“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

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Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

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Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

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Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

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Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

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His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

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I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

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Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

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We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

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It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

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It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

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Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

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Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

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There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

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Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.