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BLACK PANTHER: DISSENT FROM A WHITE GUY

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t care much for comic-book, superhero movies — they’re loud, clangorous, insensible and, despite their color and thunder and all that crazy CG, boring.

I had more fun when I was a real little kid, sending my American toy soldiers up against my Nazi toy soldiers, mowing the Nasties down by the hundreds of dozens.

Those little plastic men had actual weight and substance, unlike those weightless CG figures, who exist so far beyond the lead-shoes of gravity that they’re less than ghosts. Movies are already shadow plays for our collective minds. Too much CG, and you have shadow of a shadow show.

Batman, Spiderman, Superman, whatever the costume, the stakes are pretty low in superhero movies, pennies on the dollar. Have you noticed? Superheroes never die, ever(making them God-like, a question for another day). Unlike, say the best supernatural horror films, there’s no break, or tension, between life and death, or reality and unreality, in a comic book movie. With death banished, unreality seeps into every bone, and, like a totalitarian society, despite all the bright flash and color, the life within flattens out.

Strict ironists say that there’s not supposed to be anything at stake in superhero movies: We’re supposed to chew on them like bubblegum, mindless and easy, good for a laugh.

They used to be right. A few of you may have chortled through those old Republic chapter serials of the 1930s-1940s (way before our time). They were cheapies, made for little kids and, at their most entertaining, filled with bad acting, laughable dialogue, goofy villains, breakneck pacing and terrific — and often eye-popping and daring — stunt work. (The Phantom Empire, from 1935 and starring Gene Autry, remains one of the most outlandish things ever embedded in celluloid).

These serials sure beat playing Superman in your backyard with a towel around your neck, but not by much. They only showed at the local Rialto once a week, Saturday afternoon, at about 20 minutes per chapter and, by God, that was long enough. A little went, and still goes, a long way. Try binging on them and the charm dies.

But that was then. These days, wits and ironists are not running the show. (Have children changed? I honestly don’t know.) Today’s comic book movies seem constructed to straddle the world between childhood and adulthood. Both realms seem to suffer in the end.

But their volatile population of fans and the films themselves beg to differ — there is something at stake in these movies, something deep and profound, like you might encounter in Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Ingmar Bergman.

Since at least The Dark Knight — and even before — film after film in this genre has draped its shoulders with the cape of ambition, marching out to thunderous acclaim as “A film for our era”; “a profound examination of society’s destiny” and, most insipidly, “the movie we need now.”

(As if Donald Trump and his gang would pack their bags for Moscow once they saw Deadpool, just like MASH ended the Vietnam War. You may recall that famous anecdote of Richard Nixon standing up after a screening of the latter film and declaring “By God, I shall end this war!”)

There is, I will admit though, some social utility to a movie like Black Panther. At last, black comic book nerds the world over get to see black heroes in a genre that’s always been overwhelmingly white.

But past that, what? What about the rest of us, we who live outside the cult, us non-nerds of color and not — who may well be the majority of movie watchers.Black Panther may not be the worst of its type, nor is it the best. Even the most lefty leftist may only be able to damn it with faint praise. (Yes, I know millions of innocent people love Black Panther. . . but if it — and the others — wasn’t so self-important, I might like it better).

Black Panther takes us to the mythical African Kingdom of Wakanda, where several tribes are fighting over the miracle metal “Vibranium,” (related to those other miracle metals “Unobtainium” “Whatzattium” and, the most precious mineral of all, “MacGuffium”). Among its powers is its ability to turn the King into the masked superhero Black Panther when mixed together with a rare plant.

This most benevolent dictatorship briefly brings to mind the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan — hermetic, yet reasonably prosperous. In this film, the country is a gold and emerald secret Utopia disguised as a struggling developing nation. It’s a good look, I guess. (As Marvel Studios already rule this particular Earthly universe, it’s hard to see how anyone is fooled, though).

All is not well, of course. After old king T’Chaka dies, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Marshall) accedes to the throne, only to find some unfinished business in his predecessor’s past. While a young man, T’Chaka was a Wakandan government undercover investigator who was forced to kill his brother N’Jobu, who, though next in line for the throne, was a criminal secretly smuggling Vibranium out of Wakanda in collaboration with the nefarious Ulysses Klaue (a growly grungy Andy Serkis).

To thicken the soup, N’Jobu left behind a young son, N’Dajaka who grows up to be the vengeful “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station). N’Dajaka returns to Wakanda to claim the Wakandan throne, saying he only wants to open up the kingdom to the world and share the miracle of Vibranium; but, really, he’s just another bloody-minded authoritarian gangster, the likes of which we seem unable to rid ourselves.

Of course, Killmonger kills T’Challa and takes over Wakanda. And, of course, T’Challa is resurrected to save the day, along with family, friends, a CG rhinoceros and finally, a white American CIA agent (Martin Freeman, Sherlock!).

(Did I spoil it all for you? Think before you answer!)

I can’t completely badmouth this movie. Wakanda looks great, bathed in sunlit gold and deep jungle green. If you didn’t know any better, you’d web-search “Wakanda tourism”. The music by Ludwig Göransson is excellent, incorporating African themes from Senegal, giving it more atmosphere and melody than these scores usually do.

As for the actors, villains Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis are the most memorable. At first Jordan seems to be a little too nice and callow to play Killmonger. He eventually grows into the part to where I felt that surge of gleeful hatred I always feel toward good heavies. Serkis adds grit with a crusty villain out of Scorsese and Peckinpah.

But, like those Republic serials of old, a little of this goes a long way. To this action-movie fan, the only scene with real excitement is an analog shootout in a South Korean junkyard. Otherwise, it’s the usual CG cartoon fights, with occasional flashes of actual stunt people.

It’s all so serious, there’s no sense of play. It failed to persuade me to suspend my disbelief, to accept its absurdities. It sinks into that frantic dullness that infects many of these films. The longer it went on, the deeper my sighs grew. After it was over, I wanted to wash it down with a chapter of The Phantom Empire.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon’s Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Deviland Dracula: Endless Night(e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

The author of BUTCHERTOWN, a 1920s gangster thriller and DRAGON’S ARK, a contemporary Dracula tale, both published through Ambler House Publishing.