One of my lowbrow vices is superhero movies. For me it’s a continuation. My boyhood best friend and I collected and swapped American comic books. I fell in love with the United States through their stories and their advertisements targeting US contemporaries who seemed — from the purchasing power assumed — to be more prosperous than humble me in the 1960s North!
I was a DC boy; favouring Superman, Batman and Green Lantern over Spider-Man, Thor and the X-Men but as a modern movie phenomenon there is no question that Stan Lee’s Marvel Studios is winning. Perhaps because it has been better at creating a coherent imaginary universe (the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”) where all the characters live and interact and the stories intersect.
I enjoyed the appearance of King T’Challa, the Black Panther, in “Captain America: Civil War.” Race is such a toxic factor in American society that it was inevitable the character’s first movie to himself would involve identity politics. I told myself I could ignore that, just as I have to ignore so much other Hollywood political nonsense to enjoy good stories being well and expensively told by great actors and other technicians
I told myself wrong.
I can only account for the good reviews by some equivalent of the Rotherham effect. “To criticise this piece of trash is to invite accusations of racism. So let’s lie, say it’s good and keep our jobs.” Perhaps even the editors were afraid of such accusations? How else to account for the slow pace? Perhaps the producers were afraid of them too? How else to account for their tolerance of acting (with the honourable exception of Andy Serkis) so wooden as to be a fire risk — not that any of it ever does catch fire.
The plodding rhythms of the comedy-Nigerian accent adopted for the imaginary African tech-superpower of Wakanda lull one relentlessly to sleep. I have never had a distracted chat during a Hollywood car chase before — I LOVE a car chase — but when one doesn’t give a damn if the heroes live or die, a raindrop’s path down a window pane could distract.
All the black actors have to do is look stern and noble. All the white actors have to do is be white. Like the wearers of black hats in 50s cowboy films, you just know they’re “the baddies”. When they show up in Korea with predictably nefarious intent they are called out over the good guys’ radios as “Americans” — through gritted teeth. America being, you see, a bad place where black people are “over-policed”. Even Stan Lee’s cameo is seedy, damn it, and he’s the very god who made this universe!
Andy Serkis at least has fun. His character is a racist (natch) so he hams it up with an Afrikaans accent. He’s a great actor and (pace Martin Freeman who CAN be great but shamed himself with a meretricious performance here) he steals the movie. He does it from the villain’s role just like the late, great Alan Rickman stole Robin Hood Prince of Thieves from Costner’s wooden acting and a crappy (though far more engaging) script. To show I’m not a snob in these matters, RH—PoT is one of my favourite movies, thanks both to Rickman and to Morgan Freeman in an early precursor of today’s ideology-warped rôles.
My interest was briefly piqued when the simple racial divide between good and evil was breached by a black character behaving badly. Spoiler alert. He turns out to be merely misguided; wanting Wakanda to come out of hiding and use its technological superiority to liberate the world’s black people by overthrowing every government on Earth and ruling them “the right way” — i.e. as an empire led by an absolute monarch legitimised by a religious hierarchy. In short everything that would be wicked if the emperor’s skin lacked melanin.
Fortunately the Black Panther prefers splendid isolation (“Build that wall, King T’Challa!”) to black imperialism. So it’s back to “black skin, good and noble” and “white skin, bad and sleazy”.
The Ku Klux Klan would have been ashamed to tell a tale with so little nuance. Don't waste your money! And please don’t encourage Martin Freeman to prostitute his undoubted talent like this again.