A Review of “Black Panther”

Movie poster for Black Panther. Image used under Creative Commons.I knew before entering the cinema this weekend that Black Panther would be a very different movie for Marvel, but hadn’t predicted how different. Until now, every character in the cinematic universe has been seen through the lens of a hero, albeit, at times, reluctant or unintentional heroes. This isn’t the story of a hero, but rather the story of a king.

T’Challa rises to power, as you’ll remember from Captain America: Civil War, through tragedy. Thrust into wearing the mantle of king, he is now trying to do what is right for his country, struggling against a history of violence and revenge. His sudden rise to power is marked by living in the tension between honoring their way of life and doing what is right with the power that his country holds.

What immediately struck me about Black Panther was the quality of the world-building. Wakanda here finally fulfills its potential in the Marvel Universe. We see a fully developed nation, honoring and maintaining its ancient traditions all while embracing a technological superiority surpassing any other nation on the globe. The balance that the Wakandans maintain between these two extremes is completely believable and profoundly thought-provoking. The visuals are stunning, especially the dream and hallucination sequences. Both the sweeping shots of the African landscape and the digitally constructed sequences of the high-tech bunkers beneath the city are equally impressive. I also particularly liked the Bond/Q sort of relationship between T’Challa and his sister.

Speaking of Shuri, we should not pass over the fact that T’Challa’s closest advisors and confidants in this film are women, strong female characters that make up the backbone of his government. This is a subtle triumph for the writers that does a great deal to contribute to the strength of the film as a whole.

Interestingly, Everett Ross’ character  truly comes into his own here as we continue to see hints of the as-yet-unrealized fallout from Civil War. Their paths cross as T’Challa’s adventures in the beginning of the film are more like an espionage adventure than a super-hero one. This initially felt slightly out of place, but the director ultimately made it work.

The film offers a powerful social commentary, as well, perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen in a Marvel film since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The fear of having one’s country legally taken over by an unstable dictator is very real (and oh-so-relevant today). The recognition that violence doesn’t solve this problem, but rather does working to strengthen the system, is equally apropos, and needs to be said to as wide an audience as possible.

The Black Panther is not a costumed hero, at least not yet. He is a warrior attempting to protect those he loves, a leader attempting to make atonement for the past sins of his country.  He sees the wisdom of using violence only as a last resort, and sees the humanity that connects us all. This is possibly T’Challa’s most heroic trait.

In the end, the Black Panther extends Wakanda’s hand, recognizing the folly of not helping others in need when one has the power to do so.  Wakanda coming out of isolation will have a profound impact on the Marvel Universe, and I’m fascinated to see exactly what that impact will be.

Black Panther is a celebration of African culture, and an exploration of what that means. I can’t pretend to understand that, but I think that I am closer to understanding it after seeing this film. Every actor gives a stunning performance here, building on top of a strong screenplay. This is quite possibly the best movie that Marvel has made so far, certainly a relief after the disaster that was Ragnarok. Here is a Silver Age hero brought to the screen as a new type of character for the cinematic universe, taking us in a very different direction. T’Challa will play an important role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I can’t wait to see what that role will be. This film is not to be missed.

Image attribution: junaidrao under Creative Commons.

Back to Paperback

Back to PaperBack

Something very important happened two weekends ago, something that solidifies the entire process of moving back to New England and was the last step in feeling “at home.”

I found a good comic book shop.

You laugh, but I hadn’t found one in two years while living in North Carolina, and had resigned myself to moving all of my comic book reading to the digital sphere. I held no hope of locating a source for print comics again.

Don’t get me wrong, digital comics are a great thing. I always prefer to give my money to a small local business whenever possible, though, and the local comic shop is more of a cultural experience than it is a retail experience. There are really good conversations that happen there about very, very geeky things.

This particular shop has a great selection of old issues…boxes upon boxes of them, in fact…which is wonderful because I’m not a fan of what any of the major publishers have been doing in print of late, so I’ve focused my reading a lot on graphic novels and back issues for the last year or so.

As I browsed the neatly-organized and alphabetized shelves of recent-but-not-new issues to fill in some gaps that have occurred in the last couple of months, I found myself questioning which issues I had, and where I had left off. I found a few titles there of which I suddenly remembered having read the first issue, but had let the story and issue-to-issue cliffhanger escape my mind since doing so. Some of these were four or more months old.

This is highly unusual.

For two years, I have purchased all of my comics digitally. I thought that this would have no effect on my reading. After all, I still prefer to purchase ebooks whenever possible, primarily for the convenience of having whatever I’m reading readily available when I find myself with free time. Any excuse to read is well-taken, in my mind, so facilitating more opportunities to do so is a no-brainer. Comics should be no different, right?

Except that my theory is now proven wrong. These digital issues had as much interest to me while I was reading them, certainly. Yet, they faded from memory very quickly. I lost track of where I was in a given series, and even what series I was reading in some cases. It’s as though the stories took up space only in my short-term memory, making no lasting connections at all.

Which is far, far too disrespectful to any story to permit to continue.

I’m not sure why novels that I read in e-book format stay with me just as a physical novel does. Perhaps the issue at hand is that I have been far too busy with little time to read for the past few months (a new child has that effect). Or, more concerning, perhaps my attention span is being progressively shortened. That’s a frightening concept that I prefer to not consider.

So, that Saturday afternoon, I brought home my first paper issues of new comics in two years. A good feeling, I’ll admit.

Incidentally, I still remember where each issue left off, and am looking forward to next month to continue reading.

Just like in years past.

Physically.

A Review of “Black Widow: Deadly Origin”

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Black Widow has long been one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe. Before the world at large was introduced to her in Iron Man 2, I was reading her adventures. I was thrilled to have her introduced into the cinematic canon because she’s a strong female character, a hero of tragic origin with a darkness that brings an enormous amount of depth to her stories. Natasha Romanoff has been involved in many adventures within Marvel comics through the decades, playing an important part in various continuities. I hadn’t read the Deadly Origin issues, though, and I was looking forward, as I always do, to reading anything Black Widow when I picked this collection up at my local bookstore.

How disappointing.

This story alternates between a plot called the “Icepick Protocol” to kill everyone that Romanoff loves and hinging around the man who was a father figure to her, Ivan…and flashbacks to her past, from her origins as part of the Red Room through her involvement in the Civil War story arc. This is the retconned history for the Black Widow, in which biotechnological enhancements prolong her life substantially, and thus she has lived through a great deal. We see her husband, the Red Guardian, and other interesting glimpses into the Widow’s past that has crafted her into the strong and fractured character that she is. The flashbacks seemed to be well-paced within the context of the rest of the story to me, but the dialogue seemed out of character in both present and past on many occasions. The sweep of the story is too broad for so confined a collection…we’re simply covering too much of Romanoff’s life because we have to see how it collides with present events. The present events are then reduced to a cacophony of violent confrontations that don’t leave room for the sort of character evolution that I would hope to see in an origin story.

Then, there’s the art.

Two different artists draw this collection: one the modern events, another the flashbacks. The flashback art by Leon is brilliant. The emotions of the characters carry far past the dialogue, and there are moments where I feel I know the Black Widow’s character better based only on her facial expression or posture in tableau from these flashback sequences. Comparing this to the majority of the collection…the current events…is striking enough to be painful. In modern day, Romanoff looks as though she’s seventeen rather than the woman she is, her apparent age completely incongruous with the skills she evidences in the fighting sequences. Which is sort of noticeable, as fighting sequences are really all we see in the present events.

Overall, I also find the events of the story a bit too steeped in the “off-camera” sex. Yes, the Widow is a product of the Red Room, but she has become so much more as a hero, and this just doesn’t do her justice. I think the motivation of the writer was to paint Romanoff as the woman she’s become, but this missed the mark entirely.

Deadly Origin’s writing is, unfortunately, a lot of failing to do the character of the Black Widow justice. Combined with profoundly disappointing artwork for more than half of the collection, and this is a book that will likely gather dust on my shelf without ever being re-read. If you love the Black Widow, you’ll want better.

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Heroic Actions to End Bullying

I’ve been intending to write about this for over a week now (he says as he blows the dust off of his neglected blog), but have you seen these variant covers that Marvel comics did for STOMP Out Bullying? If you haven’t, take a moment to look.

Marvel Entertainment was approached by the national anti-bullying organization to assist in promoting National Bullying Awareness Month, and these variant covers were the result. Particularly a nice approach by Marvel, as variant covers tend to be the sorts of things that collectors pounce on, and thus I imagine these were received well.

As you see, the covers feature prominent super heroes from the Marvel universe intervening in the sorts of situations that children face in our school systems every day, as well as situations that follow them outside of the school system (such as cyberbullying). Having spent a great deal of time working with kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream, I’ve seen how cruel children can be to each other. It only takes one to create a herd mentality that follows the leader in targeting the one without support. More than what I’ve seen in professional pursuits, however, I know what I experienced in school. I was a geek, a misfit, the one who tried to do well in his classes. I didn’t hang out with the popular crowd, because I wasn’t accepted by them. I know the terror that comes with being isolated in a stairwell between classes by someone intent on doing me harm based simply on the fact that I was different. I know the nightmares that follow, the intentional alteration of the routes that you take through the school building. I remember that all too well. There’s been much research into what causes this phenomenon, all of which is valuable, but I will tell you this…what the child being bullied needs is to feel empowered, to know they are not alone.

The nature of a hero is that he or she with more power fights the battle that we cannot. They defend us from the evil to which we would inevitably succumb were we to not find help. Look at the covers from Marvel carefully. The heroes aren’t reacting with force against the bullies. I particularly find this striking in the cover featuring the Hulk, one of the characters that we would immediately expect to retaliate against an act of aggression. Instead, they offering compassion to the child being bullied, offering companionship. In doing so, they are empowering that child, showing the child that they are not alone, and are, in fact, very much like very good people.

The child who is bullied needs that heroism, that support. And we, each of us, can be the hero who helps them in some capacity. We can reach out to offer them that companionship, to let them know that they are not alone and that they are in good company. This is not an activity isolated to professionals…in fact, what has consistently been proven is that family and family friends have more of a positive impact on children than professionals who may be involved in the child’s life. Part of the nature of a hero is that the desire to be a hero, to help the helpless, is wrapped up so deeply in the human experience. Initiatives like this help us to see the small ways in which each of us can act on the desire to be a hero to those in our lives less powerful than ourselves.