Black Panther

Let’s get the obligatory thumbs up/down portion of this review out of the way first: Black Panther is one of the better superhero movies. It’s in my personal top-five list, somewhere in the mix that includes The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Wonder Woman, and Logan. Fans of the genre will enjoy the hero’s journey and outlandish setting (Wakanda is a dazzling blend of Camelot and Star Trek), action/adventure fans who are ambivalent about superheroes will still appreciate the fast-paced narrative and kick-ass battles, and for those who’d rather skip all the explosions and CGI, at least you have other ways to enjoy a night at the show.

The film offers no shortage of topics on which to comment — the hilarious memes its inspired, the lame attempts by racist cowards to sabotage its aggregate audience score or scare caucassians with reports of fake assaults, its cultural significance to black America and black girls especially, even its potential impact on a character who, as I’ve commented before, has had a complicated history in the comics. But for today, I’ll restrict my comments to the decision not to develop the Infinity Stones story arc that’s been sown through most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Background for the curious but uninitiated: the Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power, formed during the Big Bang that started the universe. Five of the stones have appeared in MCU films, as has Thanos, a madman attempting to gather the entire set and cause all kinds of trouble. Since Black Panther is the last MCU film before Thanos completes his collection in this May’s Avengers: Infinity War, many assumed the sixth stone would be in Wakanda, or that T’Challa would somehow stumble across its presence.)

I was glad to see Black Panther make no mention of the sixth stone, as its inclusion would have been an unnecessary distraction. T’Challa’s role within the MCU had already been established by his appearance in Captain America: Civil War (another film that did little to further the saga of the stones), and there was no need to further incorporate his character in this marvelously complex world. Most MCU heroes have been featured in at least one film with only tangential relationships to the MCU; Black Panther deserved an opportunity to shine on his own, and based on the phenomenal box-office receipts, T’Challs needed no assistance from his Avengers buddies or the Infinity Stones storyline to deliver a terrific story.

Some day, the current era of superhero movies will come to an end, most likely when the current generation of charismatic actors decides to move on to other projects. I’m just glad that Black Panther was able to have his moment on the stage before the curtain came down.

Black Panther #1

 For someone with an advanced degree in literature, I spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on comic books and movies derived from them, so much that I’ve considered starting another blog titled “I Only Watch Movies About Superheroes.” But every once in a while, a project comes out that makes me feel a little less guilty about this indulgence.

Next month, Marvel Comics will publish the first in an eleven-part series scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (New York Times columnist, senior editor at The Atlantic, won The National Book Award — yeah, that Ta-Nehisi Coates.) The series will feature the Black Panther, a character with an uneven history at Marvel. First appearing in the early years of Marvel’s Silver Age fifty years ago, the Panther has been a member of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and other lesser-known superhero teams, and is often a central character in Marvel’s seemingly annual (and typically tiresome) cross-title/mashup/battle-royal events. Yet while he’s a solid member of the Marvel Universe, the Panther has had limited success as a solo character; every few years, an artistic team will launch a new Black Panther series, which will garner critical praise but limited sales before ending a few years later. Given this history, the decision to limit the new series to 11 issues (an intriguingly odd number) seems prudent.

But let’s be honest, I didn’t call my comic book shop today (yes, I “have” a comic book shop) to reserve my copy of Black Panther #1 because I’m a T’Challa fan. I simply can’t remember someone like Coates — an author this accomplished, an intellectual this powerful — writing a comic book. (Only person who comes close is Neil Gaiman, but that’s an entirely different story, as Gaiman was writing comics before expanding his literary scope.) And at first I was cynical, as I’m always suspicious of intellectual attempts to appropriate comic book culture; read just about any philosophical study of Batman, and you’ll see what I mean. Then I read Coates’ Atlantic article about the series, and discovered his interest in comics is rooted in a sincere appreciation from his youth:

In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. 

If you were trying to establish your geek cred with this quote, consider yourself successful, my friend.

While there’s no guarantee of success, I’m intrigued by this particular combination of writer and character, given the intersection of their biographies. The first black superhero in a mainstream comic, Black Panther’s name was temporarily changed in the early 1970s to the Black Leopard, entirely in order to remove any association with the Black Panther Party (Marvel Comics gives voices to minority viewpoints, but has always stopped well short of revolution); Coates’ father, meanwhile, was an actual BPP member for a while, and considering the author’s interests I fully expect the series will explore post-colonialism in Africa as well as race relations in the US. I really have no idea what to expect — this series could suck, or it could supplement my monthly fix of “Howard the Duck” and whatever the Luna Brothers are producing. But if nothing else, I appreciate the chance both Marvel and Ta-Nehisi Coates are taking with this project.