In “Black Panther,” the juiciest Marvel Studios movie in years, there’s a moment when the spear-wielding Wakandan general played by “Walking Dead” alum Danai Gurira perches atop a car speeding through the streets of Seoul. She’s in pursuit of Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his machine-gun-wielding henchmen.
Once the bullets start flying, the general is disappointed but not surprised with the world outside her magically isolated but supremely advanced African nation.
“Guns,” she says. So uncivilized.”
It’s a throwaway line, but a sharp one. For once in a Marvel superhero movie, the crucial action sequences aren’t designed to make us drool over the latest automatic weaponry (though Klaue boasts a prosthetic forearm concealing a machine gun). When the climax arrives, it’s not the customary battle royale of outsized, computer-generated hardware. It’s better than that; the conflict between Black Panther and Killmonger, the conciliatory king and the any-means-necessary revolutionary, is rooted in something more primal and elemental.
This is one of the great strengths of “Black Panther.” And until its protracted CGI-heavy finale, it was a hallmark of director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” as well. In “Black Panther” co-writer and director Ryan Coogler marshals his troops to make a movie in which the people on screen matter, in human terms. Crucially, his characters are the ones typically sidelined in a Marvel movie (or a DC adaptation, for that matter) while top-billed white men of means, like munitions magnate Tony Stark, unveil ever-cooler ways to slaughter their enemies.
As Black Panther, when Chadwick Boseman’s final showdown concludes, it’s not with a bang. Or a whimper. It concludes with an unexpected elegy. The final words spoken by Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (I’ll avoid spoilers) are so simple yet so moving and effective, it’s like watching an entire corporate franchise discover the virtues of complexity and context.
Chicago critics didn’t get a look at “Black Panther” until weeks after the Walt Disney Co. screened the film in Los Angeles and New York. I saw it Tuesday, the day Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer was shot and killed downtown.
The “Black Panther” screening preceded, by a day, the most recent school massacre, this one in Florida, this one (like so many others) allegedly carried out with legally available weapons the National Rifle Association champions with one hand, while shoving millions into pliable, gormless, Second Amendment-misinterpreting politicians’ pockets with the other.
Whenever there’s another mass murder in our country, action films become a strange and ghoulish experience, beyond whatever the filmmakers have created for our consumption.
There are times when the gun fatalities and revised statistics get to you. They’re too much. Too much. There are times when movie slaughter, and extravagant, adrenaline-pumping shootouts, cannot easily be enjoyed.
I feel this as a critic and a civilian. Even when I was much younger, I got cyclically fed up with being asked to root for the alleged good guy with the .44 Magnum, the black-and-white certainty of purpose. In 1986 I reviewed the Sylvester Stallone thriller “Cobra.” The movie is an unusually brutal mixture of “Dirty Harry” policing and serial-killer depravity, and midway through I thought: Life’s too short for this crap.
I was 25.
The release of “Cobra” didn’t coincide with a school-shooting news cycle. It was just another movie in another year, one that profitably (if not memorably), did its job: It let Stallone seethe and kill, for our diversion. Some action movies are like bear-baiting. And we, the audience, are the bears.
There are compensating factors, of course, when the right action movies come along. I’ve loved plenty of violent movies, the ones in which the excitement and the stakes and the filmmaking skills take my mind off the fetishization of weaponry.
The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe pictures are plenty violent in their PG-13 way (though of course millions will be taking their preteens to “Black Panther” this weekend). It’s up to the filmmakers to establish a set of visual and kinetic ground rules for the action, the violence, itself. Working and thinking like grown-ups, directors Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler made a lot of the killing in “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” come to something purposeful. Compare their achievements to a Zack Snyder “Superman” movie, where the brutality grinds on and on, numbingly, and you appreciate them all the more.
So here we are again. The arrival of “Black Panther,” an unusually strong action movie with more than gunplay on its mind, coincides with one of our frequent, politically divided periods of mourning.
There are those who hear and read about our real-world murder rate. Who live it. They seek solace and catharsis in escapism, and in screen violence. I understand the impulse, even if I don’t usually share it.
On Tuesday, that throwaway line from “Black Panther” about guns and civilization worked one way. In the wake of what happened later on Tuesday, and the Florida school massacre Wednesday, the fictional Wakandan general’s utterance sounds more like a campaign platform ideally suited for early 2018 America.
Movies in conversation: Join Michael 7 p.m. Feb. 22 for a presentation (and rock-solid, sure-thing predictions) on the upcoming 2018 Academy Awards. Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park. For more information go to hplibrary.org.
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.