I saw it, and I liked it.
Okay, it’s a little silly that I can write four posts on The Last Jedi and one sentence on Black Panther, but that’s because TLJ is super weird and fascinatingly broken and nobody’s (yet, or seems to be) talking publically about why that is or how it happened, and that meta-level disconnect is even weirder and more interesting. It wasn’t a success! It tried hard to be! Lots of people want it to be! They really, really, really want it to be! But it wasn’t.
But Disney can breathe a little easier now. Black Panther is everything The Last Jedi should’ve, could’ve, would’ve been, but wasn’t. It’s a functional movie! It’s a pulpy comic book movie that knows what it is but also, like Wonder Woman, has a heart and a soul, and knows it’s talking about an exceedingly touchy subject and is determined to do a good job, and then goes ahead and does that good job and does it well.
(I still remain awed by just how well Wonder Woman (2017) managed to make the very concept of Wonder Woman not-silly. That was a hard, hard movie scripting problem! And the WW team just… did it. Pulled it off without even blinking.)
It seems so simple when you say it like that – ‘just do pulp, and do it well, but also make sure to have a soul and a theme and a point, and also do those well’ – but the simplest things to pull off are also the hardest. Or seem to be, today, in this desert of modern storytelling when there’s hundred-million dollar budgets and no script.
Black Panther works. That’s it. It works. It is a functional machine. Thank God. At last. (I probably shouldn’t have worried, since the Marvel team has generally delivered, but, but, but. See: almost every other Disney movie, recently, especially ones trying to be Message Movies.)
It’s essentially just ‘Iron Man, but what if also the king of an entire lost African high-tech civilisation’, but that tiny ‘what if also’ is really the whole point.
What if Europeans hadn’t forcibly forgotten the entire history of Africa?
What if no trans-Atlantic slave trade during the rise of postfeudal Europe and capitalism in the 1400s, setting the pattern for what capitalism, exploration, technology, the Industrial Revolution would mean and to just what depths of depravity they would sink and could yet drag us all, again, in an age when the Internet is doing to small towns and middle classes everywhere exactly what ocean-going wooden ships did to the Silk Road and Africa?
What if no centuries of grinding colonialism gutting the heart of a continent and its peoples? (of multiple continents, and myriads of peoples)
What if no post-WW2 Nazi International and CIA destabilisation and Cold War and War on Terror and capitalism burning like a fever and so much war and blood and carbon dioxide dripping into the oceans that the very coral reefs turn white?
What if American politics wasn’t haunted by the spectre of Southern racism? And all that that implies?
What if we could be redeemed for our ancestors’ crimes because we didn’t yet smash and burn it all up, there was still something left, something green and good that could come back through it all?
What if there were still wonder and beauty in the world, and vast riches in every culture and jewels in the depths of every human heart, and cool costumes, and you could still walk sideways through an invisible force field somewhere and suddenly see that infinity of wonder?
What if you didn’t have to play out old oppressive tropes just to play with that sense of wonder and strangeness in 1930s pulp/noir?
That I guess was the Marvel Comics pitch back – ‘Earth, but with pulp in it, like for real’ – when it was the young upstart in the 1960s, and it’s so exciting to see a movie actually catch some of that fire in a bottle.
It just feels right, somehow, to locate blackness back in a functional Africa, a land of gleaming nanotech and amazing outfits. Maybe a few too many Downtown LA skyscraper blocks (more Buckminster Fuller architecture please!) but at least it feels inhabited, like a place that gave birth to at least one ancient-world hyperpower, maybe where the whole human race is from.
It feels like Marvel have struck a well and found water in it. And after the nth time they do it you start to think that’s just boring, it’s just an old hole in the ground, anyone could do it.
And then you watch others try, entire towns full of them, strip-mining whole deserts looking for the river, and keep missing it.
Good storytelling doesn’t just happen, I guess. But the best storytelling looks exactly as if it did.