Oh, yeah, Black Panther

It wasn’t bad — not quite a great movie, the premises were too silly for that, but very entertaining and lovely to watch. OK, spectacular to watch. The whole esthetic was gorgeous and stimulating.

It was also good because it was one of Marvel’s more constrained, focused efforts, with nothing about a build-up to their upcoming blockbuster, Infinity War. I very much liked the fact that it’s about the people of this one African country struggling with decisions about their place in the world. It was a big but still manageable set of conflicts.

That it wasn’t just a set-piece to lead to a bigger movie also allowed the ensemble cast to shine. This isn’t just a movie about one super guy in a fancy costume. I left the theater wanting to see a heck of a lot more about Okoye and M’Baku (let’s see a movie wrapped around the Dora Milaje!), and all of the characters were interesting. Even the villain had realistic conflicts.

One thing that annoyed me: why is an enlightened, progressive country like Wakanda ruled by a hereditary monarchy? Why is kingship settled by a trial by combat? One minute I’m thinking this looks like an awesome, wonderful place, and the next I’m wondering what other ugly flaws are lurking to wreck this utopia.

Other than that you don’t want to cross the Dora Milaje. Or is that a good thing?

Who all is going to see Black Panther this weekend?

I’m tempted to stay up way past my bedtime to catch it — we’re having a midnight showing at the Morris theater. I’m encouraged by the trailer and a few reviews. I only have two reservations, which are actually common complaints about the recent crop of superhero movies.

  • Please don’t let it be about yet another cosmic villain with godlike powers threatening the fate of the entire planet. Smaller stories are better. You’ve already got unbelievable heroes, don’t overwhelm the audience with even more amplified conflicts.

  • Please let there be some sense of humor about the whole affair. The protagonists are bouncing around in colorful tights. They shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.

Good examples of why you don’t need to blast us with gigantic world-shaking, universe-spanning battles are Logan and Ant Man. Perspective, please! Also, look at Thor: Ragnarok — despite the daunting title, it turned out to have quite a bit of humor about the whole romp.

I’ll be able to handle it if it violates either suggestion, but not both: deadly sober comic book movies about vast cosmic consequences will just put me to sleep. Especially if I do go for the late night showing.

Altered Carbon: Interestingly problematic

Good news, everyone! In the future, we’ll have flying cars! And the world will be deeply multicultural, a melange of different ethnicities, all working side by side, with equal status. That’s the bright side of the science fiction universe in Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

Now the bad side. The key innovation in this story is the ability to upload and download minds. Everyone is walking around with a little disk in their neck that archives their mental state and memories continuously; some people also have a kind of brain wifi that allows them to periodically upload everything in their head to a remote backup. This means that if someone dies, they can just cut out that disk, insert it into a new body, and voila, you are revived! Unless someone shoots you in the neck, unfortunately; destroying the archive is Real Death. If you’ve got the wifi option, you can also restore from the last backup.

Wait, what’s so bad about that? It’s effective immortality! That’s where the series is most interesting, in exploring the consequences of radical new technology. One of those consequences is that income inequality skyrockets off the charts; imagine if Jeff Bezos were immortal, and could hang onto and build his wealth for centuries. It also creates new opportunities for strange situations. Is it justice if you abolish the death penalty, and instead just freeze bodies and extract their minds and store them for centuries? How about if you use the bodies of convicts to temporarily implant other people’s disks, so that people who’ve lost their bodies can be reanimated? What if one way to punish people is to restore their minds to a body not their own: a little girl wakes up to find herself in the body of a middle aged woman, or a woman finds herself in the body of a man (there are some potential positives to explore in that part of the story, but this show doesn’t really get into them)?

This is not a technology that will ever be achievable, just like those flying cars, but it’s provocative to think about it, and the series does take advantage of a lot of the weirder possibilities and complexities, so there’s a cerebral side to it all.

There is, unfortunately, a downside to the implementation, the problematic part. It’s taken a hint from Game of Thrones, and there is gore and gratuitous nudity galore. One minute you’re thinking about the implications of being able to shuttle minds from one body to another, and the next there is a bloody gunfight, with an additional twist: in the aftermath, you get to graphically gouge out the mind disk from the necks of the casualties and crush them to make them really dead. There are many scenes of torture and bodies getting hacked up (it’s OK, kiddies, the victim’s minds are being preserved while all the horrors are perpetrated). It was…distracting, to say the least.

Similarly distracting: if a young woman is playing a significant role anywhere in the story, it’s pretty much guaranteed that she will appear naked, full frontal, before the end of the series, and will probably be in a sex scene. Offhand, I can think of only one exception. The male protagonist and a few others will also get a nude scene or three, but it’s almost an iron-clad rule that the significant female characters are going to have to flaunt everything at some point. It reaches peak absurdity in one scene where the hero stumbles into a clone bank, and a woman downloads her mind into her clone, jumps out stark naked and unarmed, and tries to fight him…he guns her down. So her mind reanimates another clone, she stupidly jumps out starkers again, and he blows her away. Repeat that half a dozen times, to no purpose at all, except to splatter the room with blood and fetchingly undressed corpses. It’s kind of peak misogyny.

Buried deep in this story, there is a fascinatingly twisty, dystopian tale with some intelligence to it, but it’s so thoroughly swaddled in blood and breasts and bloody breasts that I just don’t think it’s worth the effort to extract it. It’s a shame that such an interesting premise gets lost in mindless gore and sex (I don’t object to gore and sex, if it advances the story or enriches the world — this doesn’t). Read the book instead. It’s violent too, but at least the imagery won’t stupefy you.

Boy, in the future, people sure do get naked a lot, and commit a lot of murders, nothing like the present. Unless I’ve been attending the wrong parties and the wrong gunfights.