Something that never occurred to me the first time I watched Black Panther was how similar it was in so many ways to the first Thor movie from way back when. There were so many big introductions to the MCU within this movie that the parallels between the two stories was completely lost on me.
When I spoke about the first Thor as a part of this series, I was somewhat critical of it not really holding up. In many ways, this movie seems like it’s taking that story and just doing it better. Which shouldn’t be taken as belittlement of Black Panther in any way, because it does plenty different that more than makes up for the shortcomings of the movie I feel like it was maybe trying to make up for.
T’Challa being a combination the big three
There was a period in the MCU where we had a “Big Three”. Up until the end of Phase 2, most of the movies revolved around Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, with any other movie being a bit of an oddity and most characters introduced as supporting characters within the movies of these “big three”.
It wasn’t until Civil War and Doctor Strange that the Marvel Cinematic universe started to feel much more open, with characters weaving in and out of each others movies to the point that the character’s name sat at title screen felt much less important.
While that concept of a big three is gone at this point, T’Challa as the main character of this movie shares elements from each of these other heroes in his makeup. He’s got Iron Man’s wealth and technology supporting him, he’s got Captain America’s sense of right and wrong driven by a strong moral compass and he’s got Thor’s family problems. All of which include daddy issues, a troublesome brother-like figure and the weight of responsibility of an entire people relying on him.
Unlike Thor though, he bares the burden of leadership rather than running away from it.
While there are other aspects to T’Challa’s character, none of them are pronounced enough to give him any real personal arc throughout the movie. He’s hot headed at times but it never really becomes a trait that causes him any major heartache. Rather, all of the turmoil within the movie comes externally.
In that sense, he’s a Superman-like character, as was Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie. Only this time, it feels like T’Challa’s own story gets squashed down by the incredible supporting cast around him who come through the movie much more charismatic, compelling and entertaining.
Killmonger is the thing in this movie to talk about
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Stevens steals pretty much every scene he’s in throughout this movie. From his first scene, where is putting an uptight British historian in her place as he takes back an artefact from Wakanda, he is a magnetic villain. One whose goals and motivations aren’t totally villainous.
MCU villains have been uneven to say the least. Either really good, or hardly a factor to the point you forget they were a thing. I don’t think Erik Stevens is a perfect villain in this movie, but he’s certainly one of the better ones in terms of the depth and what motivates him to do what he does.
T’Challa and Erik are cousins, in that Erik’s father was the brother of T’Challa’s father; the former Black Panther and king of Wakanda. While T’Challa most likely grew up in luxury as the prince of the most advanced nation of the world, both technologically and culturally, Erik grew up in California in the 90s. And like his father saw how unjust people of their race were treated first hand by the rest of the world.
All while Wakanda sat by and did nothing.
Spurned on by the work his Father had secretly being doing behind the king’s back, and then the murder of his own father after that. Erik became vengeful, not against the oppressors of downtrodden, but of the people behind the shadows who had the power to help, but chose not to.
It’s easy to see how this buy grew up to be an angry, vengeful figure bent on righting the injustice Wakanda inflicted on their own people by sitting on their hands, when they were more than capable of creating peace in the world by force.
Where he falls short
As great as Killmonger’s motivations are, and as true as they may ring true within the world of the MCU and when drawing parallels to some nations in the real world fail to help those in other nations in need. The movie takes him one step too far into lunacy to prevent him from becoming something more than just the movie’s villain.
Once he seemingly kills T’Challa and takes control of Wakanda, his first acts are to arm the downtrodden around the world to fight back against their oppressors, no matter who they may be. He then goes on to burn the flowers that imbue the power of the Black Panther and near choke to death anyone who would question him.
Despite all of the peoples around him being forced to follow him due to their dogmatic following of their millennia old traditions, he literally burns it all down as soon as he arrives as king. It’s a strange position for the movie to find itself in. Because while it pushes the narrative that breaking away from tradition and forging your own path is a better, more progressive approach to have, it paints Erik as a bad guy for doing exactly that.
It doesn’t help that he’s a murderous psychotic either though I guess.
T’Challa just gets overshadowed at every turn
By the time we get to the movie’s climax, the fight between T’Challa and Killmonger is pretty much the least interesting personal conflict going on.
It’s because the movie is packed to the brim with so many other great characters. Letitia Wright is fantastic as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. She’s the perfect example of a character who does break away from the traditions and norms of this millennia old culture, even cracking wise during his own crowing/battle ceremony, yet her attitude doesn’t push her brother’s final decision to open Wakanda up to the world as much as their nutso cousin does.
Then you have the other side of the argument with Danai Gurira as Okoye. The head of Dora Milaje and T’Challa’s closest ally when he is the Black Panther. She is a traditionalist to a fault, and only starts fighting against Killmonger when she realises T’Challa is alive and “technically” never gave up during their challenge. I guess ring out isn’t a thing when battling for the right to rule Wakanda.
Either way, she is fantastic. A striking presence throughout, stoic but not without humour. I could go on, and I haven’t even mentioned Winston Duke as M’Baku. All of these actors bring a ton of charisma and personality to their roles, so much so that there is little Chadwick Boseman can do to prevent his character from getting swept away by the power of his supporting cast.
I’m not saying Boseman was bad by any means. He brings a regality, anger and a bit of fun to the role. But the cast surrounding him is just so strong that his character fails to really stand out in a major way. It doesn’t really help that T’Challa has no real personal conflict or shot-comings to overcome. He’s like the finished article from the beginning, just like the first Cap movie. But unlike the first Cap movie, this has a much larger cast pulling along than just its star.
What makes Tony Stark one of the most compelling characters in the MCU is that most enemies he comes up against are ones that are, for the most part, ones of his own creation. Thus, in essence, he is always overcoming some piece of himself and his many, many personal character flaws.
In Black Panther, T’Challa spends the entire movie having a personal revelation that his father was not the perfect king he always believed him to be. Then spend the second half of the movie making up for the mistakes of his father, reconnecting to him in some badass spirit realm and then promising to do better for his father’s legacy, for Wakanda and the rest of the world.
While you could argue that Captain America is the perfect boy scout and lacks flaws also, each of his movies has had real personal stakes. First with his need to overcome his personal limitations, then to save Bucky, then to save Bucky again, and then to save Bucky a third time. But each of these stores have him turning his back on command, government and his friends to do, what he believes at his core, is the right thing to do.
T’Challa doesn’t have any of that, and ends up being a pretty weak lead as a consequence. Even Thor, in that very first movie I felt Black Panther was emulating, had a personal journey to make in terms of his own attitude. For all the focus on breaking away from traditions and respecting what came before, it feels to me that T’Challa lacks the agency really announce his presence with any conviction throughout the entire movie.