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The Black Panther Claws the Box Office

A second super hero movie has the internet all atwitter this week with accolades such as “historic” and “triumphant” pretty much for the same reasons.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was the first female super hero movie and the first directed by a woman.  This year, “The Black Panther” is touted as the first super hero movie with a Black protagonist and directed by a black director.  Now the veracity of that claim can be and has been debated, but that is irrelevant to the quality of the film.  The Black Panther is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not the only black one) that interacts with the Avengers.  His character was introduced in 2016’s Captain America Civil War and played a major role in the events of that film.  In this movie, we learn more about the Black Panther and his alter ego, King T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, but the focus of this movie is not really T’Challa or the Black Panther.  One could argue the movie is actually about Wakanda.  As Wakanda is in Africa, it follows that this movie will feature predominately black characters.  In fact, the only principle characters that are not black is Andy Serkis’s Klaw and Martin Freeman’s Ross.  Given the setting of the movie and the characters, one would expect certain social commentary about race relations.  This film does not shirk in this regard, and in fact, is a bit “in your face” about it, almost too much so, which is the only problem I have with this otherwise enjoyable action movie.

One observation that bears notice is that story told in “The Black Panther”, while set within the MCU, has absolutely no bearing on the greater MCU story arcs. There is no mention of the Infinity Stones, the Avengers or any other heroes at all.  In fact, it almost seems as though Freeman’s Ross was tacked on just to tie it in, as his presence really doesn’t move the plot much.  Having said that, he does offer a bit of humor.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.  Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as King T’Challa and brings the same brooding strength to this performance.  His likeable naiveté dares the viewer not to like him.  His skills as the Black Panther, while impressive, are still developing and he finds himself in dire straits on more than one occasion.  Boseman conveys this and portrays T’Challa’s learning process convincingly.

Angela Basset stars as T’Challa’s mother and brings out his humanity along with Letitia Wrght’s performance as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  We also meet his ex-girlfriend and the general of the king’s guard, who all serve to help T’Challa face his first major challenge as king: A literal challenge for the throne from his American cousin, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The story is full of intrigue and more than one plot twist and if the writers and producers had left it at that, it would have made for an outstanding movie.  But with the current social climate, they couldn’t resist attacking the perceived “white-dominated” power structure in the world that was only serving to keep down “those who look like us,” as Killmonger says.

Of course, the film will win the box office.  It is an MCU film, after all, and opening on a weekend bereft of any real box office competition.  The movie was enjoyable, but it doesn’t rank as high as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, and while it is good, it is not quite historic or triumphant.  Movies should earn those accolades with plot, character and message, not by the gender or the color of the skin of the actor or director.  I still give it a thumbs up.


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Going Rogue One

One of the most heated debates raging in Science Fiction fandom is the Star Wars canon, and what is actually included in it. When George Lucas first released Star Wars in 1977, not he, nor the studios anticipated the popularity of the film and no one could have anticipated its longevity and wide ranging appeal. It has spawned three sequels, numerous books, a couple of cartoon series, several video games and three prequels. Each of these additions tells a different story based in the same universe, sometimes using the same characters. The debate rages over which of these additional stories is “real,” and which is entirely outside the main story. Some say that only the movies are canon, while others say everything is. This weekend sees the first cinematic “additional story” to add to the Star Wars Universe and it is going to add fuel to the fire of this debate.

Rogue One tells a story set between the end of Star Wars episode three, “Revenge of the Sith” and before the events of episode four, “A New Hope,” wherein a young girl, the daughter of the man who designed the dreaded Death Star, joins the rebellion to help the alliance get the plans that are the crux of episode four. I need not worry about spoilers inasmuch as everyone who has seen the original Star Wars knows that the rebels do indeed get the plans and destroy the Death Star. Having said that, one might ask why bother to see this movie. Two reasons: Felicity Jones and Darth Vader.

Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner who saw her mother killed and father enslaved by the empire and grew up under the care of one of the more radical elements of the rebellion, Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker. A reluctant rebel at first, she manages to motivate the rebels into attacking the empire to try to get the plans for the death star to exploit the weakness her father built into it. This is where the debate is going to rage. According to episode four, the alliance didn’t know if there was such a weakness. Leia even mentioned it to Han Solo by saying “I only hope a weakness can be found.” According to the events in Rogue One, they knew there was a weakness.

Jones does a great job of playing the reluctant hero, and she brings the viewer into Jyn’s tortured world and allows us to understand her motivations. We cheer at her victories and weep for her sorrows and we can’t help but think of her as the little sister who we know is in over her head. This is facilitated by the fact that she looks just like a younger Sara Michelle Gellar.

Vader is a bit of a surprise here, because he actually fights better here than he did in Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones reprises the role of Vader’s voice while three actors have credit for his actions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but enough especially at the end when he is pursuing the stolen plans that will eventually lead him to Tatooine.

Several familiar characters enjoy appearances in this film. Of course, Darth Vader has a role, but so does Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing’s face digitally stitched onto another actor. Also, princess Leia has a cameo with Carrie Fisher’s younger face digitally stitched onto another actress. The ruffian who roughed up Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes an appearance as does C3P0 and Artoo.

There is another droid in this film, a reprogrammed imperial service droid is the partner of Jyn’s pilot Cassian Andor. The droid, K-2S0 is voice by Alan Tudyk who gives the droid a quick wit and a bit more humanity than even C3P0, if that is at all possible. As I watched the character’s interaction, I kept saying to myself, ‘that violates the laws of robotics.” But maybe that’s the point.

The film’s weakness is its beginning. Too many scene changes and too many plot threads make it difficult to follow along at first and it threatens to throw the viewer out of the story out of frustration. This is necessary to familiarize the viewer with all the moving parts of this story, since, unlike every other Star Wars movie, there is no text crawl at the beginning to set the stage. Fortunately it does pick up when the main story arc becomes clear.

While this is by far not the best Star Wars film, It isn’t the worst one either. There’s no Jar Jar Binks in this one. While it definitely won’t win an academy award (though it may get a technical nod), Rogue One is an entertaining escapist film. It will defiantly be water cooler discussion fodder for weeks as fan boys debate whether or not or even how it fits in the established Star Wars lore.

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