Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

August 25, 2019

Godzilla_-King-of-the-Monsters--Final-Trailer-Warner-Bros.-UK-0-46-screenshot Look, who are we fooling here? Does anyone go to a Godzilla movie for the plot? Or the human actors? For years I’ve been agitating for a disaster movie that is all disaster, or a giant-monster movie that is all giant-monster destruction, and to hell with the pallid subplots about parents trying to track down their kids in the midst of the maelstrom or whatever. Such a movie would be a pure-cinema mammoth with no dialogue and no stars except the disaster or the monsters. Name me one moviegoer who said “Let’s go see that new Kyle Chandler monster movie!” I’ll wait.

I should’ve known Godzilla: King of the Monsters, despite its promising title, would not be the answer to my demands, but really Godzilla’s amount of screen time has traditionally always been scant; in the original 1954 Gojira, the big guy only showed up for less than nine minutes (out of a 96-minute running time). But by now, the footage of humans staring at screens or discussing what to do about the kaiju or having moral debates while cities burn is so. fucking. dull. I appreciate that they’ve tried to get terrific actors like Chandler and Vera Farmiga (playing a divorced scientist couple) and Millie Bobby Brown (as their daughter), and there’s some comic relief from a sardonic Bradley Whitford. But there’s so much pressure on a big expensive thing like this — from Warner Bros., from Toho, from its own fan base — that it can’t truly be surprising or inventive.

The suspicion is that the old-school Godzilla movies play better in nostalgic memory than they do in actuality. And at least the old man-in-suit throwdowns between Godzilla and, say, Ghidorah — his big nemesis here — were fun, in a goofball way, and easier on the eyes and ears. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘R Treat), the fight scenes between kaiju are always shot at night or during terrible rain or snow storms, the better to hide the CG seams, and the design of the creatures is “dark,” grim, gritty, ugly, lacking the charm of the old critters. And when they fight, they take down skyscrapers by the dozen, and even though the movie takes pains to establish mass evacuation, so what? These are not real buildings with real people inside. The assumption that we care about loss of human life in these movies is hypocrisy. Of course we don’t. The height of true sadness here comes when Godzilla appears to be dead.

The trailers for these things are always electrifying. When the trailer for this film landed and we first saw Godzilla and Ghidorah racing at each other in the middle of a city, we shuddered and laughed and swore to catch it on an IMAX screen — I did, anyway. I’m sort of glad I didn’t bother. There’s Godzilla and Ghidorah and Mothra and Rodan and a few other beasties named Scylla or Behemoth or Baphomet or Dennis, and there’s forever the problem of showing action between really tall creatures on a really wide screen — either you have to pull way back, or go so close in you might as well be watching leather suitcases bashing into each other. (The O.G. Gojira occupied the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio.) Godzilla started out in black-and-white movies and, for all intents and purposes, has circled back there. The look of this film is gray with the occasional blast of colorful radioactive breath; the sound is bass-heavy, headache-inducing. It’s not a good time or aesthetically pleasing or even very exciting. There are two or three fantastic apocalyptic images (see above), but that’s about it.

At this point, I prefer off-the-beaten-path big-monster stuff like Big Man Japan or The Host or even Colossal. They don’t have the big guy’s name recognition, or the giddy buzz (which soon dies when you see the actual thing) of going to a Godzilla flick. But they have more interesting things to say, and therefore better things occupying our brains between kaiju rampages. This movie tells us that the monsters are vital to the survival of the human race because they maintain “balance,” even though they tend to destroy cities (Boston gets turned into an ashtray here). Their destructiveness holds our destructiveness in check. This is a bitter pill to swallow when we’re watching the Amazon rain forest die in real time, and our children’s future with it. Save us, Godzilla! But he won’t. No one will. And movies like this add to the delusion that there’s hope to be found in the rubble.

Advertisements

The Abyss

August 4, 2019

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

September 30, 2018

solo_edited The best performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as is often the case in these things, comes courtesy of someone playing a droid — Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of L3-37, who navigates the Millennium Falcon for its pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). L3-37, who has a clever ambigrammatic name, has a revolutionary spirit — she’s always agitating for the freedom of any droid she happens across. She’s passionate about her cause in a way that nobody else in this overlong movie is — mostly everyone’s out for themselves.

Which might seem like the proper tone for a spin-off movie about the smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), but it seems like a regression coming after the rather more complex view of heroism over in the current sequel trilogy, where Luke Skywalker just brushes the saga’s Joseph Campbell worship right off his shoulder. And we know Han will grow and deepen as a character, so Solo can’t help coming off like “Come see Han before he became interesting!” Ehrenreich doesn’t ring many bells as Han — he neither looks nor sounds much like Harrison Ford, the character’s previous steward — and the grinning lightness of his performance makes us think he’s trying to ape not Ford but rather George W. Bush trying to play Jack Nicholson.

God help Lucasfilm if they try a young Indiana Jones movie and miscast it this badly while missing the appeal of the character so wildly. To be fair, some of the side casting works. Donald Glover is as charismatic as you’ve heard as Lando, and has a better grief-stricken scene than does Woody Harrelson as Beckett, a thief Han falls in with, when someone close to Beckett dies. The loss of that person also means the loss of one of the movie’s better actors before the film is a half hour old, but what are you gonna do? The movie, which was started by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) and then given the directorial equivalent of a page-one rewrite by Ron Howard, moves fast (for a while, before bogging down somewhere in the second hour) and is “plotty” in a hectic, meaningless way I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I couldn’t see how a movie like this could have been any better, either.

Like many prequels, Solo often seems more like a checklist than a movie. We gotta have the Kessel run in there somewhere, so let’s make that front and center instead of leaving it to the fans’ imaginations. And we know Han wins Lando’s ship in a card game, so let’s do that, too, but leave it till last, so the audience waits the whole damn film for something they know has to happen. These supposed stand-alone Star Wars movies (Rogue One was the first) are still chained to the larger narrative and events of the core Star Wars films. I think Lucasfilm, which apparently wants to take the movies in another direction away from Luke and anyone he knew, is going to find to its dismay that nobody outside the fandom cares all that much about stories that veer too far from Luke, Han, Leia and so forth. And, judging from this movie’s embarrassing status as the first bona fide Star Wars flop, they don’t even care about Han that much unless Harrison Ford is playing him.

Ron Howard does his usual proficient, zero-personality job of work. There are at least four in-jokes in the casting as it pertains to Howard’s past as a director — you start looking for Henry Winkler in there somewhere. It makes Solo play more like an Arrested Development episode than like a Star Wars movie. Han Solo has always been a hero in spite of himself, someone who could just as easily have been bullshitting the whole “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” thing. George Lucas even originally saw Han’s boast as a blatant lie meant to impress Luke and Ben Kenobi. What if the Kessel run had actually been a complete shambolic comedy of errors? Not in this movie, it isn’t — so it turns out Han’s claim is legit and not some bullshit meant to get Han a gig he needs. Solo doesn’t just make the young Han boring; it reaches back and retrospectively makes the older Han more boring, too. That’s some trick.

Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

——————–

¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

A Quiet Place

July 8, 2018

quietplaceJohn Krasinski proves with A Quiet Place that he has the chops to direct a tense horror movie — his previous two films as director were more indie ensemble drama pieces — but please, please don’t insist that he now make nothing but horror. It’s clearly not what he’s interested in. A Quiet Place is a family-values fable and a slightly elongated Twilight Zone episode in which, as in Signs and parts of War of the Worlds, the mind-blowing and epic reality of an alien invasion of Earth is whittled down to the experiences of one family surviving out miles away from everything. The ferocious, carnivorous aliens here are blind but have hypersensitive hearing, so any humans hoping to survive have to listen hard and keep quiet. Fortunately, this family already knew American Sign Language — the eldest child and daughter is deaf (and played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds).

Krasinski rewrote a script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and maybe we have him to thank for the softer touches, when the family — father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan, and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) — try to maintain some moments of leisure and normalcy in this post-apocalyptic world of enforced silence. The kids play Monopoly with crocheted game pieces that won’t make noise; Lee and Evelyn dance to Neil Young via shared earbuds. If you can’t play and dance and hear music every so often, the movie seems to say, what’s the point of survival? This puts it one up on grimmer dystopias whose motto might be Talking Heads’ “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no foolin’ around.”

There certainly has been some foolin’ around, since Evelyn is pregnant and soon to deliver. How this is supposed to work in a defensively soundless world, where the usually loud exertions of childbirth and the shrilling of a newborn would spell death, is best left unpondered. Wikipedia informs me that Lee is an engineer and Evelyn a doctor, neither of which identity is pointed up very much in the movie proper, although we have to assume Evelyn has some medical knowledge and Lee knows his way around electronics. (Most of the film takes place over a year into the alien occupation, yet the family home still has electricity, thanks, we assume, to Dad the Gyro Gearloose.) A Quiet Place is a combo of a fable about a family banding together and a technical exercise that works the nerves, and it worked mine while it flickered in front of me, but it has left me with sense-memories of being jostled and worked over and not much else.

At least M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs had a subtext (loss of faith) and some juicily tormented acting by Mel Gibson. A Quiet Place is technically superb — although Krasinski doesn’t make as much use of sound design as he could have — and its storytelling as well as acting is pared way down. This is, I guess, The Family persevering against The Threat, whatever The Threat is, and The Threat can be whatever you want it to be in these bifurcated times. The movie is as apolitical, finally, as Get Out was political, which is fine, or would be fine in times that didn’t demand that people of conscience take sides. A Quiet Place just takes sides against The Alien, and when you consider to what depressing metaphorical use that could be put by some viewers in this particular atmosphere, you may sigh and conclude that Krasinski has, perhaps shrewdly, made his Threat readable emotionally as something either side of the divide fears.

Krasinski thinks A Quiet Place is “an allegory for parenthood,” and it seems to run on trust that we, collectively, have raised our children to make good decisions and to know what to do when the monsters come. Let’s all hope so. Despite the cathartic tragedy during its climax, the movie has unwavering faith that brains and bravery will win the day. Bonus points for presenting a disabled character who is not “inspirational” but complicated, unhappy, self-blaming — a typical teenage asshole in a lot of ways. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, and A Quiet Place has been overpraised by those who see more in it than is there. Ultimately it operates on the old homely Hollywood bromides that have been sold to us as jes’-folks values since there have been movies. Work the land. Keep to yourselves. Keep your head down. Keep quiet.

Annihilation

June 17, 2018

annihilationThe legitimately unnerving sci-fi horror film Annihilation is, of course, about more than its events. It uses alien life and mutation to reach a sidewise view of human alienation and depression. Which may not make it sound like a hoot and a half, and it isn’t — the movie is humorless in a way that tends to inspire either derision or protectiveness. I fall on the protective side: Annihilation is the real deal, doing what science fiction and horror are supposed to do, speaking dark truths about our condition while planting seeds of dread in fertile imaginative soil.

Its writer-director Alex Garland, liberally adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer with elements of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” and other works, also gave us 2015’s Ex Machina, which probed artificial intelligence and the lack of humanity of the humans who develop it. One might conclude Garland doesn’t like us as a species very much, but I think he values our flaws, which make for good drama. Annihilation is informed as much by the disease-sympathizing ethos of David Cronenberg as by anything else; in Cronenberg, a disease that kills a human is only trying to live and thrive. The alien atmosphere, a rainbow barrier known as the Shimmer brought here by a meteor, makes odd and colorful tangles of the landscape and mutates the local wildlife. “It’s not destroying,” says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). “It’s making something new.”

Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has come back from the Shimmer seemingly an empty husk, soon hemorrhaging badly. Kane has been MIA for a year, and Lena volunteers to accompany a group of scientists into the Shimmer. The mission is to reach a lighthouse struck by the meteor and come back — if they can come back — with some data. The team, led by psychologist Jennifer Jason Leigh, is all-female; much has been made of recent distaff reboots of sausage-fests like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11, but Annihilation sort of gives us a stealth all-woman The Thing. (Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny’s geologist round out the group.) Some of the wild and elaborate redrawing the Shimmer does to humans rivals the taffy-pull aesthetic of Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking effects for The Thing with a side order of H.R. Giger’s tortured biomechanics.

So, yeah, Annihilation may be made out of used parts, but it’s Garland’s thematic emphasis that sets the film on its own track. Lena has spent a year wallowing in grief, deflecting the advances of a colleague she eventually sleeps with. The inclusion of this man (David Gyasi), from the strict perspective of “moving the plot forward,” seems extraneous, but emotionally it feels right. Portman’s Lena is sometimes prickly even in the relatively happy flashbacks we see of her with Kane; she isn’t a natural hero or an easy one, and all her teammates also have demons — addiction, self-harm, bereavement, cancer. Annihilation is partly about self-annihilation and all its forms, and what this means for the cast is that they all get to tear into complex, wounded female characters. Needless to say, the film also passes the Bechdel Test eight ways to Sunday.

Is the movie also anti-human, casting us metaphorically as invaders who deform everything around us? (Remember The Matrix and its humans-as-virus speech, or countless others.) As I said, I think Garland prizes us warts and all; you can’t tell stories about the intersection of humans and AI, or humans and alien life, without the humans. Garland, though, also wants us to consider the hopes and dreams of the interloper, the tumor, the invasive depressive thought, the non-belonger who shapes its surroundings until it belongs. The movie illustrates the difference between xenophobia and understanding. It is human, I suspect, to fear the other, to the point of kidnapping and jailing the other’s children, perhaps. Annihilation and its themes appear loudly relevant right now, but in truth its concerns will always apply and it will be evergreen.

Black Panther

May 13, 2018

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.