Everybody’s excited about “Black Panther” (2018). The first black super-hero in American comics finally gets his own movie and you’d think it was a bigger deal than America electing its first black President. I guess we’re all just supposed to forget about Will Smith, who was arguably still the biggest movie star on the planet when he played a super-hero in “Hancock” (2008). Will Smith is black, in case you’ve forgotten.
Not to mention Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, and we’re certainly expected to forget about Carl Lumbly playing a black super-hero on the mid 1990s TV show “M.A.N.T.I.S.” Okay, we’re probably all better off forgetting about that last one.
So I thought it would be interesting if this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown reminded us of the real first black super-hero of mainstream cinema. It’s the King of Wakanda taking on the Daywalker to see what 20 years has meant to the big screen presentation of black comic book heroes. It’s “Blade” (1998) vs. “Black Panther” (2018) to see how urban grit compares to epic fantasy.
Blade was created in the 1970s as a supporting character in Marvel Comics’ relatively successful line of horror comics, which included “Werewolf by Night” and the immortal “Tomb of Dracula.” His mother killed by a vampire as she gave birth to him, Blade was gifted with certain abilities and grew to become a relentless vampire hunter.
The movie tweaked the character slightly and is arguably one of the few times when Hollywood actually improved upon the original comic creation. This Blade (Wesley Snipes) has the same basic origin but much more impressive powers and a tragic twist. He has the super-strength and healing ability of the vampire without their deadly allergic weaknesses to silver, garlic, or sunlight. But he also possesses the vampire lust for blood, which he keeps under control with a special serum.
Assisted by his weaponeer/mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade has come to Los Angeles hunting the devious vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). He encounters a hematologist named Karen Jenson (N’bushe Wright) and they get caught up in Frost’s machinations to resurrect an ancient vampire “blood god” and use that power to take over the world and subjugate Mankind.
“Blade” didn’t get a lot of love from the critics when it came out because super-hero/comic book movies weren’t yet the money-making colossus propping up the whole filmmaking industry, so jaded grownups still felt comfortable looking down their noses at them. It was a decent box office success, however, because it’s actually a damn nice little action movie. The two increasingly awful sequels to “Blade” probably prevented more people from appreciating that.
What stands out most about it all these years later is how well written it is. Yes, it does get very stupid at the end when all the bad guys seemingly forget they have guns and try to kung fu fight with Blade, but up to that point this film is a shining example of what all modestly-budgeted action movies should aspire to be. It opens strong with a great fight scene, has a plot that almost makes perfect sense, gives its most important characters a surprising amount of emotional depth, and manages to create the perfect suspension of disbelief that all stories need.
Suspension of disbelief is what allows us to care about things that aren’t real. As Chandler Bing pointed out in “Friends,” when Bambi’s mother died it just meant the animator stopped drawing her. Yet how many millions of children and their parents have cried over that scene? We do that because we willingly suspend our disbelief and accept that a talking deer is real. Virtually all fiction and certainly all dramatic storytelling depends on suspension of disbelief but the more stupid, illogical, nonsensical stuff a film demands its viewer accept, the harder that suspension of disbelief becomes. It’s generally what separates the movies you remember and genuinely care about from the flicks that merely soak up a couple hours of your free time and are forgotten.
“Blade” is so well written that not only can you accept the existence of vampires and become emotionally invested in Blade’s mission of vengeance, but there’s a moment when you can convince yourself Blade might die because what you’re watching is really the story of Deacon Frost’s rise to power and Blade is just a supporting character. Frost is given a compelling conflict all his own where he has to overcome the prejudice in the vampire world of those who were born bloodsuckers against those who were bitten and turned. This conflict has nothing at all to do with Blade and makes up part of the secret vampire world suggested by the movie. And unlike films such as “Daybreakers” (2010) which spend all of their creative energy on world-building and have nothing left over, the little details we get in “Blade” about vampire life and society are just that; little details that give texture and significance to the story without overwhelming it. You could take all of that stuff out and “Blade” would be much worse but it would still make sense and there’d still be some value to watching it.
“Black Panther” is also a film that’s all about suspension of disbelief, though in this case it’s largely relying on the goodwill and environment created by the long string of successful Marvel movies that preceded it. Having first been introduced in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), the Black Panther is ceremonial title of the king and chief defender of Wakanda, a technological utopia hidden in the jungles of Africa. Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned home after his father’s death to assume the throne and his first order of business is to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the man who stole a bunch of the ultra-valuable metal Vibranium from Wakanda. But T’Challa must also face the challenge of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American who wants to use the might and power that Wakanda has kept secret for centuries to wage wars of liberation and revenge around the world. And yes, it all does get resolved in the end through a fist fight.
Some critics are going a little overboard in their praise of “Black Panther.” Is it a good movie? Yes. It is fun? Yes. Is it well made? Yes. Is it some sort of transcendent masterpiece that exists on a higher plane of cinema excellence than any Marvel movie before it? No.
I can understand some of the enthusiasm because “Black Panther” may very well turn out to be the most high profile and financially successful American film to have an almost entirely black cast. Seriously, there’s only like two white guys in the movie and one of them is pretty clearly only there because…
A. They wanted another tangential connection to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and…
B. Somebody at the studio said “We have to have more than one Caucasian in this thing.”
Being a big budget super-hero blockbuster with barely a white face to be seen does undeniably give “Black Panther” a bit of a thrilling vibe, even though it’s not quite as revolutionary in 2018 as it might have been in 1998. “Blade” had basically three black people in it and even that was pushing it for Hollywood back then. And it is truly refreshing to see a motion picture like this that isn’t about America or Americans. Co-writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have done an admirable job making Wakanda feel like an honestly African nation, not simply American or European with a different color scheme. Wakanda is about as realistic a place as Narnia or the ice plant Hoth but that only matters if you start thinking a little too hard about some of the things the movie is trying to say.
That’s because “Black Panther” is very upfront in talking about the legacy of Western horrors that have been visited on Africa and Africans. It’s a very powerful and distinctive theme…as long as you don’t stop and work out all of its implications. After all, the history of African suffering doesn’t just include slavery and colonialism. There’s also a bunch of stuff like the Rwandan genocide, rulers like Idi Amin, and cultural practices such as female genital mutilation. And the central conflict over whether or not Wakanda should become more involved in the outside world is undermined by the fact that there’s only one line of dialog in the entire film that even tries to support the argument for staying hidden.
And while “Black Panther” is full of a lot of enjoyable and likeable characters, particularly the Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, they do suffer from a bit of the Rey-itis seen in the recent Star Wars movies where everybody is so wonderful and marvelous and amazing in every way that it gets to be a bit ridiculous. I mean, the movie explicitly states that T’Challa’s only character flaw is that he’s too good of a human being for the grubby business of being a political leader and gives Killmonger a powerful and entirely sympathetic justification for his actions. Supporters of “Black Lives Matter” may find themselves wondering exactly why Killmonger is the bad guy.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Any political message in this film is secondary to the action and adventure and is presented in the best non-partisan tradition of great art and entertainment. If you support Donald Trump, you’re not going to feel like “Black Panther” is insulting or attacking you. I’ve even seen a comment that Wakanda is closer to an alt-right fantasyland than anything a liberal would conceive and it’s not a crazy idea.
Honestly, “Black Panther” is a little like Marvel’s Thor movies if Asgard was a place real enough for anyone to truly care about, which is enough to win this Throwdown. The fight scenes in “Blade” with actual people actually fake fighting are kind of refreshing when compared to the CGI-infested battles of “Black Panther” and the movie is a reminder of the virtues of action flicks that only care about appealing to guys who like action movies and not everybody’s grandmother or baby sister. “Blade” is about men doing manly things and repressing their emotions in manly ways. “Black Panther” is more technically proficient and appealing to all audiences while also being a tiny bit smarter and a tiny bit better than it needs to be, which sort of describes the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.
We’ll see if “Avengers: Infinity War” can keep that up.
Written by David S. Goyer.
Directed by Stephen Norrington.
Starring Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Arly Jover, Traci Lords, Kevin Patrick Walls, Timi Guinee, Sanaa Lathan, Eric Edwards, and Judson Scott.
Black Panther (2018)
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Angela Baseet, John Kani, Andy Serkis, and David S. Lee.
This is also the expression Wesley Snipes had BEFORE he opened that first letter from the IRS.
This was basically my reaction to the first half of season 8 of "The Walking Dead."