BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume contains the middle portion of a three-part story arc written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The books included are “Black Panther (2016)” #5-8 and “The Black Panther: Jungle Action” #6&7.

As the subtitle suggests, the fate of Wakanda is at stake and King T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, must find a way to keep his nation from falling. Public displeasure with T’Challa is being exploited by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary group called “The People.” Tetu is allied with a powerful psychic named Zenzi and—in contrast to the populist message his organization’s name suggests–the arms dealer Ezekiel Stane. However, while the might of Tetu and his allies represents a dire threat, the greatest challenge might be from a beloved scholar named Changamire, who holds both the moral high ground and the voice of reason. As Tetu sought to co-opt ex-Dora Milaje members Aneka and Ayo (now called the Midnight Angels) to gain legitimacy as well as their strength, he also seeks to get Changamire in his corner.

As the main plot of political intrigue unfolds, there is a subplot involving T’Challa’s sister Shuri who is trapped in the Djalia—Wakanda’s plane of collective memory. For a time T’Challa is forced by events to set aside his desire to get his sister back in order to battle Tetu both outright and by rekindling goodwill in the hearts and minds of his people. However, Shuri’s lessons in the Djalia, delivered by a griot in the form of her mother, are interspersed throughout the story, and by this segment’s end T’Challa finds it impossible to delay his search any longer.

Coates presents us with a human T’Challa, one who makes mistakes and whose mistakes exacerbate the threat to Wakanda. His most notable mistake is allowing himself to be talked into convening a council of “counter-revolutionary” experts who, in fact, consist of heads of the security apparatus for several corrupt regimes. His only saving grace is that Tetu has even more skeletons in his closet. T’Challa has to deal the best he can with situations in which there is no clear high ground, and that makes for a more intriguing story than one normally associates with superhero comic books. By the end of this Volume, it seems that Black Panther—along with his allies Manifold, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Storm—has turned things around by defeating Stane and uncovering the lair of “the People,” but then one realizes how fragile Wakanda remains.

The two bonus books “Jungle Action” #6&7 are from the early 1970’s and feature an earlier challenge to T’Challa’s throne from his archenemy Erik Killmonger. I can see why these two comics were included. Said books might be viewed as influences on this story, but there may have been better choices. At the end of the third volume (reviewed concurrently), there’s material from a 2013 run that offers great insight into why T’Challa is on the outs with his people. For those of us who pick up select stories (i.e. not all-reading fanboys), the insight offered in Volume 3’s supplementary material would be useful earlier in the reading process. (Preferably it would be in Volume 1.) The first volume includes a single book from “Fantastic Four.” It’s fun to read because it’s Black Panther’s introduction into the Marvel-verse and it shows us how formidable Black Panther is as well as letting us in on the secret that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. However, I think knowing why the Wakandans are so disgruntled would help make Coates’s story more powerful.

As it’s a comic book, I should mention the artwork–even though I have no particular insight into graphic artistry—comic book or otherwise. All I can say is that I liked the art and found it effective and clear. I viewed the book in black-and-white, so I have nothing to say about color palette.

I enjoyed this arc and thought this section of it had a good balance of peril and victory for our hero. I’d recommend it broadly. I don’t think you have to be solely interested in comic books or the Black Panther character specifically to find this story intriguing.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-UltronAvengers: Age of Ultron opened across India today, April 24, 2015. This film is set sometime after the events of the second films in the Captain America and Thor solo “trilogies.” We know this because Thor is on Earth and the Falcon (in a cameo) makes an offhand comment indicating that he’s spending time looking for Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier. Furthermore, we know it because the opening scene is the Avengers working as a team to take down Baron Von Strucker’s fortress (re: Captain America 2 end-credit scene) in a fight to obtain Loki’s scepter. This scene suggests that the team has been working together for a while in taking down Hydra bases of operation globally. (Many have jokingly inquired why Steve Rogers (Cap) wouldn’t have called in his avenging friends during the events of the Winter Soldier film.  This film reinforces, rather than solves, that riddle.) At any rate, that opening scene contains an awesome action sequence.

The core premise of the film will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for this film–not to mention the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and post-credit scenes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to “create a suit of armor around the world” and the program–dubbed Project “Ultron”–goes terribly awry.  After Ultron comes into existence, he quickly moves to co-opt the Maximoff twins (better known as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) Because the twins have an axe to grind with Tony Stark, they willingly side with Ultron. The Scarlet Witch is instrumental in Ultron’s plan. If you haven’t seen the trailers don’t finish this sentence, but for others it will be apparent that the Scarlet Witch’s mind control is used to pit some Avengers against either themselves or others.

The tone of this film is different from the first Avengers movie. In the first film much of the tension springs from unfavorable first impressions and standoffishness. Now the characters know each other and love-hate relationships are rife–some more loving and some more loathing than others. This may make it easier to relate to what’s going on between the major characters. The strained relationships inside the team remain an important factor, and are crucial to the films going forward–most notably Captain America 3: Civil War.)

While the trailers may have led one to believe this would be a big film for Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) given the flashback scenes, it’s actually Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) who has a more pivotal and revealing role in this film. (Perhaps to the chagrin of the many who wonder why he’s even on the team.) However, the evolving relationship between Romanov and Bruce Banner gets a fair amount of screen time–though the need to pack a lot into the film given the huge cast makes this drama feel a bit thin. The twins and their tormented past are also critical to the tone of the film. They hold an event from the past against Stark, but they are ethical people at their core.

The Vision is the character that has been held closest to the vest by Marvel. I won’t say much about Vision to avoid spoiling anything other than that it’s an intriguing character. I was worried that either the way this character was created or the effect he had on the story would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t.

I think James Spader did an excellent job of playing Ultron–a character that vacillates between being childlike and being a grim psychopath. (One may not get the childlike part from the trailers, but this is a brand new intelligent entity, and so it’s clever to show that.)

Like the first Avengers movie, this one has its bit of deus ex machina (bolt from the blue solutions to once insolvable problems), but it’s not the perfection of story that makes these movies engrossing. (I didn’t find it as deus ex machina as the first film–though there is at least one moment that springs to mind.)

What sells these films is: a.) the witty dialogue;  b.) the stunning visuals of the action sequences; and c.) the tension between characters both friend and foe. (Probably not in the aforementioned order.) On those three items this film doesn’t disappoint.

I won’t even bother to recommend you see it, as I’m sure–like everybody else on the planet–you will.