers (who seem to hate Me. Perry personally and are deeply offended not by Madea but by Madea’s success) simply don’t get.

The rest that Hollywood offers our community, the slim pickings, are often relegated to the wait-to-see-it-on-Netflix crowd. The illegal download crowd, the bootleg disc crowd. I refuse to watch bootlegs or illegal downloads because I actually don’t mind buying a ticket or paying the $3.99 rental fee. I don’t get the supposed thrill of “sticking it to the man” or the knucklehead high-fiving over getting something for nothing. People worked hard to create that music. It’s $1.99, you cheap bastards.

I went to see Chadwick Boseman’s James Brown biopic, Get On Up, at least 14 times. I mean, I went to an actual theater and bought an actual ticket at least that many times, sometimes 5-6 days in a row. I was that mesmerized by his performance (and told him so on the set of Avengers: Infinity War). Boseman’s Brown may not have seemed as impressive to people who were not as intimately affected by Brown’s music, who have never met the late Mr. Brown or seen him perform live. My Mom was (hate to admit it) one of the groupie girls following bands around and riding in limos with singers like Jackie Wilson. As a very young child, I was introduced to some of these famous people, and I saw Mr. Brown perform live on many occasions. Mr. Brown owned a home in our community.

Priest with Chadwick Boseman on the set of Avengers: Infinity War

Priest with Chadwick Boseman on the set of Avengers: Infinity War

In Get On Up, Boseman totally inhabits the spirit of The Godfather of Soul. The resemblance is not perfect, but the sheer power of Boseman’s acting created a jaw-dropping spectacle difficult to look away from.

I will go back to see Black Panther again. Not because it has a largely-black cast or even because I used to write the titular character. I will go back to an actual theater and buy an actual ticket because I want to see all of that glory up there on the 40-foot screen. Until I can afford a 40-foot ultra-high-def screen of my own, I will go see this film whenever it is being screened on one. That, friends, is the very definition of blockbuster.

Despite toiling under the now very tired superhero movie formula (Act Three: The Hero Faces Off Against His Doppelganger!) director Ryan Coogler manages to pull off a few surprises– something I honestly did not think possible. This is not my Black Panther– it is a young king who is still learning and thus still growing and thus capable of being surprised in ways my T’Challa never could. Michael B. Jordan’s more linear and bombastic villain’s hip hop soundtrack tends to drown out Chadwick Boseman’s far more nuanced, surgical prince-who-would-be-king, so you’re likely to read lots of praises or complaints about Jordan “stealing” this movie. The actual thieves are the women– Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o, who are given the most dynamic of the action scenes and who, along with an absolutely glorious Angela Bassett, solve all of the plot’s problems (including rescuing T’Challa)–which is both good and bad. Jordan’s Killmonger has a legitimate case– real complaints and concerns about Wakanda not sharing its cultural, military, and economic wealth with other people of color.

Jordan’s Killmonger is layered and articulate and is the rare villain who has an actual case against the hero. But the sheer power of Coogler’s visuals should have choked Killmonger on arrival. Nothing his father or anyone else could have told him about this place could possibly prepare the young urban male for the actual experience of being there– in African utopia. One might successfully make the case that Killmonger’s encounter with Coogler’s stunning visuals actually hardened his resolve: how dare we not share this wealth, technology, and beauty?

There are many laugh out loud moments in the film but almost none of them come from Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross. Freeman does the best he can, often eliciting big laughs with simple body language and facial expressions–the mark of a master thespian. But the film gives Ross little to do and almost no lines, which will disappoint fans of my run while the other audiences will simply wonder what he was doing there in the first place.

Unfortunately, by either decree or simple fate, and despite my pleadings with the decision makers, Black Panther nonetheless sticks to formula. Are we really not capable of creating a film that resolves its core conflicts without the predictable big fight at the end? The best parts of the film–and there are many–are the places where Coogler is allowed to vary from this formula or, even better, practice a kind of slight of hand where he doesn’t really fool me so much as he waves a hand puppet, “Hey! Look over here!” distracting me long enough that when the film snaps back to formula I am actually surprised where I, a grizzled old writer, really shouldn’t have been.

All of the performances–including Freeman’s–are near-flawless. These are brilliant actors chewing scenery through each and every frame of this film. They all seem to know they are working on a landmark film–likely the biggest-budget blockbuster film with a mostly black cast, and every single actor here rises to the occasion.

While I’d have wished for much more originality in the final act of the film, I do not hold Mr. Coogler responsible for not reinventing the wheel. But I _am_ tired of watching the same movie over and over and over and over and over– And Then They Fight! I like even less the lesson these films repeatedly teach our children: conflict resolution through violence.

Having said that, I am overwhelmed by a sense of relief that the movie far exceeds my fears about what this thing might have been. It is an amazing spectacle with a rich, thick, multi-layered, often conflicted and expertly nuanced pseudo-Hamlet at the center–a brilliant performance that is bound to be overrun by Jordan’s more flamboyant, focused and bombastic challenger. My self-interest in the success of this film notwithstanding, I am confident the film will be a huge hit with African American audiences and certainly with comic book (and comic book film) fans, leaving only Priest-specific Black Panther fans a bit disappointed, and, of course, the sophomoric, ugly racist crowd who will hate it even as they buy their ticket.

There are several key sequences in the film involving tribal ritual which immature audiences or, let’s say it, racist audiences may and likely will take the opportunity to mock or laugh at. Theater operators in racially tense areas might do well to be sensitive to these moments which could inspire shouting matches or worse.

While taking absolutely nothing away from Stan Lee, who was one of the people who taught me this biz, or Jack “King” Kirby, I was disappointed and a little disturbed by one thing. I would guess at least 80% of the characters up on that screen were created by Don McGregor, who was in attendance at last night’s premiere. Forget me or Reginald Hudlin or even Ta-Nehisi Coates (who sat with us), the vast and rich infrastructure of this film was a product of years of hard investment by Don, who was paid some paltry page rate. Don built the world of Wakanda, literally, maps of the place and extensive biographies and character sketches. He deserved much more than to be buried in a “Special Thanks” paragraph in the closing credits. Stan wrote, to my knowledge, only three Black Panther stories, and Jack jettisoned virtually everything Don did when he did his own run on the book. Black Panther the movie is Don McGregor’s world brought to glorious life. I’d have liked him to have a larger credit for it (and better seats than waaaaay in the back with the rest of us peons).

15 Comments

  1. Thad says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings about the buried “Special Thanks” credits too. They’re a big step up from not receiving credit at all, which has sadly been the norm in most adaptations in the past, and I certainly don’t begrudge the creators getting their credit upfront. But Claremont, Byrne, Wein, and Cockrum deserve prominent credits in X-Men adaptations, and so does Miller in Daredevil and Batman adaptations. (At least Claremont and Sinkiewicz get a prominent credit on the Legion TV series.) Glad to hear McGregor got a credit and an invite, but you’re right, it’s a shame he didn’t get more.

    Glad you enjoyed it. I’m with you on the Marvel Movie Formula getting a little tired, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. Great to see BP finally getting treated as an A-lister.

  2. BigShadow says:

    no mentions on the murderous master of sound guess any talk about Klaw would be too spoilery

  3. M. says:

    Can you give a hint which characters are in the 2 post-credits scenes?

    • Priest Priest says:

      Man, I’m sorry. I actually am not allowed to talk about the plot or these kinds of things at all. besides, isn’t not knowing half the fun? I don’t get why people (not you!) want to ruin everything by posting the surprises the second they learn them. in what universe is that fun?

  4. Diego says:

    I’ve heard some people compare this movie to, of all things, Deep Space Nine, which has me excited.

    “Black fatherhood in a sci-fi setting” seems to be the obvious connecting theme (and it is one that I still appreciate), but hopefully there is more to this comparison. DS9 said its bit about all sorts of things, and most of the time I think it said it pretty well.

  5. Bob Almond says:

    I was really curious to hear your take of the film, my friend! Martin was certainly no hybrid of Perry/Fox but, while I was worried about his casting in Captain America: Civil War, there was the western white guy in Wakanda culture shock going on for perspective and laughs; but he’s clearly is not your EKR. I agree about Don, although he was proud and humbled by it all in his red smoking jacket amongst his family, friends and fans. I thought they did a good job of capturing elements from most of the creators involved with the mythology from silver, bronze to modern ages. That’s a fairly good balancing act IMHO. But most of it was based on Don and your contributions and, of course, where the book is now thanks to Coates and Stelfreeze. I felt Jordan, Gurira, Serkis, and especially Wright stole every scene they were in. And M’Baku and the Jabari were all you and us;-) I found the visuals and sfx a treat for the senses and the themes, the acting all inspiring…I wish I could refer to more specific scenes but I won’t spoil this cinematic treat for the rest of our fellow BP/CJP fans. I can’t wait to see where this ride will lead next. It was a sincere joy to finally meet you in person, Priest! If only we had more time to spend talking and soaking it all in. And congratulations for your ‘rediscovery’ and success over at DC and Marvel! Best regards, Bob Almond (who you imagined to be “a kid”-LOL)

    • Priest Priest says:

      Where’d you guys go? Denys and I hung out at the afterparty for about an hour, but none of the studio people were there. I think we got the wrong-colored wristbands!!! Reginald (Hudlin) prolly knew where the “cool” afterparty was!

  6. Paul Sondersted says:

    For the record, My Honor, Stan Lee is credited as writing the first three stories that featured Black Panther… Fantastic Four # 52 & 53 (cover-dated July & August 1966), Fantastic Four Annual #5 (dated November, 1967) & Tales of Suspense # 97, 98 & 99 (cover-dated January, February & March, 1968).

    Roy Thomas followed up with Black Panther joining the Avengers with issue # 52 (cover-dated May, 1968).

  7. Ken says:

    I can’t wait to see this. The only thing you said that has many nervous is paragraph 3, I don’t want to be crying during such a triumphant moment like this film.

  8. Eric Mason says:

    You can count me in that last group of fans (Priest specific Black Panther fan). I think it will be along time before we get an “Unforgiven” from Marvel or DC cinematic. Additionally, whatever director goes down that path will likely be building something other than a billion dollar blockbuster. I do think that Marvel has varied the formula over the years. Spider-Man:Homecoming built an interesting rappor with the Vulture this time around. You never sensed that Spidey wanted to fight. The relationship between them was strong enough to build nuances with an ending that left one wondering just how they truly felt about each other. At least it all didn’t boil down to vengeance. I love what you’ve done with JL as you explore the challenges of super-humanity. Thanks for the review, bud.

  9. Frank Lovece says:

    Thank you for pointing out how so much was influenced specifically by Don McGregor’s runs on the character. I, too, expected something other than his name to be lumped in among the other special thanks… maybe a separate, solo very special thanks. Something. But Don McGregor is all over this movie. Kudos to you for applauding one of your fellow creators.

    • Priest Priest says:

      Oh, definitely agree. It’s Don’s movie. It’s McGregolicious.

      First thing I did after our credits rolled was shake his hand, “Congratulations, Don.” Ta-Nehisi’s influence (he’s such an amazing guy. I never know what to say to him because he’s, y’know, a real writer) on the film is obvious. It’s much more their film than mine.

  10. Michael Aronson says:

    Just came back from seeing it. I disagree with you, Priest, I felt it was your work infused all over the film more than McGregor’s! It wasn’t a direct translation of your concepts, but it felt like so many of your concepts tried to get crammed in, however they would work. It was awe-inspiring how many details they tried to capture.

    My biggest letdowns were the pointlessness of Ross and the entirety of act 2 in Korea – and I live in Korea! I was happy to see Korea! Sadly, there was no point for them to be in Korea, rather than anywhere else in the world.

    But every high point about the movie – the supporting cast, the world-building, the mythology, the plot, the villains – stood head and shoulders above every other Marvel film.

  11. BigShadow says:

    loved M’Baku he was certainly a scene stealer can’t wait to see him in Infinity War

Leave a Reply