Tracking Black Panther

One of the more controversial topics in Hollywood is the concept of whitewashing – casting a white actor in a role meant to be Black, Asian, Native American, Latin, or other ethnic group. Some of the more egregious examples are Laurence Olivier (and Orson Welles) playing  Othello – in blackface, Ralph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson; Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Katharine Hepburn (Dragon Seed), and John Wayne (The Conqueror) as Asians; Johnny Depp as Tonto (Lone Ranger); Tilda Swinton as an Asian man (Dr. Strange), or the one that ruined my childhood: finding out that Native American Iron Eyes Cody of the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign was actually a man of Italian descent.

Big-Budget Black-Lead Films

In fact, serious big-budget black films are hard to come by. Indeed, most of the highest-grossing black-lead films are comedies (Eddie Murphy has 5 of the top 7, not including Beverly Hills Cop), despite some very top-quality dramas (The Color Purple, Fences, Moonlight, The Help, Soul Food). Yet Samuel L. Jackson – I’ll see anything he’s in – ranks number TWO on the list of actors with top box office revenues, pulling in a combined domestic gross of more than 7 BILLION dollars for his 126+ films (#1 is Stan Lee. He has a cameo in every movie he makes). Even Hollywood protested the lack of serious roles for black actors, and stirred a controversy over a glaring absence in Oscar nominations despite worthy black films, a problem starting to be rectified in 2017. Not great if you’re a black kid looking for role models. The Adventures of Pluto Nash just doesn’t cut it.

A New Superhero

Now, Hollywood may be on the verge of a true black superhero blockbuster with the release of February’s Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th release into its megahit superhero franchise. Following his debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa – holding the title Black Panther – is the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, who gains superpowers from a heart-shaped herb and connections to a mystical Panther God. When his father is assassinated in Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to discover his claim to the throne being challenged. T’Challa must team up with a CIA agent and the Wakanda Special Forces to prevent a world war.

The History of Black Panther

Black Panther was the first black comic book superhero, ever (1966), so early he predates the political party. Chadwick Boseman does a phenomenal job as T’Challa, and the movie promises to have the same serious craft and attention as the rest of the Marvel films. The previews are visually stunning, with rich ethnic textiles and cultural details that leap off the screen, drawn from no fewer than five different African cultures. Not only a superhero, but a culturally relevant one as well – which of course, immediately started another controversy whether or not the movie is celebrating African culture or trying to appropriate it. The movie was originally green-lighted in 2011, and the script approved in 2015. Hollywood doesn’t get better than this.

Of course there are now other black superheroes. Luke Cage’s TV series has had luke-warm reviews. As the XMen movies progressed, Storm played less and less of a role. Sam Wilson is a great sidekick, but no Captain America. Iron Man’s buddy Rhodey Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot may be Don Cheadle, but he’s still just a sidekick called in when an extra guy is needed (at least, in the films). In Black Panther, black youth – and everyone else – may finally have found a superhero they can look up to, in full, serious, big-screen, big-budget glory, and he is Marvel-ous.

Dark Justice

       4810718-7340774645-the-b_Arl6x9k I don’t read comic books; the drawings v. words are too visually distracting for me. The ones I hold tight in my file cabinet you’ve probably never heard of. But I love Batman. Adam West Batman. Super Friends Batman. Keaton, Clooney, Kilmer, Bale, I like them all. And yes, I had no problem with Affleck’s performance. Nine Batman films have raked in a combined profit of more than $2.2 Billion – no small change. I like Wonder Woman, and Spiderman, and don’t get me started on how much I love the Avengers.

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But I don’t like Superman. Never did. My favorite would be Super Friends Superman, and after that it’s Chris Reeve or nothing. Perhaps he’s too squeaky-clean – far more than Captain America, and too powerful. Krypton is one of the rarest gases, one part per million of our atmosphere. You would have to sift an awful lot of air to gain enough Krypton to affect him. Barring Lex Luthor, Superman is more or less invincible, and no one likes a prissy Lawful Good (this is the same problem fought in the X-Men series, Watchmen, and Captain America: Civil War). What good is a hero who has no faults and can’t be harmed?

51omO8G3K-L._AC_US160_Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – due on DVD July 16 – didn’t grab me from the start, but I went to see it because – well, Batman. If you haven’t seen the last reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, be prepared for confusion, for BvS takes up right where Man of Steel left off. Batman is mighty ticked at Superman for all the damage he wrought in lives and property, and takes it upon himself to curtail Superman in a surge of animosity that seems to come out of nowhere. Batman’s good for a simmering revenge, not a sudden “You need to be taken down, I don’t like you” petty vindictiveness. Batman, a mere mortal with cool toys, tries to take down a superbeing who cannot be stopped. Needless to say, it does not go well.

Batman v. Superman seems lost in its own purpose. It’s a fair Batman film, a wooden and flat Superman film (Spider-Man has more lines in Civil War than Superman did in BvS), and if Batman-V-Superman-Zack-Snyder-Trinitythere’s any shining hero here, it’s Wonder Woman. If anything, it’s merely a clunky prequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. In fact, you probably could have cut the whole rivalry down to 30 minutes, then began the Wonder Woman movie, and had a much better film.

My biggest gripe with the film, writing and directing aside, is that Batman breaks character. Guns are not Batman’s forte. Batman does not carry them, Batman does not shoot them. Batman is about outsmarting the villain and bringing them TO justice, not carrying it out himself. Batman is the thinking man’s hero. Batman never even kills the Joker. But here’s  Batman, shooting and killing like Rambo. That was my breaking point. And it is quite established that Batman is well-versed in martial arts; Batman’s moves in BvS are poor at best; slow and unconvincing.

batman-vs-superman-dawn-of-justice-movieIf you hunt for it, there are enough good bits to make the film worthwhile; all the Wonder Woman scenes among them. It is certainly nowhere near the abysmal level of 1992’s Batman Returns, with Danny DeVito as a deformed demented Penguin – surely the lowpoint of his career. Forbes magazine nails the issues with the film quite nicely here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2016/05/09/captain-america-civil-war-shows-exactly-why-batman-v-superman-failed/#6dda5e6446bb.

If you really love the superhero genre, then by all means watch it. There are far worse superhero films out there – Green Lantern and Eric Bana/ Incredible Hulk (2003) come fast to mind. But if you really want to see superheroes eating their own and winning at it, wait for Captain America: Civil War.