Film, Politics

Okay, let’s talk about Black Panther…

As insidious as it is that Disney seem to be buying pretty much everything at the moment, it’s hard to argue with the quality of their recent output. Thor Ragnarok was an offbeat comedy that tackled colonialism head-on, The Last Jedi was one of the deepest blockbusters in recent memory (easily the best Star Wars film since Empire), and now we have Black Panther.

Anyone who thought that Black Panther was going to be breezy and turn a blind eye to its cultural relevance just because it was part of the MCU were in for a shock – Black Panther is an incredibly political film. Wakanda is a kingdom unaffected by colonialism, T’Challa is a king who struggles with both his own and the kingdom’s conservative views on isolationism, and Killmonger, the movie’s antagonist, wants to use their advanced weaponry to liberate people against systemic oppression.

I’ve seen Black Panther twice now and it’s clear this is a movie begging to be dissected and discussed for years to come. And yes, I know what you’re all thinking, ‘Yay, the hot take we’ve been waiting for – what does the white guy think?’

Fear not, I don’t plan to spend long giving my ‘verdict’ on the film. In short, I really like it but I don’t quite love it. I love the characters (Shuri is now my favourite MCU character), I love the soundtrack and I love the sheer weight of its political themes, but there were one or two plot points which clunked for me.

But you know what, that really doesn’t matter because I’m not the film’s primary audience. By that I don’t mean I can’t enjoy it – as I say, I really did – I just mean that the most visceral reactions are going to be from the people seeing themselves represented in a way they haven’t before. As a white geek, the last decade or so of blockbuster cinema has been almost entirely aimed at me. That’s starting to change. Slowly. And I can’t wait.

With a different primary audience we get different stories, different beats and different issues to explore. From a purely selfish point of view, that’s surely more interesting than watching the same western white male experience play out in every single form it possibly can.

It’ll raise questions, and that’s great. It’ll challenge the fundamentally flawed idea that the default character is a white guy, and it’ll challenge the image that the default setting is Western (or else be deemed ‘tokenistic’.)

Black Panther gives those of us who are white the chance to engage with art in a deeper way than logical nit-picks, Cinema Sins-style bullshit, and arbitrary star ratings – for once we can just shut up and listen.

For many black viewers, it’s clear that Black Panther means something very special. Representation matters and everyone deserves to feel empowered by what they see on screen. Black Panther is crushing it at the box office because people have wanted this shit for so long, and to read the writing of both black critics and general black moviegoers permits us an insight into the responses of those who this film is truly for.

It’s also important to remember that the black response to this is not homogeneous, people have reacted in different ways. After all, no white film maker has ever had to carry the burden of capturing all differing white perspectives so we shouldn’t expect the same from Ryan Coogler.

For example, Christopher Lebron, Associate Professor at John Hopkins university, has described the film’s central arguments as racist.

He warned on Twitter that ‘black folks should always be a little suspicious when white #liberalmedia crowns a work of black art as revolutionary, because that usually means they think all the work has been accomplished by the art and their part is over, when it’s just supposed to be starting.’

Can a film with a predominantly black cast, made by a black director, be racist? I guess if you see it only as an extension of the Disney machine then yes, even if you’d have to cynically see Ryan Coogler as selling out or ungenerously presume he’s too stupid to see what he’s doing. Yet there’s undeniably something instinctively gross about a white CIA agent shooting down the tools of liberation for the oppressed as the film’s victory moment – especially if divorced from the larger context of the movie.

Whilst I certainly prefer Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation that the movie is much more of a dialogue than that, and actually about the duality of the black experience, it’s important to recognise the many reactions to this movie in the black community (whilst acknowledging, of course, that it is overwhelmingly positive).

I also found Stephen Bush’s article in the New Stateman to be a really interesting perspective. He’s much more interested in seeing a black hero who is incidentally black than a hero who is defined by it, but he goes on to concede ‘for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is.’

There are plenty of issues to be worked through, and it’s almost a relief that the white perspective on them is irrelevant. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s ‘everyone has to have an opinion on EVERYTHING’ mentality – not because we should be passive zombies, but because we need to recognise people have unique worldviews, experiences and backgrounds which make their opinions on certain topics better informed and more vital.

I think Black Panther as a movie is itself a dialogue and has gone on to create a healthy discussion. It’s on us to learn from what is being shared.

To be clear, it’s important to point out I do not mean to appropriate a cultural landmark and make it about what white people can learn from it. The representation provided and debates about said representation in the black community are absolutely the fundamental good from Black Panther. Only as a secondary good, from the periphery, do we talk about what we can learn from this.

So let’s hear differing perspectives with empathy so we can begin to understand experiences beyond our own. There are so many good pieces on this movie out there – go and read them! Yes, let’s talk about Black Panther, but let’s also listen.

That’s part of what makes Black Panther so awesome. That’s why it’s incredible a film like this has been released as a tentpole movie. Wakanda forever!

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Film

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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