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A short, melancholy review of Black Panther

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 16, 2018


I’m certainly aware that one of the themes (perhaps the theme) of Black Panther is the gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be. I’m also aware that one of the main characters, when he finally sees the unimaginable beauty of Wakanda, finds it too bittersweet to bear. It’s a movie about hard choices and impossible expectations. Which makes it a movie about making movies, like all the other movies.

The closest analogy I can think of for Black Panther is The Lord of the Rings. (These are the two movies, in my lifetime, I have waited the longest to see, and held the highest expectations for.) Black Panther may be the closest Marvel has come, even counting the Thor movies, to merging high fantasy and superhero fiction. This pops up in deep and superficial ways: the characters fight with swords and spears more often than guns and blasters, and the plot is laden with intrigue of kings and clans, bloodlines, blood debts, and blood enemies, and magical (sometimes techno-magical) weapons that are too dangerous to be used lightly. I’ve heard other people call these parts of the movie Shakespearean, and I could see some parallels, but it feels more like fantasy.

Like the Lord of the Rings movies, Black Panther is a beautiful, improbably piece of filmmaking. Like them, the overlapping action plots sometimes get muddled, with one thread having to be sacrificed for another. And like them, when the movie has time to breathe, it is a quieter, emotional film, about characters who are able to convey or suggest deep connections with limited screen time.

It’s that movie, that other Black Panther, I want to stay in. The moments between friends, lovers, rivals, parents and their children quickly get bowled over by a very capable action fantasy superhero movie. And to make a version of Lord of the Rings that is antiracist and antiimperialist from start to finish, while preserving all the dramatic possibilities and ambiguities of what it means to be a king to a people, is no small thing.

But the genius of Creed — and as of today, after only one screening of Black Panther versus dozens of Creed, I’m going to provisionally maintain that Creed is the better Ryan Coogler film — was its ability to balance its obligations to the Rocky franchise with its subtle but penetrating portrayal of human relationships. Creed comes the closest I have seen, the closest I recognize, to what it means to love someone: a partner, a mother, a child, a father figure, a lost legacy. Black Panther only occasionally allows room for the same emotional range, and they’re the best moments of the film.

Creed’s Philadelphia shows the world as it is; Black Panther’s Wakanda staggers against the task of showing the world as it ought to be.

This brings me to the last way in which Black Panther is like The Lord of the Rings: its first cut, by several accounts was over four hours long. I am perfectly happy with the movie I saw. But I suspect that somewhere in those four hours, is the movie that I most especially wanted to see.