Black Panther (2018): T’Challa’s Character Arc

Instead of writing a traditional review of Black Panther, I’m going to dive right into some analysis.  Before I get into spoilers, here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

A good amount of pixels have been spent praising Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther.  Killmonger is one of the most interesting characters in any Marvel film, and Michael B. Jordan is one of the finest actors working today.  One of the things I like the most about Black Panther, however, is that the compelling antagonist doesn’t overshadow the protagonist like it does in numerous other superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight (2008); Spiderman: Homecoming (2017); Batman (1989); Superman II (1980)).  T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) journey is every bit as interesting as Killmonger’s.

On the surface, Wakanda is a utopia, but below the surface lies a troubling adherence to traditions that cause most of the problems in the movie.  To move forward, Wakanda needs a leader who will dispense with tradition when those traditions no longer make sense.  T’Challa becomes that leader by the end of the movie, but it takes some work to get there.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa dips his toes into breaking with tradition.  At the beginning of Civil War, he has already taken on the role of the Black Panther even though his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), is still alive.  He makes alliances with outsiders in Civil War, but notably, this is done to bring his father’s murderer to justice.  In other words, the alliances are meant to temporary at first.  The fact that T’Challa extends these relationships beyond their initial purpose shows that he has some flexibility as a character.

During the first part of Black Panther, we see T’Challa largely following in his father’s footsteps.  He performs in the same rituals as his father did, and fails to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice just like his father did before him.  This makes sense.  T’Challa has been raised to continue on a thousand-year old tradition.  Breaking with that tradition does not come easily to him.

What T’Challa learns, however, is that being flexible with tradition bears fruit, while following established protocol for no other reason than “this is how it’s done” leads to problems.  He spares M’Baku (Winston Duke) in trial by combat, which leads to an alliance later.  In contrast, when he fails to question whether trial by combat is such a great idea to begin with, he temporarily loses his throne to Killmonger.

The turning point for T’Challa is during his second visit to the ancestral plane.  While he is angry at his father for abandoning his nephew (Killmonger) on the streets of Oakland, when he tells the previous kings that they were “all wrong,” he isn’t doing so out of anger.  T’Challa realizes in that moment that following the old way, with its isolationism, trial by combat, and rejection of outsiders has failed in its essential purpose.  While these conventions were established to keep Wakanda safe, they have instead made it vulnerable.

Had Wakanda not kept the tradition of trial by combat alive, Killmonger would have not ascended to the throne.  If T’Chaka had just taken his nephew in as a child in the first place instead of rejecting him as an outsider, there would have been no Killmonger.  If Wakanda hadn’t kept itself isolated, and helped the peoples of the African diaspora throughout history, there would have not have been anyone like Killmonger.  T’Challa realizes all of this before the end of the movie, seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, and plans to build a better future.

This is for the best.  An isolated Wakanda will do no one any good once Thanos comes around in May.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe




Avengers: Age of Ultron (Review)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Directed by Joss Whedon, U.S. 2015

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is nothing if not an ambitious project.  Marvel Comic Books have decades of storylines and thousands of characters with hundreds of powers (there are quite a few duplicate powers in there).  Creating a true cinematic “universe” means spending a lot of time introducing new characters into new movies.

The best superhero film sequels typically spend very little time introducing new characters.  Both The Dark Knight (2008) and Spider-Man 2 (2002) take advantage of the fact that the origin story movie is over and throw us right into the action.  Other than the villains, there are no significant new characters in either movie.  For better or worse, a sequel to an Avengers movie has no such luxury.

Avengers: Age of Ultron  introduces a lot of new characters, and this bogs down the film a bit sometimes.  The more familiar you are with the Avengers comic books, the less the problem with knowing who all of these people are.  Of course this doesn’t help moviegoers who know the stories primarily from the movies.

Even so, Avengers: Age of Ultron is certainly in the top tier of franchise sequels.  It spends much needed time exploring the backgrounds of the characters from the first film (not all of the Avengers have the luxury of two or three stand-alone films to flesh out their characters), but does so in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the action.

Ultron (James Spader) himself is one of the better villains introduced in a comic book film.  In the Marvel Comic Book Universe, Ultron is the most dangerous primarily Earth-based supervillain (surpassed only by Galactus, Thanos, and the Phoenix Force overall), and the film’s portrayal certainly lives up to expectations there.  He is also hilarious at times, in a very dark and mad scientist sort of way.

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but overall it’s a fine superhero film and a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

You might like Avengers: Age of Ultron if: You enjoyed the first movie, enjoy Marvel Comics and/or Marvel Studios films, and are looking for a solid, summer popcorn movie.

You might not like Avengers: Age of Ultron if: You find comic book movies annoying and/or confusing when they spend a lot of time introducing new characters.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe