Saturday, March 17, 2012

3 short paragraphs: Black Panther, The Animated Series

Netflix

While DC and their parent company Warner Brothers are invested in original direct-to-video animated movies based on stories from their comics, Marvel has instead been investing in the next level of motion comics, where the actual art is taken from the page and animated. While the visuals retain the authenticity of the original illustrative style (whereas the DC animation approximates and simplifies the style) and equally maintains more of the nuance, story and serialized feel of the source (where the DC animated projects are a more compressed storytelling) the main advantage the DC movies have had is their much higher profile voice talent... not to get into a debate about working voice actors and the on-screen talent overtaking their profession... The point is there's a level of investment and perceived quality when named actors take on these niche projects, playing superheroes for an audience consisting mostly of fanboys (and girls), a sense that the people behind the scenes care more about quality more than economy.

Black Panther: The Animated Series is a hybrid between the DC and Marvel way of doing things. Co-produced by BET, it's still motion comic-styled, but BET arranged for a high level of voice talent to be involved. Djimon Hounsou, Carl Lumbly, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, Phil Morris and Jill Scott star in this 12-part series based on the first story arc from writer (and BET president) Reginald Hudlin's Black Panther run from about a half-decade back (each episode clocks in around 10 - 12 minutes). The story is loaded with plenty of exposition and flashbacks alike, but it never lacks in forward momentum. Hudlin's script is dense with caracter, backstory, and setting details, establishing the nation of Wakanda, it's culture, history, hierarchies and rituals and how it defines the character of Black Panther himself. The Panther isn't so much an individual as it is a role held by a member of the nation's royal family, he who is the Panther is the King, but available for anyone to contest on an annual basis. The story opens with a change in power as T'challa defeats his uncle T'chaka and becomes the new monarch. The precious resources of Wakanda are notorious and in a post-9-11 world the US government makes a play to align themselves with the fiercely independent nation.

The politics are a bit oversimplified, but it's kind of delightful to see an American-created series that portrays America and it's foreign policy as serious and dangerously self-indulgent (and, in a slight miscalculation, racist). Throughout the series Hudlin injects thought provoking commentary on the nature of American society, race relations, culture, all while telling an action-packed, entertaining adventure set in the Marvel universe (Captain America, the X-Men, and numerous Marvel U villains make appearances). The animation is stiff and clunky as all motion comics are, but seeing John Romita Jr.'s art animated is actually quite a treat, and really highlights how dynamic it is in a manner which I've never really appreciated in the comics. I remember enjoying reading the story in the comics and, despite my general dislike of motion comics, enjoyed it equally in the translation.