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‘Panther’ proves Black Movies Matter

Blockbuster film embraces and celebrates black culture

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Black Panther, gay news, Washington Blade

Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Black Panther.’ (Photo courtesy of Disney/Marvel)

Created in 1966 by Marvel founder Stan Lee and artist/author Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics. It took 50 years – and the rise of Marvel to the level of multimedia powerhouse – for him to make his big screen debut in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Two years later, he has a movie of his own, and it’s a lot more than just another spin-off; it’s a watershed moment in the cultural narrative.

It’s not that its story is anything unexpected; on the surface, the film largely adheres to familiar formula. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is heir to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is secretly the world’s most technologically advanced society. Part of his role as ruler is to assume the mantle of Black Panther, a warrior-protector who defends the country with the help of superhuman powers bestowed through ancient tribal rituals. His transition to the throne is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael P. Jordan), who seeks to use peaceful Wakanda’s superior resources to dominate the rest of the world. It’s up to T’Challa and a handful of loyal supporters to defeat him and regain control over the country’s fate.

This hero-versus-villain scenario – though executed with the cleverness, style and technical expertise that has become the well-established standard for these Marvel films – is typical fodder for blockbuster entertainment, which aims for thrills and not much more; but “Black Panther” has its eyes on a higher prize.

Thanks to the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” is the vehicle for a wide-ranging array of cultural messaging. This is no safe, middle-of-the-road adventure; Coogler and Cole have made a barely concealed political allegory in which Wakanda becomes a stand-in for (among other things) America itself.  Struggling between its self-preservationist isolationism and its role in the global community, it becomes a nation divided; its leadership, plagued by past failures and uncertain of future direction, is usurped by an outsider with an extreme ideology who seeks to subdue or silence any opposition to his agenda; and its citizens must choose between patriotic duty or resistance against the ominous course set by the new regime. Add to this the fact that the resistance is largely driven by smart, empowered females, and the parallels are hard to miss.

More significant than the Trumpian overtones, yet profoundly complementary to them, are the ways in which “Black Panther” embraces and celebrates black culture. It’s reflected in every aspect of the film, from the colorful costume and scenic designs, which incorporate heritage and history into its imagination of an Afrocentric futurism, to the exploration of social themes that not only recur throughout but form the very basis of the story’s central conflict.  T’Challa’s struggle is not just with an arch-villain; it’s a conflict between opposing ideas of social justice. Do we right the wrongs of the past with education and leadership, or do the subjugated strike down their oppressors and change the world by force? This is, of course, a superhero fantasy, so it’s no spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t end with an all-out race war; still, it’s significant to note that “Black Panther” does not oversimplify these questions, and that it takes pains to present all sides of the discussion in a sympathetic light.

That all of this comes through so clearly is a testament to the talents of the movie’s creators and cast. Director Coogler navigates his way through the dense trappings of the sci-fi setting without ever losing track of the story’s heart and soul – or its big ideas. Boseman brings the charisma and fire he displayed in Black Panther’s “Civil War” debut, and he deepens the character with a vulnerability that makes him a hero even more to be admired. Jordan’s turn as Killmonger gives us a complex, human antagonist who earns our empathy, instead of the kind of caricatured “bad guy” that would turn the movie into a one-sided parade of tropes.

The rest of the cast is no less important, and no less impressive. Lupita Nyong’o, as Nakia, is no mere love interest, but a force to be reckoned with. Danai Gurira, as Okoye, general of Panther’s bodyguard, is a fierce and imposing presence whose wisdom is every bit as formidable as her physical prowess. Letitia Wright, as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and chief technical mastermind, is impish and irreverent, providing a hip and youthful energy while establishing herself as a supremely capable and self-sufficient heroine in her own right. This is a trio of proud, smart, compassionate women that could fully support a movie of their own.

Representing the older generation are Angela Bassett and Forest Whittaker, both regal and indomitable as T’Challa’s mother and adviser, respectively. Martin Freeman reprises his “Civil War” role as CIA agent Ross, using his much-loved deadpan befuddlement to great effect; though essentially serving as a “token white” character, his likable persona serves as an important reminder that unity in the cause of justice is not defined by race.  Andy Serkis, the movie’s only other significant white actor, gives a gleefully colorful performance as the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue.

All these stellar contributions blend together into the whole; no one element outshines any other, and “Black Panther” shines all the brighter for it.

As good as this film is, though, its importance does not lie in its quality.

The movie’s opening weekend ticket sales in North America outstripped anticipated figures; its global take for the weekend shattered myths about the overseas performance of movies featuring non-white actors. It had the highest gross for a February opening in history, and the fifth highest of all time. Black audiences turned up at theaters in droves, sometimes as part of school and church groups, often dressed in clothing celebrating their cultural heritage. There has even been a campaign to register voters at theaters showing the film.

The impact of such a film – one that fills an oft-lamented gap for mainstream movies featuring people of color – should have been a no-brainer. For a major studio release to be so unapologetically “black” is a major step forward that is long overdue.  To be sure, Marvel’s film comes in the wake of such surprise successes as “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” and feels connected to last summer’s “Wonder Woman,” which delivered a similar shock to the system, and Pixar’s Latino-themed “Coco.”

Even so, “Black Panther” feels like the crest of a wave. The Hollywood industry, like any other business, is motivated by money; this movie has made a lot of that, already, and will certainly make much, much more. The studios will receive that message, loud and clear, and if history is any indication, they will clamor to jump on the gravy train.

Hopefully, at long last, that will mean more movies about and by non-whites.

Whether or not it will also encourage a more inclusive atmosphere for other underrepresented groups – like Latino, Asian, or LGBT audiences – remains to be seen.

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Queer ‘TV Glow’ a surreal horror gem

Challenging and surprising us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious

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Justice Smith and Bridgette Lundy-Paine in ‘I Saw the TV Glow.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

In an age when so much of our consciousness is fixated on screens, it’s no surprise that the year’s most effectively soul-shaking horror film so far should be about precisely that.

It’s certainly not the first movie to take on the topic. Using television and computer screens to evoke creepy chills was a “thing” even before David Cronenberg used “Videodrome” to blur the lines between the physical world and the electronically conveyed imitation of it we often substitute for the “real thing.” In “I Saw the TV Glow,” however,  the focus is not so much about the natural fears that arise from our reliance on technology to help us navigate our lives – the dangers of artificial intelligence or the violation of privacy to manipulate us or make us vulnerable – as it is about something much more primal. Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s second feature might center on our fears around pop culture obsessions and the dangerously delusional fantasies they inspire, but its real agenda lies in a somewhat less obvious direction.

Tapping into shared millennial memories about the kid-friendly fan-culture fodder our televisions fed us in the 1990s, Shoenbrun’s movie revolves around Owen (Justice Smith), whose early teen years take place within that era. Reserved, anxious, and out-of-step with the conventional expectations embraced by his parents (Danielle Deadwyler and Limp Bizket frontman Fred Durst), seventh-grade Owen (Ian Foreman) finds himself drawn to lesbian ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) when he spots her reading a book about a TV show called “The Pink Opaque.” His fascination, partly fueled by the “forbidden” nature of a series that airs past his strictly enforced bedtime, leads the two into a secretive friendship, in which they bond over the quirky fantasy it presents – in which two teen girls with a psychic connection battle monsters together despite living on opposite sides of the world – and come to experience it as an escape from reality, which reflects and helps to alleviate their own respective unaddressed personal traumas.

Fast forward to roughly a decade later, when Owen, now working in a go-nowhere job at the local movie multiplex, reunites with his former friend – surprisingly, considering that she had disappeared around the same time that their favorite TV obsession was canceled abruptly, with a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger left as a final discordant note. She tells him a disturbing tale of being trapped inside “the world of the show” after memories of “The Pink Opaque” began to blend with reality in her mind, suggesting that their own identities are somehow tied to its two heroines and that its outlandish mythology is somehow more “real” than the lives they remember living themselves – and triggering a similar process in Owen after their encounter leaves him questioning his own memories of the series and its influence over his fate.

Anyone who has seen Schoenbrun’s debut feature – “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (2021), which, like “I Saw the TV Glow,” premiered to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, putting the nonbinary filmmaker in the upper bracket of rising talents to watch – will know that their unique narrative approach has a way of keeping the viewer off balance, and that’s something that works brilliantly to give the newer feature its disconcerting impact. Though it incorporates elements of the “body horror” subgenre to elicit some squirmy moments, it’s more unsettling than outright scary, achieving its creepiness by undermining our perceptions and reminding us of the unreliability of memory – in essence, by removing the illusion of certainty from our experience of reality, calling everything we assume about it into question. We aren’t the first to note the similarities between the filmmaker’s approach and that of David Lynch, whose disorienting nonlinear style would have obvious parallels to theirs even if it wasn’t peppered with visual callbacks to some of the latter director’s iconic work; far from being mere imitation, however, it’s the use of a shared visual language to take us on a surreal and sometimes nighmarish journey, which operates under the malleable rules of dream logic as it shape-shifts its way through a narrative that feels as much like free-association as it does a story. 

What makes it particularly effective is that it captures the kind of cultish fandom those of latter generations feel around the precious TV memories of their youth – frequently around the kind of loopy, outlandish sci-fi fantasy shows like the one at its center – and the reasons why such pop culture fodder have such appeal for anyone who, like its two protagonists, feels like an outsider in a world that seems to have no place for them. We’ve all felt like that at some time or another, no matter which generation we are from, so we can relate – just as we can relate to the experience of revisiting a show we loved from our youth and finding it different than we remembered, something this movie deploys brilliantly to hook us into its premise and spark our own paranoid fantasies about mind control over the broadcast waves, supernatural or otherwise.

But while Shoenbrun’s film succeeds masterfully at triggering all those “hidden message” fantasies that emerge in our pop culture – the hubbub over “backward masking” on rock albums comes to mind, or the uproar over the demonic influence of role playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” – it delivers a much more existential level of fear almost through its stylistic approach alone. By challenging not only our memories of the past but our perception of the here-and-now, “I Saw the TV Glow” pulls the rug out from under our belief in a concrete reality. Further, by following its saga through several stages of life – it follows Owen over a course of 30 years – it drives home the inevitable connection between aging, loss of control over our own minds, and ultimately, death itself as the fate which awaits us all. 

Yes, that sounds pretty grim, and melancholy to boot – but after all, why shouldn’t a horror film embrace those qualities? And like the best horror films, this one finds a transcendent beauty in the twisted darkness it shows us, even if it offers us little  – beyond the escapist fantasies we cling to from our youth, that is – to comfort us as we face the grim uncertainties of our own lives.

How it accomplishes that is something we’ll leave you to discover for yourself, but we would be remiss not to note the movie’s deeply queer/trans subtext – both its lead characters are ostracized for non-conformity in their sexual or gender orientations, though most of that is conveyed “between the lines” rather than explicitly explored – which brings a tangible and resonant layer of metaphor to the proceedings.

Admittedly, “TV Glow” might not be the kind of horror film for all fans of the genre – its nonlinear style and surrealistic resistance to concrete interpretation are sure to alienate those looking for a more easily-digestible experience. Nevertheless, it’s a rare genre film that steps outside its expected boundaries to challenge and surprise us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious – and that’s more than enough for us to jump on board.

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Deliciously queer ‘Dead Boy Detectives’ a case worth taking on

A light-hearted, smart, and complex sensibility behind the fantasy

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The cast of ‘Dead Boy Detectives.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Believe it or not, there was once a time when the Hollywood entertainment industry didn’t take comic books very seriously — but then, neither did anyone else.

In the early days, comics were dismissed by most adults as childish fantasy; indeed, those with a penchant for clutching pearls saw them as a threat to their children’s intellectual development and therefore to the future of America itself. Their popularity could not be denied, however, and Hollywood, ever eager to capitalize on a trend, was certainly hungry to get a piece of the action.

The problem was that the studio lackeys assigned to adapt the comics for the screen during those “golden years” were never actually fans of the comics themselves. The result was a parade of kitschy – if occasionally stylish – low-budget serials, kiddie matinees, and “B movies” which operated, for the most part, at the level of cartoons, and mindless ones at that. Even in the 1960s, when comics like “X-Men” had begun exploring mature themes and turning the comic book into a counterculture phenomenon, the best that Hollywood – now deploying the then-relatively new medium of television – was a “Batman” series that felt even campier than the corny serials of three decades before.

Yet despite being treated as a throwaway genre with no cultural significance or intellectual value, the popularity never went away – and with the generation that grew up with comics now old enough to be working in Hollywood themselves, a new burst of creativity began to infuse the screen’s version of the genre with the kind of nuance and sophistication that fans had always known was there. Fast forward to 2024, when comics-based content dominates not just our movie screens – nobody needs to be told about the way it has shaped (some would say crippled) the mainstream film industry for the last decade or so – but all our other screens, as well. And while much of the material that has resulted from this obsessive fascination with comics (and comics-adjacent material like “Star Wars” and other similar fantasy franchises) often suffers from the same safe “appeal to the LCD” mentality that robbed the vintage stuff of its potential, the artistry of creators who are fans themselves has also resulted in a lot of genuinely good storytelling.

In the latter category, we offer up “Dead Boy Detectives” – a new series derived from a supplemental thread in renowned comics creator-turned-bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking “Sandman”, which debuted last week on Netflix  – as a counter to the increasingly popular notion that comic books have hamstrung the industry’s creativity.

Based on characters and storylines that emerged during the original run of Gaiman’s iconic book (published by DC Comics via its Vertigo imprint), it’s a fresh, funny-yet-emotionally engaging supernatural saga in which two ghosts who died in their youth – the titular “Dead Boys” – operate a detective agency in London, solving mysteries for other spirits who need closure before moving on to the afterlife.

The boys – Edwin (George Rexstrew) and Charles (Jayden Revri) – are not themselves quite ready to depart the earthly plane, however; on the contrary, they operate on the lam, making sure to keep one step ahead of Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, reprising her role from Netflix’s acclaimed “Sandman” adaptation) so that she can’t drag them out of it before they’re ready. Something of a mismatched pair (both died at the same English boarding school, but 60 years apart), they nevertheless have established a fondness for each other and a dynamic together that makes them an excellent team in solving the supernatural crimes they encounter in their work. Their biggest handicap is the difficulty of dealing with the living – who, for the most part, cannot see or hear them – when it becomes necessary in an investigation. Fortunately for them (and for the story, of course), they find a solution to that issue during episode one.

Enlisted by the ghost of a Victorian child to rescue the human medium – Crystal Palace (Kassius Nelson), possessed by a former boyfriend who was actually a demon (David Iacono) – that has been trying to help her “cross over”, the detectives find themselves with a living ally who can not only interact with them, but also with the “real” world in which they do their work. With Crystal  on the team, they are soon called to an American seaport town to investigate the disappearance of a child – who, it turns out, has been abducted by a witch (Jenn Lyon) intent on draining her youthful essence in pursuit of her own immortal beauty. We don’t want to give anything away, but during the course of the case they not only incur her wrath, they set off alarm bells on the “other side”, calling attention to the fact that two AWOL souls are still lingering in the human world.

Things get worse for them in the second episode, when Edwin attracts the interest of the local “Cat King” (Lukas Gage, “White Lotus,” “Down Low”) and subsequently finds himself cursed to remain until he has “counted all the cats” in town – a daunting and maybe impossible task. 

Though jumping into the second installment might feel like getting ahead of ourselves, it’s important to look ahead for the sake of exploring the show’s deliciously pervasive queerness, so forgive the spoiler-ish leap; because it is Edwin, who died in an era long before being openly attracted to other boys could even be discussed, let alone accepted, that serves to root the story’s tension into a real-life context that helps all the supernatural nonsense connect with relatable real-world experience and emotion. Uncomfortable more than a century after his death with the secrets of his own sexuality, he finds himself hampered by his jealousy of the obvious growing attraction between his literal BFF and the new girl psychic who has joined their team – as well as vulnerable to manipulation from both the witch who has it in for him and the Cat King who… well, let’s just say that Edwin’s cat-counting curse could be easily lifted if he would only accept another way to appease the libidinous (and far from unappealing) feline monarch.

It’s best we stop there, before we reveal too much; the series – developed by Steve Yockey and produced by (among others) original author Gaiman and out queer TV impresario Greg Berlanti – sets up its story arc very plainly from the beginning, so savvy viewers will read the subtext long before any definitive events take place, but much of what makes it fun is watching how it all unfolds.

Suffice to say that, with engaging performances from all its players, a light-hearted, smart, and complex sensibility behind all of its fantasy elements, and a palpably queer vibe that leaves plenty of room for allies to jump on board, too, it’s one of the more worthwhile (and meaningful) “comic book” stories to hit our screens in a long while.

Maybe more importantly, it’s also entertaining, which makes it easy for us to recommend “Dead Boy Detectives” as a case you’ll definitely want to accept.

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It’s game, set, and mismatch in unfulfilling ‘Challengers’

Not quite a bisexual love story for the ages

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Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connell in ‘Challengers.’ (Photo courtesy of MGM Amazon)

For months now, most of the buzz around Luca Guadagnino’s newest film – “Challengers,” starring Zendaya as a professional tennis coach caught in an ongoing romantic triangle with a pair of male rival players – has been about how “bisexual” it would be.

After all, this was the man that brought us “Call Me By Your Name,” and even if the Italian filmmaker’s work has not always been that queer in focus, this premise was begging for it; and when the trailers started to drop, heavily laden with imagery that made the bisexual subtext blatantly obvious, the speculation – and the anticipation – only grew.

As it turns out, “Challengers” wasn’t teasing us in vain – but it may not even matter, because after spending two hours and 10 minutes with these characters, it’s hard to imagine any viewer, whether straight, bi, or a total “Kinsey 6,” wanting to feel represented by them.

Told in a non-linear patchwork format, Guadagnino’s movie – penned by Justin Kuritzkes – chronicles the complicated relationship that develops when two high school tennis champs, boyhood friends Patrick and Art (Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, respectively), encounter high-profile pro prospect Tashi (Zendaya) at the US Open juniors. Infatuated at first sight as much by her prowess at the game as by her looks or personality, they woo her together, resulting in a steamy but thwarted three-way experience that ends with her promising her phone number to the one who wins the next day’s match.

More than a decade later, Tashi and Art are a married, wealthy power couple with a child; they’ve risen to fame after Tashi, sidelined by injury into a career as a world-class coach, has helped Art rise to international prowess, while Patrick, who originally won the challenge to become Tashi’s lover, has sunken to the level of low-ranked has-been after brief professional success. Art has hit a slump in his upward trajectory, so to freshen up his game, Tashi enters him into a small-time “challenger” tournament where Patrick, now scraping by on his meager winnings from lower circuit events such as this one, is a “wild card” entry. The rekindling of old rivalries and complex feelings between this intertwined trio of “players” results in a final competition in which the outcome has more to do with unrequited personal passions than it does with tennis.

Ostensibly both a sports movie and a romantic drama, it’s a film that wastes no time in tying its two themes together for an exploration of how the competitive instinct that might be essential to one can be a major obstacle when it comes to the other. Thanks to its back-and-forth time structure, we are rushed through all the necessary twists and turns of a 13-year romantic triad quickly enough to recognize immediately that the need to “win” supersedes every other desired outcome for these three people; more than that, in the broad strokes that emphasize the quick deterioration of their affections in the pursuit of the “game” (a word we use here both literally and figuratively), it becomes obvious that none of them are capable of recognizing how much influence their lust for victory has over their relationships with each other. To put it bluntly, in an era when polyamory has gained traction as a legitimate variation on the spectrum of human commitment, “Challengers” reads a little bit like a primer on how NOT to do it right.

That might, of course, be a big part of the point. In a story about professional athletes driven by the urge for victory trying to negotiate the delicate balance of self-respect and selflessness required to maintain a successful romantic partnership – no matter how many partners may be involved – it’s probably an inescapable element of the plot that there would be a struggle to reconcile those two conflicting impulses. The trouble is that, here, the three characters involved are so far removed from typical human experience that it becomes difficult to relate to any of them. They operate within a privileged world that is out of reach for most of us, and the conflicts that arise in their triad dynamic mostly arise from pure ego. It’s hard to feel empathy for such individuals, frankly, especially when it’s clear that their own mindset is the greatest obstacle to fulfillment in their lives, both professionally and personally. They’re all spoiled brats, and unrepentantly so.

It’s because of this that “Challengers” comes off as the kind of glossy, old-Hollywood fantasy that is more about wish fulfillment than anything else. Each of its protagonists is impossibly attractive; fit, sexy, and living an enviable life even when they’re struggling just to get by. They are the kind of people many of us wish we could be – and that, ironically, perhaps makes us dislike them all the more.

None of this is the fault of the players, who uniformly give the kind of fully invested performance that illuminates the humanity of their characters beyond negative cliches. Zendaya, never shying from her role as master manipulator in the film’s twisted “long con” romance, makes us feel the visceral need for competition that eclipses her less imperative impulses toward personal connection. O’Connor (“God’s Own Country,” “The Crown”) and Faist (Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) are not only eminently likable, but present an unvarnished and completely believable chemistry as would-be-lovers who can’t quite get past their self-judgment to embrace the obvious feelings they have for each other. The fact that we believe equally in their impulse toward the dazzlingly self-actualized Zendaya makes their performances all the more stellar. Unfortunately, within the larger context of the film, their appeal is tarnished by our ambivalence toward the dynamic the characters perpetuate between themselves.

And what of their sexuality? Is “Challengers” that rare mainstream movie that vaults over the film industry’s long-lamented “bi erasure” to present a bisexual love story for the ages? Not quite. Even if its ending (spoiler alert!) suggests that the entire movie has been about two men getting over their toxic masculinity to embrace their true feelings for each other, the fact that it never defines that relationship as a queer one and chooses instead to leave it up to our individual interpretation feels like something of a cop out. In the long run, perhaps, it’s a better tactic to avoid labeling its relationships in terms of sexuality, since the cultural “endgame” at stake has arguably more to do with normalizing diversity than amplifying an individual sense of identity – but even so, it can’t be denied that, when “Challengers” reaches its final moment, we’re left with a sense of ambiguity that feels far too “safe,” too much a capitulation to the fragile mainstream sensibility, to advance a sense of acceptance for the “B” in “LGBTQ.” In the end, it’s a movie that stops short of the mark for the sake of the lowest common comfort zone.

Which is why, sadly, we have to set “Challengers” aside as a failed – if well-meaning – attempt at providing visibility for the most traditionally invisible faction of the queer community, instead of the unequivocal validation of bisexual attraction we’re still waiting to see.

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