So I’ve seen both Black Panther and Death Wish over the space of a couple of days. I came to the conclusion that, for different reasons, it wouldn’t be possible to talk about either one of these movies without talking about politics, politics, and more politics. So this, officially, is *NOT* a Mindless Diversions post. (That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to follow the regular site rules in comments, though.)
There are spoilers for Black Panther here. I guess? Theoretically? There are spoilers for Death Wish? But if you’ve seen the trailer for Death Wish, you’ve seen more or less every single plot point in the movie and the spoiler, such as it is, is that Death Wish is spoiler-proof. Black Panther, however, is *NOT* spoiler-proof and I touch on some of the potential spoilers below.
Black Panther is the latest in the Marvel Superhero Universe and tells a great rip-rollicking tale. If you haven’t seen it already, it’s yet another Superhero story (that Marvel under Disney does oh-so-well) and we get the full backstory of T’Challa, The King of Wakanda (and son of T’Chaka, Wakanda’s previous ruler) and see how he becomes worthy of the title of King (and, yes, the title of Black Panther). We go through the full Marvel treatment with gorgeous sets that you can’t believe are green screened, special effects that you kinda believe are green screened, interesting villains who are given at least one good speech that make you say “the bad guy kinda has a point there”, and action sequences that have your jaw on the floor.
The bad guy in this film is Killmonger: a nephew of T’Chaka and cousin to T’Challa. Raised in Oakland by his father, little brother to T’Chaka, he learned about Wakanda being a place of wealth and beauty that refused to help the people of Oakland rather than of Wakanda as a beautiful oasis unsullied by the awful poverty found elsewhere in the rest of the world. When Killmonger makes it to Wakanda, he announces that he is N’Jadaka, son of Prince N’Jobu, and would like to challenge T’Challa to the throne. After a successful challenge in physical combat, Killmonger announces that he will send the wealth and weapons of Wakanda to all of the oppressed of the world that they might fight back against their oppressors. T’Challa puts a relatively quick end to this and kills Killmonger and puts the kibosh on arming the world’s oppressed. He abandons the idea of isolationism, however, and establishes programs that will help with affordable housing, education, science, and so on.
Which is where I begin to feel somewhat confused. Killmonger makes an interesting moral argument (indeed, there’s even a #KillmongerWasRight hashtag floating about the twitters) but the writers rely on a fairly subtle trick to discredit his argument:
If you take an interesting moral argument and put it in the mouth of someone who commits an atrocity or two, you can cheapen the argument without addressing it. Sort of a meta-ad hominem. Instead of arguing that the person who made the argument is bad, and therefore the argument is wrong, the movie instead *SHOWS* that the person who made the argument is bad, and therefore the argument is wrong.
Now, at the end of the movie, they *DO* end the isolationism (there’s another hashtag going around pointing out that #NakiaWasRight) and, much like at the end of The Last Jedi, the argument is that we don’t win by destroying what we hate but by saving what we love…
But they never really addressed Killmonger’s moral argument. They waved it away by pointing out that it was made by a bad, bad person.
(There was another character who made a surprising argument about refugees. W’Kabi says “If you take in refugees, they will bring their problems with them. Then Wakanda will be like everywhere else.” Now, W’Kabi does find himself on the wrong side of the final confrontation’s conflict… but the end of the movie shows Wakanda engaging in reaching out to the outside world. It doesn’t show Wakanda taking in refugees. Once again the movie resolves the problem of the argument not by refuting it, but putting it into the mouth of someone who loses a fight.)
Anyway, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty much a wonder. It consistently puts out high-quality superhero movies that not only please the general audiences who aren’t that familiar with superheroes who aren’t the Big Names but also please the long-time reader and collectors who know, at a glance, whether the Iron Man suit they’re looking at is the 2nd one, the 3rd one, the 4th one, or the 5th one. (Does it have pointy things over the eyes or are the pointy things pointing back at the temples?) That said, most of the Marvel Superhero movies suffer from something like “Men In Black” syndrome. You watch the movie. You enjoy it. You walk to your car and go home and go to bed but, somewhere between the theater and waking up the next day, you get flashed by the Men In Black and you can’t remember a thing about the movie you just saw other than that you have some general good feelings about it.
So now, I sit here after seeing Black Panther wondering if I’m going to remember anything about it tomorrow. Better write this stuff down now.
(Two days later… Um… I remember Killmonger being interesting. I remember having problems with some of the science and tech. I remember the mountain guy who was also one of the guys on Person of Interest. Everything else is fading into the “general good vibes” that I feel for Ragnarok and Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy 2.)
Black Panther *IS* the Marvel Movie version of sci-fi and so it will therefore have a lot of magic-ish technobabble as it talks about technology, but there is a scene where somebody gets shot in the spine and thanks to the magical technology of Wakanda, he is healed and his spine is fixed within *HOURS*.
I was reminded of the movie Elysium for that scene.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a movie that came out in 2013 as a fable about inequality. There were two worlds. The ugly and torn-up Earth and a very, very rich city in the sky called Elysium. Well, Elysium has these medical machines that cure everything. Genetic diseases, lost limbs, whatever. Go into the machine, push a button, and *POOF* you’re cured. It can even reverse the aging process! Of course, only Elysium people can use the machines and sick people from Earth can’t. The climax of the movie involves a sick-unto-death earthling child being put into one of the machines and the button being pressed and it healing her.
“Dang. They sure put a lot of thumbs on that scale!”, I remember thinking.
Anyway, Wakanda seems to have tech that is this good. They’ve been keeping it to themselves for decades. Maybe centuries.
This isn’t portrayed as the moral monstrosity that it was in Elysium, though. It’s only kinda troublesome when you go to the fridge a couple days after the movie.
It’s difficult to talk about Black Panther without talking about race. I thought that the movie was pretty good, like a lot of the other Marvel Superhero movies but, yeah, I’m a white guy. I see Superhero movies pretty regularly and, yeah, pretty much all of the other ones have had white protagonists (insert paragraph about Blade, Meteor Man, Hancock, Spawn, and (sigh) Blankman somewhere around here). This is the first movie with a black superhero since, oh, Blade II that has had a decent script, decent director, and a decent budget. But more than that: it’s also the first movie with a black superhero that also had a black supervillain, a black supporting cast, a black writer, a black director, and so on and so forth. (Indeed, if you’re wondering how many white folks have more than one or two scenes in the movie, there are but two. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman.)
So while I was just watching a Superhero movie, the umpteenth in umpteen Superhero movies, I also know that there were a *TON* of people out there who did *NOT* look like me who were *FINALLY* watching a *GOOD* Superhero movie with a black superhero that also had a black supervillain, a black supporting cast, a black writer, a black director, and so on and so forth.
So while I was just watching a movie, I know that for a lot of people out there, this was not just a movie but a landmark event.
But that, itself, created drama. There were some groups out there who said that they were going to sabotage Black Panther’s reviews the way that they trashed The Last Jedi’s and those of the recent Ghostbusters remake, and Rotten Tomatoes said that they were going to take steps to prevent that sort of thing from happening. Well… I guess when they took steps to prevent that sort of thing from happening, it (temporarily) resulted in Black Panther being the highest rated movie of all time at Rotten Tomatoes. (Shortly after it made it to the top of the list, it was removed from the list entirely in some attempt to keep the list’s integrity, I guess.)
And that sort of thing makes it difficult to say “I thought the movie was pretty good” knowing that that will be read as insufficient enthusiasm for an Important Cultural Event. But the movie was, indeed, pretty good.
You know how Black Panther did the whole “you don’t win by destroying what you hate, but by saving what you love” thing?
Death Wish does *NOT* do that.
Death Wish is a movie that deals with the issue of shooting what you hate. Maybe torturing it for information about other things that you hate so you can shoot that stuff too.
Death Wish is a Superhero origin movie of sorts. Bruce Willis is Dr. Paul Kersey, a surgeon at a big hospital in Chicago (is there any other city in which this story could be told in 2018?). He’s got a lovely wife about to finish her PhD, a lovely daughter fixing to go off to college, a brother who probably drives him crazy but whom he loves anyway, and a good life in general.
But there’s a home invasion burglary that goes wrong and his wife is killed and his daughter is put in a coma. He turns to the police but the police are inept and he sees a wall covered with 3×5 cards upon one of which is his incident … but it’s surrounded by practically identical 3×5 cards. So many crimes. So many criminals. So little justice.
If you want more than that, just watch the trailer. The broad strokes of the movie are all pretty much in there.
The original Death Wish did something fairly interesting: the bad guys who attack the protagonist’s family have their wicked scene at the beginning and then we never see them again.
Charles Bronson walks around the city shooting criminals who aren’t the ones who hurt his loved ones. So when he shoots a bad guy, there isn’t revenge going on. He’s, instead, shooting someone a lot like the people who hurt his family. Or, maybe they are. They probably are. They’re criminals, anyway.
Which creates a weird, nihilistic ennui in the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Justice he dishes out.
This Death Wish does not do that. Sure, at the beginning of the movie, he shoots people who are merely criminals rather than criminals who were directly related to what happened to his wife and daughter. We get around to the ones involved in the attack in good time and then it turns into a revenge movie proper. He’s no longer shooting people who are probably just as bad as the ones who hurt his family. They are exactly that bad. That removes an interesting ambiguity that the original had and feels like Eli Roth putting his thumb on the scale (one of many that he places there).
It’s not merely a commercial for the NRA. The movie throws a lot of little Easter Eggs to conservative-types (rather than at them). For example, at one point there is an economics book that gets discussed and it’s by Milton Friedman. At another point, the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe shows up. There’s a lot of talk radio from different sides of the spectrum coming straight from the mouths of Mancow on one station and Sway on another and they’re debating this guy who is shooting criminals out there on the street as if there are two sides to the debate.
Subtlety is absolutely *NOT* this movie’s strong suit. There are montages that involve shots of Dr. Kersey learning to shoot right next to shots of Dr. Kersey removing bullets from wounds.
If you are a fan of guns, you’re really going to be surprised at how guns are handled in this movie. For example, if you’ve ever thought “man, if that guy were firing a Glock like that, he’d cut that meaty part of his hand between his thumb and forefinger!” Well, guess what happens? Yep. The guy cuts the meaty part of his hand between his thumb and forefinger because he was firing a Glock like that.
So if you’re a fan of guns, well, you might like this film. They treat guns with enough respect to show what happens if you don’t know what you’re doing.
If you’re hoping for an interesting moral argument? Oh, you may want to see Black Panther instead. There are no interesting moral arguments to be found here. There are either arguments that you agree with or arguments that you disagree with but none that you can really wrestle with. There are too many thumbs on too many scales for anything but having your priors confirmed (one way or the other).
Death Wish is also a movie that is difficult to talk about without talking about race.
Bruce Willis is a white guy who shoots a bunch of criminals. Sure, some of the criminals are white (most of them are white, now that I think about it), but he also shoots an unsympathetic African-American drug dealer and I think the first person he shoots is coded Hispanic. But the murders of people of color happen early in the vigilante portion of the movie before digging deep into the “he’s only shooting white guys at this point” portion.
And it felt weird that he was only shooting white guys. Like they were going out of their way to demonstrate that they weren’t being racist because, hey, the torture and interrogation and those murders are only committed against white guys at this point so what are you complaining about? Almost a “racism by void” kinda thing.
In the same way, the attack on the family is much more restrained than in the 1974 flick. There are only (“only”, he says) threats of sexual violence in this movie when, in the 1974 one, those threats are carried through and brutally. So it’s almost a nicer movie than the original because of that.
That said, you’re not likely to remember much about the movie two days later. It does what it does competently enough but, for better or worse, not particularly memorably.
I found both movies to be well worth the $10. But I’m also the type to enjoy both movies. When I think about whether these movies are likely to change the mind of someone who does not care for the genre they exemplify, I don’t see either one changing any minds.
Black Panther is an exceptionally competent Superhero movie with an interesting villain. Death Wish is an exceptionally competent Revenge flick with an interesting protagonist.
If you hate Superhero movies, this ain’t gonna change your mind. If you hate Revenge flicks, this ain’t gonna change your mind.
But if you’re inclined to like these sorts of things? Buckle up.