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Black Panther (2018)

I was pleased to see that last year’s Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture. I have no idea whether it is – I average about five a year, basically – but it is extremely entertaining, and unlike several of the Marvel movies, it holds up completely and totally the second time around. I think there’s only one genuine flaw in the script, and that’s the bit where T’Challa swears to W’Kabi that he will either kill or bring back their enemy Klaue. A lead character says something like that, he might as well just keep talking. “And I will fail in this, driving a wedge between us that will take the climax of the movie to resolve.”

I’ve got another complaint: we don’t see nearly enough of Wakanda, and that’s a credit to director Ryan Coogler and a team of amazing production designers who make the city look like the most amazing place on the planet. There’s a shot that lasts about one second of a street vendor grilling some meat. I want to taste it. Can you imagine Anthony Bourdain doing a Parts Unknown about Wakanda? Wouldn’t you want to live in this world?

Michael B. Jordan plays an amazing villain with frightening and very real motivations, and his great flaw is that he can only see Wakanda as a source of weapons and violence. He doesn’t pause to see how beautiful the land and its people are, and how remarkable their technology is. His character’s father once told him that the sunsets in Wakanda are the greatest in the world, and he doesn’t remember until his dying minute.

I think Black Panther is just a great film, full of backstory and love and it feels so real in every scene. I certainly think this is among the most entertaining of the Marvel movies, thanks in large part to the excellent cast and the terrific sense of design and wild tech. Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o are wonderful as former lovers brought back together by duty. Letitia Wright is so fun as the scene-stealing genius Shuri, and if you don’t finish this movie wishing for a spinoff or a miniseries where Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya argue about whose turn it is to walk the rhinoceros, I dunno what to tell you.

I haven’t read very many Black Panther comics. I mainly saw him in the pages of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and the villain was invariably M’Baku, and thank heaven they reworked him for the movie. The comic Man-Ape was a clown, an embarrassment, and M’Baku and his separatist tribe are anything but. I like Winston Duke’s character a lot. In fact, the sooner they can get this sequel into production, the happier I’ll be. There won’t be room for Forest Whitaker or Michael B. Jordan’s characters outside of flashbacks, but it doesn’t even have to be an action-adventure superhero epic. Just give me weird tech stuff, the Dora Milaje hammering their spears into the ground, and Chadwick Boseman’s fabulous performance as a flawed king moving past his father’s mistakes. We’ll be back in Wakanda in seven days for the next Marvel movie, but they didn’t spend enough time there, and the body count is heartbreaking. I want two hours in this place.

Oh, and third quibble: and if we could have a little less of Atlanta pretending to be London next time, and the High Museum of Art pretending to be the Museum of Great Britain, that’d be great.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Even before Rogue One reached its amazing final half-hour, it had become my favorite film in this series. The sense of dirt and desperation and real, terrible danger is just so engrossing that I was as captivated as could be. I started worrying, pretty early on, that nobody was getting out of this one alive. When Forest Whitaker’s character becomes collateral damage to the Death Star’s first test, I was riveted in a way that Star Wars movies, no matter how entertaining they’ve often been, rarely demand of their audience.

A second pass revealed one or two dents in this movie’s armor. I didn’t like the “no, I have to stay in this exploding base cradling dead Mads Mikkelsen while someone shouts ‘we have to leave him!’ at me” scene. They could have cut five minutes, easy, if they’d just had the Rebel Alliance agree to attack the planet Scarif, which they ended up doing anyway. But these are minor, and the film remains amazing.

I asked our son “So what’s the best Star Wars movie?” and he said “This one.” He’s right.

One of the most remarkable moments came when Donnie Yen’s character, a blind monk called Chirrut Îmwe, finally meets his end. Our son got upset with the death of a heroic character, for probably the first time since he saw the death of Jaime Sommers more than a year ago. He wasn’t bothered by the deaths of Han Solo or the Fourth Doctor, but when Chirrut dies, he was trembling and clutching his security blanket.

There’s so much to like in this movie already. I liked seeing Richard Franklin for about two seconds, and I thought the CGI Peter Cushing used to bring Governor/Grand Moff Tarkin was impressive and wonderful. Forest Whitaker’s character, an extremist so ruthless that he frightens the rest of the rebels, deserves a movie or two of his own, and there’s a droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I like almost as much as I like R2-D2. Almost.

Then we get to the finale and when K-2 goes down and then Chirrut goes down… the lump in my throat got really big. The outer space stuff remains as exciting and wild as ever, and there’s a brief respite when one of the alien admirals (Raddus, possibly) orders a “hammerhead” ship to ram a Star Destroyer that’s lost power and plow it into another, which might just be the most wonderful and air-punching special effects moment in any of these movies.

But the cost of those plans… there’s a line in the first movie about how a lot of lives were lost getting those plans. Seeing it happen was beautifully heartbreaking. I loved Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I don’t need a pile of cartoon TV series or novels to expand her story. These two hours were all I needed. Erso is a very good character in a fantastic story. And the best stories have endings.

Speaking of which… as if this film wasn’t already my favorite, director Gareth Edwards waits until the last three damn minutes to calmly play his masterstroke. In the first three movies, Darth Vader was more evil and menacing by reputation than by action, unless you were a back-talking Imperial officer. Unless you’ve been reading the many comic books that have been published, you never got to see the character engage in the kind of brutal butchery he doles out at the very end of this movie. It’s remarkable.

Rogue One is a great film, and my favorite of the ten by some measure. I’m glad my kid agrees.

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