Rethinking Black Panther

I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it. 

Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old. 

Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance. 

The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri. 

At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny). 

Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever. 

Genocide Lite: Our Current Media Obsession

_A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic._Joseph Stalin.png

When I was growing up and watching the shows that went on to influence me, the villains were mostly cartoony. And not just by the fact that they were animated but also that their plans were quite out there. Think of The Joker in Batman The Animated Series, his plans were almost always just to ruin Batman’s day and maybe hurt a few people and rob a bank or two. Even Dr. Doom’s plans for Marvel weren’t huge, he just wanted to be left alone and rule his made up world. The villains all had tangible goals and their plots were usually just an inconvenience to the hero. It’s one of the reasons the egotistical Loki of the first Avengers movie was such a trip for me: I’m used to comic book Loki who rather just steal Thor’s underwear or something.

But as you’ve seen during this magical adventure we’ve had this year discussing framing, villains and villainy: you’ve likely noticed a theme. That theme is that the current bad thing of the era is genocide. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It’s literally the aim of most evil dudes in movies recently.

A Buzzfeed article recently discussed that the theme of the last 10 years of movies has been animals overtaking humans as dominant species as a social commentary for our misuse of the planet. But I think the real theme of current movie bad is the systematic or sudden removal of a large amount of people. You’ve seen me mention it over and over again as I rant about framing.

And it continues to bother me each time because I get more and more angry that the prospect of hundreds, thousands, millions of people can die in a narrative and we still side with the villain. So in today’s post I want to talk about when that shift seemed to occur in comics and movies and why it’s so terrible.

Earlier I mentioned the motives of comic book villains during the Gold and Silver age. Most of them had pretty small goals or mostly non-lethal lofty ones. There was a lot of desire to enslave a population or take over a planet or rob a bank. Many of the Gold and Silver age villains barely even had a body count back in the day. It wasn’t until the 70s or so that comic villains got more intense about wanting death as part of their domination. This actually starts to appear around the first introduction of Thanos in the comics during the 1970s. Thanos’ goal in the comics was to woo Lady Death and the only way to do that is to send her souls. She’s impressed by numbers (the O.G. size queen) and so Thanos does all he can to add to his body count to please his mistress. We didn’t get a shift in his goals being objectively genocidal until much later in the comics. Then his motivation becomes the weird meditation on resources we get in the Infinity War movie. We’ve seen comic book characters go down this route before. Parallax wants to eat the Galaxy in Green Lantern, Galactus wants to do…whatever his motivations are and that usually involves a ton of people dying.

The first mark in the shift of genocide as plot point can be seen in a comic that means a lot to me but I don’t get to discuss enough: Watchmen. Moore’s brilliant graphic novel tackles this issue incredibly directly with Ozymandias’ terrible plan being spelled out quite clearly: killing millions, to save billions. There, there’s the shift. Suddenly, the madman isn’t mad, he’s just an extremist looking for the most rational solution to a major problem. And I adore Adrian’s plan. His motivations to stop the war by zapping in a psychedelic interdimensional space squid to wipe out most of New York is flawed but that’s the beauty of Moore’s prose: you can sort of see where he’s coming from. But even though the framing tells us Ozymandias’ plan is rational for that universe, the way everyone else treats him after the reveal of his plan reminds us that this is terrible. The movie is a hot mess but the film also does a great job of demonizing Ozymandias’ dumb plan even though he uses Dr. Manhattan nonsense to vaporize a bunch of folks rather than the space cephalopod.

The only mass death in comics that could possibly rival death toll mounted by Ozymandias was House of M for Marvel. This storyline saw the end to mutants in the decades long run of Marvel comics and in a simple phrase more than half of the characters that made Marvel great simply vanished. It was a heartbreaking event in the comics and we considered Scarlet Witch to be a villain for years after her fateful choice: even if we could empathize with her grief that lead up to the choice to utter that powerful phrase, she’s still a monster for wiping people off the face of existence.

DC Comics did have Crisis on Infinite Earths and there were many many deaths as a result and Blackest Night which is a crisis entirely created by Booster Gold because he wanted to be the hero, dammit. But as we’ve discussed, no one considered Booster Gold to be a hero of anything.

Most of the genocidal villains we get in comics and movies are framed as bad guys because that’s what bad guys do: they suggest that removing an entire section of population is expendable. Think of Star Wars: Darth Vader wipes out an entire planet and we know he’s a bad guy for it and earlier when Vader is still just annoying Anakin, he slaughters a bunch of children and Tusken Raiders and it is firmly shown that he is a bad guy for that. And even though Vader is ultimately a very sympathetic character, we don’t ever forget that he’s still a mass murderer.

Speaking of the 2000s, it’s around this time that genocide seemed to be less of a taboo. By this time, I was watching a ton of anime and several series flirt with this idea: you’ve heard me discuss Death Note frequently but also Bleach flirts with a subplot of wiping out souls and Soul Reapers for the sake of a goal, Trigun hints at this with Knives’ subplot and even if it isn’t straight up death as the goal, several anime focus on purity or a unique group rising to the top. Japan is very eugenics-friendly, which should terrify everyone. Media be it Western or eastern has a ton of focus on Chosen Ones and more pure people and if any part of that sounds scary to you, good. We’re on the same page.

Here is the problem with romanticizing genocide and eugenics: we’ve had actual genocide happen in the world. Hitler wanted to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from Germany, Pol Pot wanted to forge a new future by eradicating the past, ethnic minorities all around the world face persecution and death simply for being a little bit different. This is a real thing with real consequences and our continual sugar-coating of the slippery slope nonsense logic that continues to minimize the dangers of racism, misogyny and homophobia only makes those problems worse. When Thanos’ idea in Infinity War doesn’t sound so crazy, that’s a problem. When Killmonger’s Reconquista sounds logical, that’s a problem. We live in a world that is full of natural disasters, terrorism, racism, homophobia, sexism, hatred, bigotry and population concerns: these are real problems and to far too many people the idea of simply poofing some folks out of existence sounds like a great way to solve all of these complex problems.

I think it’s a sign of the times that genocide seems to be our main macabre obsession as was slavery and colonialism were the macabre obsessions of the Gold and Silver age of comics. We have to confront that if eugenics, social Darwinism and wiping out parts of the population for a “clean slate” ticks any box for you, you are on a dangerous path. I’ve had to confront that in myself and it’s made me infinitely more critical of the media I ingest.  

I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the deaths of too many fictional characters.

I promise the next topic will be lighter.

 

Thoughts from Titan: Thoughts and Musings on Avengers: Infinity War Part 1

I didn’t want to do this.

I didn’t want to be this person.

But today, we’re going to do it. We’re going to talk about Avengers: Infinity War.

This will be a lot like my Black Panther musings and thoughts post. We’re just gonna spitball here a little. And I am not Promixa Midnight and Thanos does not demand my silence anymore. I have been silent long enough. I was not spared from this call to silence and this movie was relentlessly spoiled for me in several places.  

So let’s get ready. I’m going to spoil the whole damn thing.

But before we rip this movie open, let’s go over some history, shall we?

Thanos is a complicated character in Marvel history. He was at first a campy mustache-twirling villain of the Silver Age and he was more an antagonist to Spiderman and the Fantastic Four than anyone else. He wasn’t really a cosmic threat: Galactus was. Thanos’ history was ret-conned a little while ago giving us some of the more interesting aspects of his story and character. As a comic threat, Thanos may have eclipsed Galactus. He’s more charismatic, his goals for better or worse make more sense than he just exists and realistically, he’s a villain who, most of the the time, loves being a villain. He’s up there with Red Skull for me when it comes to Marvel villains and villain canon.

As far as the MCU goes; this is one of the most ambitious things done in film since the transition to color film. The MCU proper has spanned now for 10 years and the first Avengers movie is now a distant 6 year old memory. The movies have been mostly good and they range from movies that I love like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to movies that I hate with a burning passion like Avengers: Age of Ultron. As well as movies that I wish I could ignore like Ant-Man. Infinity War is the cinematic version of one of the most important comic book story lines in history and is the culmination of a decade of dedicated movie watching.

I was apprehensive when the Marvel movies starting getting cosmic. Cosmic Marvel is one of my favorites but I’m also an old comic book fan. I was worried that the cosmic stuff would alienate (puns) mainstream fans but I will say, I’m happy to see some of the most colorful and fun McGuffin devices in all of comics on screen.

With that being said let’s talk about this movie. And as I said before I’m spoiling the whole damn thing so now is your chance to back away.

Because I’m trying to be a better person, we’ll go over the positives first:

  • While I was apprehensive about how Marvel would handle the cosmic stuff for a mainstream audience, I think they did a really good job of explaining as needed weirder aspects of the Marvel canon. They did this by mostly not explaining anything at all and I think that’s one of the best ways to handle it.
  • Again, the cast is what shines as in all the Marvel movies. I don’t think anyone is a poor casting choice and even Brolin as Thanos is a delight.
  • I was really worried when Thor was appearing in this most post-Ragnarok that he’d go back to being the joyless Thor he was in the first Avengers and in any of his solo romps. I was pleasantly surprised to have back the Thor that made Ragnarok such a fun movie.
  • I wasn’t crazy about Dr. Strange as a film but I think the way this movie handles his powers happen to be some of the best I’ve ever seen or could imagine.
  • The fight sequences and battles scenes were some of the best in any Marvel movie and when the film lets these characters be as overpowered and intense as they are, it’s an absolute blast.
  • I wasn’t crazy about Spiderman: Homecoming but Tom Holland is a cinnamon roll and I worry about him and he was great in this movie.
  • T’Challa’s still great, not much has changed.
  • Gamora was always my least favorite part of the Guardians franchise: Zoe Saldana is a great actress, but she reminded me a little of Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men franchise: just tired of being in that body paint. But Gamora absolutely shines in this movie even though I do not need literally any of the other Guardians except for Drax and Mantis.
  • The effects are pretty solid this movie but I think a lot of the budget went towards making powers and suits look good. There are some places of spotty effect work but we’ll get to that later.

I wanted to give Thanos his own paragraph. I think he deserves that.

Humanizing Thanos was the best worst decision possible. Thanos is a complicated character and we can never go back to the Thanoscopter days of comic books but giving him such an arc was strange, forced but powerful. But the problem I have with Thanos is very similar to the issue I have with Killmonger in Black Panther. His ideas in this movie are extreme but by no means insane sounding considering today’s climate both politically and socially. The Mad Titan is mad because his ideas should have never made sense but in this movie, he is almost entirely too human. You can, weirdly, empathize with a genocidal California raisin. And that’s a problem. 

Enough positive stuff; that isn’t why you’re here. Let’s talk about the parts I wasn’t so crazy about.

  • Peter Quill is still my least favorite part of any Guardians and while him being an emotional, reckless and annoying waste of space is very in character: I wanted to punch him in the mouth for ruining the flow of the film.
  • I also would love to know when and where between Guardians 1 & 2 did Gamora and Peter get to “I love you” status. The romance seemed rushed and awful considering how slow and deliberate the relationship had been up until that point.
  • Scarlet Witch is useless in this movie and if she simply vanished, I would not bat an eye. While her feelings are valid and emotional, her powers are so intense and strange that there should be zero conflict in this movie.
  • My biggest fear going into the movie was that this would be quips the film and it absolutely was. Quips and snark work in a lot of the standalone movies because it is often one offended to a room of straight men. Tony Stark is snarky and it works because Steve Rogers is so sincere and Black Widow is so tired that it works. It does not work having Star Lord and Iron Man and Spiderman and Dr. Strange all throwing quips. It emotionally undercuts how intense many of the scenes are.
  • This movie requires you having watched all the other movies. For comic book fans, that’s fine. I’m used to having to pick out every single detail but this is a lot for a mainstream fan. This movie was nothing but pay off and it matters a lot if you’ve been working through that build up for a decade but if you just started in Phase 2 or Phase 3 when many did this is an insane and punishing ride.
  • Thanos looks like an angry California Raisin. There, I said it.
  • Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite actors to play Bruce Banner and he’s a great Hulk. He is hot garbage and waste of space in this film.
  • I checked out around giant “dwarf” Peter Dinklage.
  • Captain America is wonderful but he is a waste of space in this movie as well, really a lot of the Avengers are just not needed. This film is packed and I know it’s supposed to be but in the nature of writing, it’s hard to give each of these characters something to do.
  • If you had told me that a movie involving the Children of Thanos would end with them being mostly easily defeated by B-Tier Avengers, I would have punched you in the neck for lying.
  • The end credits scene made me swear under my breath.

And now, we’ve reached the end. Let’s talk about Death.

So many beloved characters die in a flash. Without mercy, without thought, without care. I wish I felt something. I wish I had cried. The audible gasps in the theater were enough. The countless posts on social media from friends I thought would be enough. But you know what? I felt nothing. Because here’s the thing. I am a long term comic book fan. Death means nothing. And that’s what I felt during the scenes of watching some of the characters I love more than some members of my own family fade into cold and unfeeling dust.

It felt hollow, disrespectful and cruel. For so many, comic books are a safe space. We find honor and meaning in the heroes we grew up with and facing such a existential threat and watching them fade away felt like I lost a part of myself.

But I survived Death in the Family, House of M and many more cataclysmic comic events. Hell, even by the standard set by the comic book Infinity Wars, this is tame. So why am I so upset this time around?

A lack of tension.

We know Tom Holland will be back. We know T’Challa is coming back. We know that many of these characters that vanished will return. I mourn Gamora. I even mourn Loki a little. But because of the slate of movies, I know at least a few of these characters will return and I know at least a few that are still alive as of the end of Part 1, will be gone come Part 2.

And that slap in the face is nothing more than a careful little insurance policy to make sure that my butt is back in the seat come Part 2. That is why I was so violently angry.

To put very bluntly, this is what I said in the car with Amber after seeing this movie:

Whatever bullshit they have to pull to make this all work out by Part 2, is gonna be some bullshit.

I left the theater angry, ranting, screeching but also somewhat hopeful. I cannot say this is a bad movie. I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy parts of this movie. But I can be disappointed in the cheap trick and the 3 hour long slog-fest of mindless payoff that was Avengers: Infinity War Part 1.

“But wait, Amanda!” someone I’m sure is going to say. “You’re a comic book fan, you should be used to this.” You know what, Straw Man? I am. I am used to this. But even in talking to friends about this, this level of death just feels unneeded. This was a Jason Todd level gut punch and I don’t think we deserved this as much as we did the death of Jason Todd (Rest in Power, Jason.). And knowing that children cried in theaters, that mainstream fans are confused and that long-term fans are just tired is why this whole movie exhausted me emotionally.

With a villain so overpowered, with a threat so big, it almost didn’t feel important. And I struggle to think of a movie where most of the main cast and without exaggeration, half of the people in that universe simply vanish into dust and it didn’t make me feel emotional at all; well, I think that film has a serious problem.

And now, after sitting and ranting about this movie for more hours than I like admitting, I feel mostly hollow. Do cool one-liners, fanservice beyond belief and awesome fight sequences a good movie make?

Does a plot with little sense if you haven’t invested 10 years of movie watching and/or decades of comic book reading, at times too intense violence and watching a villain “win” make a bad movie?

This movie was an emotional rollercoaster of cheering, screaming and bitter disappointment but also immense hope. With this clean slate, who knows where things can go. While my gut says this will end with some nonsense, it’s a comic book movie, it might just be fun nonsense. I know for sure I will be there to see Part 2 but whether I’ll be there happily or out of obligation is the bigger question.