Friday, 2 March 2018

BLACK PANTHER: Solving Marvel's Villain Conundrum

It’s safe to say that Marvel’s 'Black Panther’ has become an smash success almost overnight, quickly becoming only the 5th film in history to reach a $200m opening weekend, as well as the second largest four-day weekend in history (just behind ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’), earned an impressive 97% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and has received nearly-endless praise from all corners of the film community. Black Panther’s praise is truly a testament to the film’s success, and deservedly so; it stands as one of my favourite MCU films of all time, and a genuinely groundbreaking moment for Hollywood, in terms of equal representation and diversity.

One of my favourite elements of the film was how it handled its primary antagonist, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. While Marvel has received no shortage of criticism for the mishandling of certain villains in previous films, Killmonger demonstrates everything that a great villain in film should be: complex, intimidating and yet strangely relatable. While Killmonger is clearly in the wrong in the film, we as an audience can understand how we formed his worldview, and if we were in the same position as he had been, we very well may have made the same decisions.

I’ve heard a lot about the supposed 'villain problem' which has infested the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the years, but films such as 'Black Panther' will no doubt go a long way to rectify these issues; but, what exactly is Marvel's problem with their villains? In short, it’s the idea that many of the Marvel movies follow a similar structure: an unlikely hero finds themselves in possession of a super power, but then villain finds said power, and the hero must find it in themselves to save the world. There is definitely no smoke without fire, and more than a few examples of how Marvel’s villains have both been lacklustre and formulaic.

One of the biggest complaints that critics seem to have is Marvel’s over-reliance on the villains being presented as a mirror to their heroes, often in less than subtle manners. While this works well in 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ with Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, it doesn’t work nearly as well in ‘Ant-Man’ with the character of Darren Cross. While having a villain mirror the hero is a useful tool in a filmmakers wheelhouse, there are more than a few occasions where this trope has been revisited a few too many times, resulting in forgettable and unexceptional villains, who are often the weakest part of the films. There are reasons, though, as to why Marvel chooses to use this trope though. As highlighted by Stephen McFeely (co-writer of the Captain America trilogy, ‘Thor: The Dark World’, and the upcoming ‘Avengers: Infinity War’) in an interview with

“If you think about it, I get the criticism, but the early phases were all origin stories. It tends to create a similar villain. When it is no longer an origin story, I think you might have a little bit more freedom to create different villains. I’m sensitive to the problem. I get it. But it wasn’t the Robert Redford story, it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It wasn’t the Red Skull’s journey, it was the journey of one guy going from ninety pound weakling to American hero and then going into the ice. So in a 120-minute movie, it is difficult, and Thanos will possibly change that, but you want time spent." read here:

I do understand the frustration that fans have though, especially since Marvel Comics have no shortage of fantastic villains. Growing up as a child, Marvel’s villains were always just as notable and interesting to me as their heroes, whether this be in the comics themselves or the various animated series’ of the time, so it’s understandable that fans would come to expect the same level of devotion and dedication towards building up their villains in the MCU. However, I think it’s also important to notice the fact that Marvel has been making steps to amend this issue, and provide audiences with more memorable and noteworthy villains. While traditionally, Marvel’s villains serve the sole purpose of being a foil to their heroes, and as a result, don’t usually get much in the way of character development or backstory.

However, two examples spring to mind of recent examples which break this trend: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s Ego (played by Kurt Russell), and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture (played by Michael Keaton). In both of these cases, the villains are given no shortage of character development and screen time, both from the opening scenes of the film, in order to set up their arcs, and allow the audience to understand their point of view. For example, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we see Adrian Toombs get screwed out of his contract to clean up New York after the Chitauri invasion, blaming Tony Stark and the Avengers for the loss of his livelihood, while they celebrate saving the world.

And while it's true that Marvel has definitely attempted to course correct in terms of how they perceive and portray their villains, I think Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger stands as the testament to this. Killmonger, in many ways, is everything a great villain should be. He is both charming and terrifying, relatable yet unnerving, and offers an interesting contrast to T’Challa’s character, not unlike how Marvel villains in the past have tried to do, but executed in a way in which the audience genuinely feels for these characters. In an interview with Metro US, Michael B. Jordan explained how he wanted Killmonger to stand apart from many of the villains before him, and craft a truly memorable and iconic character, stating that:

“[Killmonger is] Without a doubt he is the darkest character I have played[...] As a villain I wanted people to emphasize with Killmonger and where he was coming from[...] I created a backstory and I wrote a journal for him, from the character’s earliest memory to the first moment of the script. I write a journal so that I know where he is coming from and going.”
read here:

And this breakthrough, coupled with the impending arrival of Thanos in May’s ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ promises to truly test the resolve of Marvel, and whether or not they are truly ready to embrace their dark side, and let their villains steal the show, in the very way we know they can.

No comments:

Post a Comment