By LUKAS KEEL & JEFFREY KIM
Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Comics has dominated the blockbuster movie market. To date, Marvel’s cinematic universe has earned a little over $14.6 billion in global box office revenue, and across their 18 titles they average a Rotten Tomato score of 83.4%. With projects like Avengers: Infinity War still in production, there is little reason to expect Marvel movies’ incredible popularity will lessen. However, the franchise’s commercial success hasn’t always translated into critical reception. The recent installments have been particularly poorly received. Many call the franchise stagnant and repetitive, or, as Noah Berlatsky of The Guardian puts it, “the fast food of big-budget action: predictable, convenient, bland.”
Marvel’s most recent installment, Black Panther, has done something to break this pattern. Compared to its predecessors, it has received critical acclaim. It has franchise high scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; Rolling Stone gave it 4 stars, and the Verge called it “the grown up Marvel movie we’ve been waiting for.” This raises a question–is Black Panther something greater than the blueprint, or just more of Marvel’s meat and potatoes?
In order to compare Black Panther to its predecessors, we should first establish the Marvel blueprint. Across the franchise three elements have been highly consistent–the narrative arc of the films, their tone, and the way they characterize their antagonists.
Much of Marvel’s standard narrative arc is just the typical blockbuster version of the hero’s journey. However, a few specific tendencies separate Marvel’s movies. They often open with a significant flashback followed by an apparently unrelated action sequence which introduces the film’s central conflict. For example, Captain America: Civil War opens with a memory scene about Tony Stark’s parents, followed by the action scene that sets up the Sokovia Accords. Marvel heroes are often supported by an important ally, who enters the movie as something of a sidekick, but displays growth in the film’s climactic moment by saving the hero. This is Peter’s friend Ned in Spiderman: Homecoming, Pepper in Iron Man III, and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy II.
One of the great strengths of Marvel’s movies has been their tone. Humor is the biggest draw of Ant Man and Spider Man: Homecoming, splashy color palettes help build the world of Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s 70’s soundtrack develops a heartfelt quirkiness that does a lot to endear the movie to audiences. Across the franchise, comedic dialogue fills the gaps between action sequences, and a self-deprecating tilt to the humor protects the movies from D.C.’s downfall–taking themselves too seriously. Consistently, they are upbeat, fun, and idealistic, tying them tonally to their comic book source material.
Marvel villains, on the other hand, tend to be one dimensional, motivated purely by the need for power or destruction. These villains’ ideologies–to the limited degree that they are even explored–are objectively evil, and in direct opposition with those of the hero. Hydra wants to destroy the United States, Lokki wants to take over the world, Dormammu wants to end time itself. The films spend little energy contextualizing the villains’ motivations or developing their relatability. We have no idea what shaped Stane’s drive for power, or who Red Skull was before Hydra. The films conclude by rejecting their beliefs as morally indefensible. The villains show no growth, and if the hero learns something, it’s from an ally. Tony Stark grows profoundly in Iron Man III because Pepper pushes him to change, not because he learns anything from his conflict with Killian. Because the movies have generally invested so little in them, Marvel’s villains, excluding Lokki, have been painfully uninteresting. Consequently, the movies present little in the way of moral dilemmas for the hero and audience to grapple with.
Not all of Marvel’s films conform to every element of this blueprint. Thor: The Dark World, with an intense grayscale color scheme and painful lack of comedic relief, is tonally distinct from the rest of the series. But, the pattern is well enough established that Marvel has earned the repetitiveness critique. It is worth asking, however, whether this repetitiveness has really hurt the films. It may be that there is value in familiar, predictable storytelling. In fact, according to the social psychologist Robert Zajonc’s well documented mere-exposure effect, we prefer familiarity in almost every aspect of our lives. This makes sense, since we find the unknown frightening and predictability comforting. Perhaps the same is true of our movie tastes. Besides which, a light hearted tone and a righteous superhuman on a hero’s journey makes for very entertaining escapism. Perhaps that’s all Marvel movies are trying to be.
Black Panther’s arc and tone are pretty typical of Marvel. The movie opens with a flashback about T’Challa’s father, then an action sequence which raises one of the movie’s central questions–whether Wakanda should do more for the wider world. Shuri, Nakia, Okoye, and Ross all display growth in helping to turn the climactic fight, and the narrative fits the hero’s journey. The tone is a lot of Marvel’s typical humor, much of it provided by Shuri’s sisterly digs at T’Challa, electric colors, and the usual glitzy action sequences. Black Panther may set a new aesthetic high point for Marvel, with sleek CGI, gorgeous costuming, and a badass score produced by Kendrick Lamar, but it still fits a lot of the superhero blueprint.
Erik Killmonger, however, is far from Marvel’s typical villain. With a screen-stealing performance by Michael B. Jordan, a righteous cause, and an “I am Killmonger” shoutout from Kendrick Lamar on the song “Paramedic!,” Killmonger might be the biggest badass in the movie. And, unlike any of the Marvel villains before him, he’s ideological. His actions are motivated by the belief that Wakanda is privileged by its natural resources and that it therefore owes a responsibility to use this privilege for the betterment of oppressed black people around the world. This ideology is strengthened by the time the film spends on Killmonger. Through flashbacks the audience explores his background, helping us understand his motivations and relate to his cause. So, while Killmonger does some objectively evil things in the movie, like needlessly killing Zuri and destroying the heart-shaped herb, the audience understands why he does them–he’s grieving for his father.
This context is so significant, and Killmonger’s ideology so strong that people are writing “Is Killmonger right?” articles online. In the conclusion of the movie, T’Challa himself accepts it in part, deciding to spread Wakanda’s influence to the wider world. A hero being so influenced, even convinced by a villain, is unique for Marvel, and it is significant when considering the purpose of the film. The ideological conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa presents a dilemma to the audience, a dilemma with real-world implications, and because the film concludes with T’Challa accepting a different answer to that dilemma, at least in part, it compels the audience to consider doing the same. Perhaps this means Black Panther achieves more than escapism and more than the familiar, repetitive Marvel blueprint.