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It's really getting hard to imagine Marvel and Disney ever genuinely screwing one of these movies up. I keep expecting that the next Marvel movie is going to be the one that finally breaks the camel's back and brings the whole enterprise crashing down. It's getting increasingly difficult to trust or like Disney as it grows into even more of a massive corporate conglomerate that keeps devouring and controlling pop culture media. From its virtual monopoly on childhood fairy tale and story-book imagery, to its ownership of cultural touchstones like Star Wars, to its success with Marvel, to its plans to purchase Fox's film studios and all the properties therein (Alien vs Predator vs Guardians of the Galaxy, anyone?), Disney is growing scarily large and powerful and owns far too much of our shared pop culture. Heck, Disney also owns ESPN and therefore has a controlling stake in how our non-fiction cultural entertainment is presented to us as well! This gives the Disney Corporation a potentially-dangerous, unprecedented influence on the world's collective cultural consciousness.

After the Fox buy-out, Disney and its subsidiaries could own up to 40% of every movie that comes to theater screens, and the studio's growing monopoly on blockbusters could translate to a virtual monopoly in cinemas in general. With so much theater revenue coming from Disney movies, theaters are forced to accept distribution deals that are increasingly one-sided in Disney's favor.

Because of all this, I find myself actually hoping to a certain degree that Disney and Marvel finally screw one of these up and release a flop of Batman v Superman proportions. I keep hoping for its tightening grip on cinemas to loosen and allow other competitors to finally step up and put Disney in its place. Once again, that hasn't happened.

Black Panther expertly straddles several different film genres. Most obviously, it's a comic book superhero movie (d'uh). But it's also a very mythological movie, and also sci-fi futurism (from a rarely-seen Afro-futurist perspective). And there's a large spy thriller chunk in the middle that could have been pulled straight from a James Bond movie, complete with a Q stand-in reviewing the hero's new gadgets, and culminating in a super-powered car chase through an exotic foreign city. There's also a Shakespearean bent that comes from the themes of living up to one's father's legacy, dealing with a monster of your own making, and noble intentions going awry. It all works pretty well, with only a few minor stumbles.

Part mythologic super hero story, part sci-fi futurism, part James Bond spy thriller.

I'm not sure how much of the production design was handled by individuals who are black or African or of direct African descent (or if it was a bunch of white guys in a conference room wondering "what would African futurism look like?"), but the end result seems (from my perspective as being descended from white European imperialists) to be very faithful and respectful. It's also a visual treat. I felt like some of the Vibranium technological gimmicks were a bit "too much" for a setting that is supposed to be our contemporary world. Specifically, the magic balls that can apparently instantly heal fatal wounds strained my credulity quite a bit, especially since I don't think the movie ever really explained what Vibranium does or what it's actual limitations are. Then again, this is the umpteenth installment in a series that has World War II super-soldiers, men flying around in robot suits of armor, literal Norse gods descending from literal Asgard, magic space rock MacGuffins, space aliens, and even literal magic. A little suspension of disbelief is to be assumed.

This glimpse at Afro-futurism is refreshing.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating and refreshing to get a glimpse of this sort of optimistic futurism through a cultural lens that most audiences rarely look through. At the very least, I now have an idea of what the futuristic cities of a Civilization game played with a non-white culture might look like. As someone who appreciates optimistic science fiction, and who often complains about how pessimistic and cynical modern science fiction often is, I'm happy to see a depiction of a society that uses its technological sophistication to dramatically improve the quality of life for its inhabitants. I'm also happy that a major theme of the movie involves Wakanda's leadership coming to terms with the realization that maybe they should be sharing the wonders of their technology with the rest of the world, instead of hiding it away out of a fear that it will be mis-used.

I'm much less keen on this supposedly-enlightened Wakandan culture being so martial that it selects its leader by ritual combat to the death. I'm not going to mince words: that's barbaric. I hope that part of entering the world stage means that Wakanda grows out of that particular tradition real soon. But no society (or movie) is perfect, I guess, and I'm not going to hate the movie (or Wakanda) any more than I would hate Star Trek or the Vulcans.

Ritual combat to the death is, after all, the most barbaric logical way to resolve a dispute.

I also could have skipped the relatively meaningless love interest sub-plot. That would have focused the movie a bit more tightly around family. It also would have hopefully given the other secondary characters a bit more room to breathe, maybe given the villain some more well-deserved screen time, and maybe allowed a closer examination of the debate that actually frames the entire movie's conflict.

As far as villains go, the bad guy this time around might be one of the best ones in Marvel's cinematic canon. He's not just a comic book bad guy who wants to take-over or destroy the world. He's someone who genuinely thinks that he's righting a grave global injustice, but his methodology is flawed. I think they were trying to go for a "Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King Jr." kind of parallel here, by contrasting Kill-monger's "social justice through violent uprising" desires against T'Challa's more altruistic philosophy -- just like Magneto and Professor X. Much like with X-Men, however, this parallel breaks down because T'Challa (via his Black Panther alter ego) also employs violence in the name of peace-keeping. It goes a bit further than X-Men though, because Black Panther isn't just using violence to protect and defend innocents, he also uses it to conduct extra-judicial mercenary justice. He's a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner. So a bit of a swing-and-a-miss there, but not enough to break the movie or make our hero any less likable than somebody like Spider-Man or Iron Man.

In fact, that comparison to Spider-Man is actually quite apt, because one of T'Challa's major archs (and the arch of Wakandan society in general) is coming to realize that his nation never took up the responsibility of doing good throughout the world, even though Wakanda absolutely had the power to do so. It's a firm rebuke of both colonialism / imperialism and of isolationism, culminating in a closing scene the feels remarkably like the inspirational "I am Iron Man" moment from Marvel's first hit.

Killmonger is an integral part of the narrative and themes, and is one of Marvel's better cinematic villains.

Killmonger also ties in nicely with the arch of the hero, the arch of the entire society, and the general themes of the movie. He doesn't feel like one of the incidental throw-away bad guys that have plagued many of Marvel's earlier movies (and comic book movies in general). Of course, the fact that this movie mostly side-steps the hero's origin story (relegating that mostly to back-story presented in a stylish narration) certainly helps keeps things flowing smoothly. The movie doesn't have to break mid-way through to introduce the bad guy and set up the conflict, so it has more time to do some world-building (which probably could have moved at a bit more brisk of a pace). The whole movie is about this central conflict of Wakanda struggling to define its role in the world.

Black Panther is definitely one of the strongest (and bravest) entries in the Marvel cinematic universe. It has a relatively tight, concise, and deep script that is much more sparing in its use of humor. It has a charming cast, one of the better villains, a lot of variety, and a distinct visual style. It's a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it. And hey, we finally get to see what Andy Serkis actually looks like in a movie, and just as I expected he would be, he's great!

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