With all the hype around the record breaking and critically acclaimed Black Panther, I’d like to take a second to talk about a little something I like in films and stories: plot. Marvel and superhero movies in general follow a formulaic plot to begin with. Does this sound familiar? Protagonist must prove his worth but is first defeated, broken, or “killed” by the antagonist. This of course allows the hero to return and save the day – and maybe learn a little something about themselves on the way
To date there has been no deaths of MCU heroes excluding Quicksilver who you probably have already forgotten or replaced with the Quicksilver in the X-Men franchise. There are no stakes, even Agent Coulson was brought back for Agents of SHIELD. All of this is fine, I don’t go to action movies for deep meaning, logic, or consistency and superhero movies are just action flicks with added CGI. After watching Black Panther however, I couldn’t help but notice some striking similarities to another MCU movie released late last year: Thor Ragnarok. The following will contain spoilers for both movies so continue if you dare.
The protagonist (T’Challa/Thor) is raised to the kingship after the fall of his father (T’Chaka/Odin). Then, a royal child from the past (Killmonger/Hela) returns and defeats the protagonist after they are stripped of their power (Black Panther/Mjolnir). With the protagonist out of the picture, the antagonist prepares to achieve his/her goal until the protagonist seemingly returns from the dead and, with the help of their sibling (Shuri/Loki), save the day. If you weren’t already convinced the plot was recycled (just three months apart), both protagonists also made several spiritual journeys to converse with their deceased fathers.
There is one key distinction between the two films which shapes and has the most effect on the message: the decision of how to handle the newly revealed history.
In Ragnarok, Hela returns from imprisonment and teaches Thor how Odin achieved his status of Defender of the Nine Realms: by colonization. She literally uncovers the past, pulling down murals of Asgardian diplomacy to show the original tributes to plunder and violence. As Thor and the rest of the Asgardians are wholly unaware of this, it is clear the message is you cannot bury the past or it will come back to bite you.
Black Panther is much the same. Killmonger was abandoned by his people and left in Oakland – a terrible fate to be sure. Contrary to Asgard however, Killmonger wants Wakanda to become the colonizer to free Black people around the globe after being silent since its inception. The existence of the royal cousin is secret to all but T’Chaka and Zuri (Forrest Whitaker). Again, you cannot cover up the past or it will come back to bite you.
The distinction comes at the resolution. The conclusion of Thor is Ragnarok. Thor realizes it was not Odin’s intent to prevent Ragnarok, but to start it. The only way to defeat Hela, a creature of war and destruction, was to destroy history. Achieved by the absolute destruction of Asgard. This was a hot topic at the end of last year with the debate about Civil War statues and even some discussion over memorials to our founders. This was a nonsensical plot twist as everything leading up to that point in the film was telling us to remember history; if we hide from it or simply destroy it we are doomed to have it come back to haunt us.
Black Panther took a different approach. Of course the homicidal Killmonger must die, but his ideology did not end with him. Unlike Thor, T’Challa realizes his hidden nation must learn from the cries of the innocent after centuries of standing by and begins an outreach program. Ok, this is not the fastest way of supporting black people in the US or world, but at least they used the lesson of history and move forward rather than getting on a ship and flying away from their problems.
While just about everything about the movies are the same, this single distinction gives them an interesting narrative, almost as if they are in answer to each other. So well done Marvel, you raised a question and answered it mere months apart in two nearly identical films. But maybe, as phase III ends, we can add some original plot to interesting ideas. Just a thought.