Why Black Panther is less about Black Panther than you’d think (and why that’s a good thing)

au_rich_hero_blackpanther_1_3c317c85

Black Panther was a pleasant surprise.

I’ve stayed current on the Marvel releases, and have enjoyed them, each to lesser or greater degree. While the ones that I consider to be ‘duds’ (I’m looking at your, Dark World) pale in comparison to the best Marvel films, even they were fun. That is to say two things:

  1. I’m biased towards liking these movies anyways.
  2. I went into the movie thinking I’d enjoy it on some level.

Point two is so important, because it highlights my only real expectation for the movie: it’d be a fun romp in a somewhat established universe. I knew very little about the character, except that he’s from Wakanda and a supposed badass. I also knew about the connection between Wakanda and vibranium. I watched Civil War, so I picked up the tidbits in there. Thats. About. It.

What I wasn’t expecting was a movie with the heart, nuance, and smarts of Black Panther. There’s a ton that could be lauded about in this movie – the music, cinematography, plot,  and setting are great examples – but the standout to me were the characters (and the outstanding performances by the actors portraying them). Now, days later, my wife and I can’t stop talking about who we liked more, and can’t wait to see it again.

Of all the things I could talk about, I’m going to focus this piece on one particularly powerful aspect of this film that really resonated with me: the villain.

{{WARNING:: Spoilers ahead!!}}

The central struggle of Black Panther revolves entirely around the consequences of a choice that T’Chaka, title character T’Challa’s father, makes. These consequences take years to come to light, and when they do, they affect the surviving family of the one who made the choice in the first place. This highlights a truth about the world: the choices real people make have a long-lasting impact on the world around them – even after they leave it. A well-written character needs to be able to have this effect, too, as it helps cement them in a living, breathing world. Black Panther pulled this off spectacularly.

pt_blackpanther_characterposter_killmonger_2347cd00

It was nice to see the physical manifestation of T’Chaka’s mistake, the antagonist, Killmonger, presented as a sympathetic character by the end of the movie. Part of mecould understand why he did what he did, part of me felt the longing in his heart, and part of me wanted to punch him in the face. He was lost in a world that wasn’t his own, forsaken and left to struggle. He wanted to make his way home, so he did it the only way he knew how: by using all the skills he learned in an unloving and unforgiving world. My takeaway was that Killmonger truly did want what was best for Wakanda, it’s just that he had gross misconceptions of what that was. Instead of molding himself to his homeland, he took his distorted worldview and, using his unique set of skills, tried to force Wakanda to match. Beyond anything else – even the anger and resentment – I got the feeling that Killmonger was just a lonely guy.

The beauty of this great, nuanced portrayal of villainy, is that it led to the resolution of one of my only character gripes in the movie: I thought T’Challa was just a bit too passive through most of the movie. Only a couple of times does he actually make a choice and take actions that drive the plot forward: once when he decides to lead the attack against Klaw in Korea, and once in the mid-credits scene. Its this mid-credits scene that fixed it for me though, because not only did it demonstrate T’Challa taking action, but it demonstrated him owning his decisions and embracing his role as the leader of a powerful nation. That’s when it hit me – unlike other Marvel movies that struggle with portraying active characters (like Doctor Strange), Black Panther did this intentionally. T’Challa wasn’t being passive because of poor writing, he was being passive because of the character’s general inability to take control of the world around him as he struggled to become leader. The burden of responsibility placed on him early in the film weighs him down until his climactic confrontation with Killmonger, who’s own goals inspire T’Challa to own his title and all that comes with it. It is a testament to Killmonger’s strength as a villain that despite him being the main antogonist of the story, he’s the one that ultimately inspires T’Challa to take Wakanda in a new direction – a direction much aligned with Killmonger’s own plans, albeit through different, more peaceful means.

black-panther-movie-end-credits-scenes

Few movies I’ve seen have done what this movie did – it tricked the audience in all the right ways. We thought we were going to see a movie about Black Panther, but what we got was a movie about Killmonger that happened to have Black Panther in it. While the POV more heavily followed T’Challa’s exploits, the movie opened on the beginning of Killmonger’s character arc and followed it through to the end. It was Killmonger’s actions that, in most cases, drove the plot of the movie forward as T’Challa was forced to adjust and react to those actions. Only because T’Challa’s arc fits with him playing the passive role is this able to work. Then, when T’Challa is finally triumphant in the film’s final few minutes, its like the torch is passed from antagonist to hero – from then on, it’s up to T’Challa to be a King and lead his people.

We need to see antagonists that are fleshed-out, living people and not just punching bags. We need to see ‘bad guys’ that give more to the story than they take away from it. Black Panther is a movie that shows consequence of action, meaningful conflict, and the inspiration and learning that should come from those experiences. Although Killmonger’s actions drove the story, its these actions that, by the time the movie is over, retroactively gave meaning to T’Challa’s character my making all of the antagonist’s actions have very real impacts on the protagonist. Killmonger wasn’t just an obstacle that T’Challa overcame, he was an opportunity for T’Challa to grow as a character, and this is evident when the mid-credits scene rolls.

Black panther was great. It subverted my expectations and, I think, created a benchmark on how to write and use an antagonist in a movie – something that Marvel movies have sometimes struggled with. I hope that the folks at Marvel Studios are taking note, because this is how its done. Kudos to all the actors who were outstanding in their roles, and particularly Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan – I look forward to seeing more of their work going forward.

Let me know in the comments what you thought – did you like Black Panther? Tell me what your favorite parts of the movie were!

Pros:

  • Superb acting
  • Stunning visuals of Wakanda
  • Music was unique and inspired
  • Costuming very well done
  • Pace, plot, and characters

Cons:

  • Some obvious CG, especially during fights – could have been better (although only a minor issue when compared to all the great CG that is also in the movie)
  • Final fight between T’Challa and Killmonger was in a dark tunnel area – difficult to see and follow.

Overall, I give this movie:

vibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibraniumvibranium

9/10 rods of smuggled Vibranium

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s