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THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE - PT. 6: 
MARVEL v. D.C. (pg. 7) 

"BLACK PANTHER": Review and More 




WIRED MAGAZINE: "BLACK PANTHER" CAST Q&A



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DIRECTOR'S CASTING; AND
CASTING THE DIRECTOR


Danai Gurira as Okoye takes on set instruction from Dir. Ryan Coogler


BLACK PANTHER (2018) score - "A New Day / Spaceship Bugatti" (L. Goransson)


     One of the things the Marvel films have continually done to great effect is to make often two-dimensional secondary characters in the books infinitely more interesting (even multi-layered) in their film incarnations. And the same holds true for Everett Ross as written by Coogler and Cole, and performed by Freeman. In the weeks before BLACK PANTHER opened, a hilarious meme made the social media rounds referring to Andy Serkis (best known to many as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS films) and Freeman (recognized by a new generation as Bilbo in THE HOBBIT trilogy) as the film’s “Tolkien White Guys”. But Serkis, and especially Freeman, emerge as so much more.





     While very much a cipher in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, Ross is presented as a very capable, very intelligent man of action in BLACK PANTHER, and far more interesting than the token “white guy sidekicks” in the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, and even black led actioners of the 80s and 90s like ACTION JACKSON, PASSENGER 57 and MURDER AT 1600. In fact it is a selfless action in the midst of a hair raising (and stakes raising) set piece which brings Ross to Wakanda in the film, as opposed to him being more coincidentally and inertly assigned to do so as he is in the comics books. Shout-out to the film makers for taking the time and care to make even the (so called) “secondary” characters essential to the ultimate narrative outcome of the film, as well as to the fate of the main characters and their homeland. Ross emerges by film’s end as a pretty bad-assed moe foe whom you really love.


   
         
     Along these same lines the biggest act of “the film version of the character is better” prestidigitation is surely in the depiction of M’Baku. Leader of the mountain tribe known as the Jabari, M’Baku and his people despise what they see as T’Challa and his father’s failure to remain faithful to more traditional ways. And because of this they splinter themselves off from the rest of a united Wakanda. And M’Baku even challenges T’Challa in a legal ritual match where the remaining warrior takes control of the throne. Introduced in the comic books in 1969, M’Baku was a member of the outlawed “White Gorilla Cult”, and he took the alter ego moniker of “Man Ape” - even going so far as to don the hide of a slain albino gorilla during battle. Needless to say in the years since 1969 (and even back then, actually) a black man being called “Man Ape” didn’t sit comfortably with many African-American readers. And as such many of the more contemporary and multi-layered character elements Christopher Priest brought to the table in the early 2000s are integrated into M’Baku’s filmic rendition as performed by actor Winston Duke.






     While primarily a stage actor, the “Damn, where have I seen that guy before?” face of Duke has also been a fixture on television over the last ten-odd years via multi-episode stints on shows such as MODERN FAMILY, PERSON OF INTEREST and THE MESSENGERS. And in his interpretation of Coogler, Cole and Priest’s M’Baku, Duke is alternately terrifying, mercurial, acerbically funny and yes, even vulnerable. His character is a very pleasant scene-stealing surprise; and Duke has been receiving well-deserved across-the-board critical praise because of it. He’s set to appear in the upcoming AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR as well.

     Considering all of this, how ‘bout huge kudos to Marvel in the way they’ve always chosen to cast their films. And we’re not just talking actors, as that often falls within the purview of the director doing so with studio approval. But we’re talking about the directors themselves. In the same way it’s difficult in retrospect to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Cap, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, it’s extremely difficult to now imagine the introductory films for each of those characters (which set not only the visual but tonal cinematic template for them) helmed by anyone other than those who did.

   

     Upon realizing that Stark could (and should) be more humorously snarky, the Marvel brass chose Jon Favreau to helm the first two IRON MAN installments. And he brought with him the same quick-witted, hip and iconoclastic rat-tat-tat character based dialog which had peppered the scripts to his earlier films such as SWINGERS, MADE and even ELF. Note now how that brand of humor has since infused the entire MCU in the same way director Terence Young’s sense of drollery and je ne sais quoi stretched from the first James Bond film DR. NO across the entire subsequent series.






     Director Joe Johnston brought the same sense of nostalgic heartfelt Americana from his THE ROCKETEER, OCTOBER SKY and HIDALGO to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. Kenneth Branaugh was chosen to execute a similar transference of tone (in his case the operatic grandiosity of his Shakespeare adaptations) to THOR. The other worldly elements of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remake, and SINISTER made Scott Derrickson the perfect choice for DOCTOR STRANGE. And the same social justice forum plainly evident in FRUITVALE STATIN permeates every grand scale frame of Ryan Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER. Over in the D.C. filmic world some of their better entries have done the same. The dark mystery of FOLLOWING, MEMENTO and INSOMNIA would inform his three BATMAN films - especially THE DARK KNIGHT, which is executed as a Michael Mann-like crime thriller akin to THIEF or HEAT. And while we’ve read nothing officially stating so, we tend to think had WONDER WOMAN been directed by a man, the character would have been too wonder-ful. Y’know, more iconic and super, and less human and humane.





    

      Jenkins’ and Gal Gadot’s character of Diana as she is presently is a wonderfully flawed being. Stepping into a world completely alien to her she’s a fascinating combination of naïve, arrogant and fearful while at the same time being brave, protective and idealistic. Originally as self-absorbed as a young THOR, and as morally conflicted as Bruce Wayne on his worst day, when Diana discovers the hypocritical and self-destructive nature of mortal man she’s ready to chuck it all in, tell them to blow themselves up in war and go to hell, and to return home. But it’s Steve Trevor’s act of heroic selflessness which encourages her to continue on, and to do that which only she can truly do. This post 9/11 notion of true heroes actually being normal people - like the firemen who rushed into the Twin Towers to save others - who end up inspiring the superhuman ones (see LOGAN and the most recent SPIDER-MAN entries for more examples of this) is something we wonder would have been jettisoned by a male director trying to prove that “A woman can kick ass every bit as good as any man”.






     That’s no big damned deal. We’ve seen that before in movies like the Angelina Jolie TOMB RAIDERs, and most recently in ATOMIC BLONDE and PROUD MARY. But what makes 2017’s WONDER WOMAN infinitely more special is the audience’s ability to identify with a flawed person who manages to overcome personal hurdles and fears in order to ultimately do the right thing. Just like Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody in JAWS – who is afraid of the water, but does what he has to do to save his community. That kind of multi-layered complexity of character is something very much in evidence in Jenkins’ MONSTER as well. And it’s that which makes Charlize Theron’s portrayal in that film of real life serial killer Aileen Wuornos much more fascinating than her makeup appliances which transform her appearance, because as before we've seen that sort of thing before, and once again "no big damned deal".


                        

     Sorry for that slight detour. But this is what the proper fit of a director with the right project can bring to both that director and the project. And this is one of the things which makes both Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN and Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER every bit worthy of the praise which a few social media trolls scattered here and there feel “May be a bit much”. Well, this and both films’ willingness to (fair warning – a series of three dirty words coming up here for some) “break ... with ... canon”. C’mon, you really didn’t think we were going to end this without going down that road, did you?












  

      So, getting back on track and wrapping things up we’re going to put out there how the Merriam-Wester Dictionary defines “Canon” alternately as 1) a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council, 2) an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture, or 3) an accepted principle or rule. And in regards to genre canon we very much dig definition #1 as perhaps the most accurately descriptive of genre fans. Forget Joan of Arc, the Ipswich Martyrs or the fatwa placed upon the head of Salman Rushdie over that little thingy-thang called THE SATANIC VERSES. When it comes to tampering with genre canon (and especially comic book canon), the legendary “Maid of Orléans” may have had the easier way to check out as fans and fanboys have no compunction in drawing, quartering, burning at the stake and “grinding their bones to make my bread” those heretics who f**k with what they consider to be established lore.

   

     Now, as easy as it is to dismiss such concerns as those of individuals who need to, as William Shatner once said, “get a life”… (and it’s also not just easy, but unfair and inaccurate), the truth is that “adherence to canon” is a constantly sliding scale wherein one frequently has to ask, “Well, to which canon are we referring?”. For example, with SUPERMAN and BATMAN – two characters who have each been around for approximately 80 years - while they’ve been pop culture stanchions through two World Wars, a Cold War, Civil Rights and Gender Rights Movements, and the telecommunications transition from print to radio to film to TV to digital streaming, each generation had their own rendition / take on those characters which was formulated by the zeitgeist of the respective era.



        (April 1971 / May 2007)
      

     The original SUPERMAN and BATMAN were dark outsiders who brought much desired justice-through-strength to a world in the midst of incredible economic depression, local crime and global war. After the end of WWII, when Americans wanted a little peace and a lot of positive prosperity, the next generation would grow up with SUPERMAN as less the outsider / interstellar immigrant, and more the authoritarian “Big Blue Boy Scout” as depicted by TV’s George Reeves. And the dark, brooding (hell, damned scary) anti-hero who was BATMAN would jettison his violent streak to become the tongue-in-cheek self-aware / self-referential comedic kiddie-friendly do-gooder crimefighter of the 1960s.

     The Chuck Norris / Willis / Schwarzenegger violent bad-asses of the 80s and 90s would return both the Last Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight (along with guys like GHOST RIDER, WOLVERINE, THE PUNISHER and LUKE CAGE) to their more bone-crushingly anti-heroic origins. And Supey and Bats would even go head to head against one another. So, the whole canon thing, at least in our opinion (in STAR TREK, James Bond and STAR WARS too) is very much a myth which, like history, is dictated by the person living in a particular era.




  

     Not that there aren’t attributes to which one must remain faithful in adapting an iconic character to the screen. But one mustn’t be so beholden to what came before that one straight-jackets oneself into not being able to advance the character and material forward. In this regard the Marvel films have often had it easier than their D.C. counterparts because quite simply more of the general public are familiar with the intricacies of SUPERMAN and BATMAN canon (the destruction of Krypton, the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the Batcave et al) than they are with that of CAPTAIN AMERICA, IRON MAN or THOR, and certainly more than say DOCTOR STRANGE or THE BLACK PANTHER. Therefore when the iconic SHIELD organization, which has great significance in the Marvel comic book universe, is for all intents and purposes burned to the ground upon discovery that it’s been infiltrated by the neo-Nazi organization Hydra in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, most film audiences didn’t bat an eye because many weren’t nearly as familiar with the significance of SHIELD as they would be about Krypton, Commissioner Gordon or the Joker.





  

     As this is a “no spoilers” review we can’t / won’t specify, but in the movie’s much seen trailer, when you see Michael P. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger shouting to “Burn it all!”, it’s a moment which has those in the theater familiar with one of the most important aspects of BLACK PANTHER comic book canon batting their eyes and scratching their heads in disbelief. But infinitely and more importantly it turns Killmonger’s command into the modern day comic book world analogy / equivalent of Hitler’s “Night Of The Long Knives”, the Stalinist Purge of the late 1930s, and even further back to the “Death Of The First Born” decrees of Herod in the New Testament and the Pharaoh of the Old Testament Book of Exodus.






   

     Here screenwriters Coogler and Cole boldly (in our opinion damned cleverly) switch-out / sacrifice a bit of comic book canon to make the story more timeless, … less locked into a specific era, and more disturbingly parallel to every tyrant (of olden days or the modern era)’s attempt to burn down the past in the way of books, ethnic records and more; as well as the future in the way of eliminating the possibility of future revolution, revolt or revenge at the hands of those not even yet born.

    

     If you will one can (in the most laudatory of ways) think of … , refer to …, “accuse” BLACK PANTHER of “Everything old is holy sh*t new again!”. For while visually accomplished … . Hell, while visually and aurally resplendent in that the costume designs of Ruth E. Carter (AMISTAD, SELMA), production design by Hannah Beachler (CREED, MOONLIGHT), cinematography courtesy of Rachel Morrison (FRUITVALE STATION, MUDBOUND), and score by Childish Gambino’s Ludwig Göransson (30 MINUTES OR LESS, CREED) are all Oscar caliber and more than Oscar worthy … . Y’know, while as a big screen sensory experience the film is a bonafied knockout, and one of those maybe-once-per-year reasons you’re reminded why the best in home HDTV and digital projection systems will never ever replace a massive peripheral-breaking curved IMAX screen, … . In spite of all of this, BLACK PANTHER’s most impressive aspect is in its (as cliched’ and “Film School 101” as it may sound) story and characters which harken back to the classics. We’ve addressed the deliberately blatant Herod and Pharoah references, as well as the socio-historical “purge” implants.



                             (L to R) Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter, Production Designer
             Hannah Beachler, Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Composer Ludwig Gorannson

   

     But hey, as if they weren’t enough, take into account how T’Challa and Killmonger both also deftly become Shakespeare’s HAMLET in that they are each would-be heirs to a throne, and both labor under the shadow of their departed fathers. They both even (in a way at least) have scenes where they commune with their fathers’ ghosts. And those familiar with the Greek tragedy of ELECTRA can plainly see it’s narrative channeled heartbreakingly through Jordan’s villainous Erik Killmonger – who’s misplaced anger and hatred is born of a love of / for his ancestral roots of which he and millions of African descendants around the world have been denied.

    





     While, as stated earlier, comics books in general have always had this sort of “classics meets contemporary socio-political issues” facet, BLACK PANTHER manages quite uniquely the simultaneous “How the hell did they do that?” balancing act of addressing many such issues covertly, others blatantly, and all of it wrapped within one of the most fashionably slick and visual cinematic packages since Brian DePalma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES over 30 years ago. Is it any wonder that Marvel Studios head Kevin Fiege, upon his first viewing of the finished film, glanced over at Ryan Coogler and said “That’s the best movie we’ve ever made”.

              

     Indeed, it may very well be.

     Long live the King!

                                             

                                                                                                         CEJ





Based in Philadelphia, PA, screenwriter / director Craig Ellis Jamison is webmaster of the GULLCOTTAGE / SANDLOT online film magazine / library as well as creator / producer of its "CreaTiV.TV" network, YouTube "TUNEPLAY FILM MUSIC" channel, and THE MOVIE SNEAK PODCAST. He's dir. / writer / co-producer of the documentary feature STEVE VERTLIEB: THE MAN WHO "SAVED" THE MOVIES. And (to unwind) he recently began penning the 
VAULTED TREASURES FILM BLOG. 

A professed film music and jazz junkie, he's accused of being a workaholic, but more accurately feels he'll take a vacation when he's "earned" one. These days he's usually found chained to the desk in the wee hours - with a lovable pain-in-the-ass Lab / Shepered / Pitt mutt named Ripley at his side. - banging out web articles, scripts and a soon-to-be-published tome on the socio-political history of the science fiction, horror and fantasy film entitled 
"THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE". 

Drop a line and shoot the sh*t with him on Facebook, or connect via info@gullcottageonline.com




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