The craft of blockbuster filmmaking changes in two kinds of ways: through small measures or not at all. Gone are the days when tectonic plates shifted for the aesthetic and cultural upheaval brought upon by Star Wars or Jaws. Hollywood studios realised a long time ago that experimentation can realign themselves out of existence, or at least out of maximum profit.
A film like Wonder Woman is hailed as a ‘game changer’ because people no longer remember what a game-changing movie looks like. This particular film was more a case of Hollywood working to right a wrong, which also happened to present a lucrative business opportunity: countering a dearth of major female-led movies. Champions of Wonder Woman, however, generally don’t mention the fact it was written, edited, scored and shot by men, and five out of six of its executive producers were male.
To configure a broadly palletable and inoffensive experience, director Patty Jenkins continued a tradition (present in the comic books for some time) of tapering over Wonder Woman’s kinky history. The character’s early adventures were full of portrayals of bondage. Her origins were recently explored in a memorable biopic about the lasso-throwing superwoman’s creator, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. The titular professor was a polygamist, feminist and lover of BDSM, a key part of his most famous creation.
One of the interesting things about director Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther, which is much better at walking the walk when it comes to representation (with a mostly African and African American cast and crew) is that unexpectedly pointy political bits have been added in, not taken away. “Political” is hardly the first word that comes to mind after a viewing, but there are nevertheless provocative, polemical moments arresting in their brazenness.
‘Death was better than bondage’ is one hell of a line to put in a movie that cost somewhere in the vicinity of $150 million.
Before the villain of the film, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) steals – or reclaims – an ancient artifact from an African museum exhibition (a weapon from the lost, fictitious nation of Wakanda) he scolds its white curator. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he asks, shortly before killing her and a bunch of her colleagues.
Later, when the suggestion is made that Killmonger might like to collaborate a little more with his fellow countrymen (there is great division in Wakanda) he uses the occasion to reminisce on the actions of his ancestors. They jumped from the ships to avoid capture, he says, because “they knew death was better than bondage”.
The impact of Black Panther, in terms of meaningful change, is likely to be speculated about in an overblown way – as it was with Wonder Woman. But that is one hell of a line to put in a movie that cost somewhere in the vicinity of $150 million, and plays to the bleachers seats. Death was…better than bondage.
The film hardly heralds a new kind of storytelling; it’s stuffed to the gills with superhero cliches and genre tropes. It can also be aesthetically and structurally lazy, from cookie cutter, parallel cutting techniques chopping up climactic moments, to a stretched narrative teetering on the precipice between shaggy and sloppy.
Mainstream audiences are not averse to thinking and not averse to being provoked.
But man, that’s quite a moment. “Death was better than bondage” rings in my ears, with all the implications those words contain. It’s the kind of angry political statement you rarely see expressed so baldly in blockbuster movies, which have great, mostly unused capacity to carry thought-provoking messages to wide audiences.
There are other, brief but telling moments in Black Panther that go some way in distinguishing it from standard issue superhero movie fare. When a character played by Martin Freeman (who of course is white) wakes up in Wakanda and bumps into a local woman, she shrieks: “don’t scare me like that, coloniser!” And in one scene, the totally bad arse Killmonger cries. Not just a single tear, and not some kind of display of weakness. It is a moment of naked emotion. Not only is the film unafraid to show a tough man cry, it is prepared to have its principal villain sobbing like a school boy.
Despite being routinely condescended to by tinsel town, mainstream crowds are not averse to thinking and not averse to being provoked. If we must have so many big blockbuster superhero movies, they might as well contain big messages. What Black Panther has to say isn’t nuanced, but it’s passionate. The film has a spirit and pluck that compensates for its shortcomings.