Before the advent of the expanded universe, I tended to judge superhero movies by their villain. This wasn’t something I did consciously. At some point, I just started to notice that my favorites tended to be the ones with the best villains — Spider-Man 2 with Dr. Octopus, Iron Man 3 with The Mandarin.
Now that I’m aware of it, it makes some sense. Heroes generally have to save the world, a motivation that’s pretty straightforward. It’s usually explained (where it even requires explaining) as some form of duty, protecting loved ones, a promise to a dead relative, or basic self-preservation. Hey, man, don’t destroy the Earth, my girlfriend lives here! Villains, meanwhile, generally have to try to kill the hero and/or his loved ones and/or destroy the world (and more often lately, the entire universe, or the very fabric of reality). Ridiculously inflated stakes aside, the villain’s impulse is generally less obvious, so unpacking it tends to take a little more explaining, and has the potential to go to more interesting places.
That is, sometimes. The expanded universe, which seems to be a way to cram in as many potentially toy-selling heroes into the same movie for maximum brand synergy (grr, tentpoles!), doesn’t leave much narrative space for a villain. Suicide Squad, more interesting as a failure than most of these movies are as a success, came close to taking this phenomenon to its logical conclusion, where the movie is just a sizzle reel of character introductions with no conflict. (After about 45 minutes of this, Suicide Squad caved and just became a regular superhero movie on fast forward.)
Marvel pioneered the algorithm for the expanded universe and has, more lately, just given us teams of charismatic, one-liner-spitting heroes battling… well, usually some immensely powerful blue or purple guy who wants to destroy the universe for some ill-defined reason. Maybe he just likes the dark, who cares f*ck you. This feels very American, by the way, to spend billions developing all this defensive firepower without bothering to worry about what it’s meant to defend against. We’ve been living in the asymmetrical warfare era of superhero movies!
Often this villain is assisted by a cabal of functionaries in black suits, and if white guys in smart suits driving black SUVs that flip onto their rooves at some point were ever added value in a superhero movie, they’ve long since ceased to be. Even in Thor: Ragnarok, which took the clever step of hiring a talented director with a fresh perspective — Taika Waititi — and was more or less as funny as any Marvel movie could be within the prefab skeleton of the plot proscribed by the expanded universe algorithm, it still had the heroes fighting a lame purple guy at the end. It co-opted the Waititi touch to make you root for the algorithm, basically.
For Black Panther, Marvel hired Ryan Coogler to direct, another inspired choice. You figure a guy who could breathe fresh air into a billionth Rocky movie of all things could make magic out of anything. Still, studios love putting a new hat on the same Malibu Stacy doll and awarding themselves a lifetime wokeness award for it. It was hard not to assume they’d use Coogler’s good name and the concept of a beloved black superhero to do the same with Black Panther. After all, this is the same company that only realized that a partnership with Northrup Grumman (which would’ve given Marvel a connection to the actual military-industrial complex) was a bad idea after people complained about it on Twitter. And just making Black Panther in the first place would’ve been enough of an incremental step forward to inoculate them from criticism. Why bother making it good?
At first Black Panther seems like the same ol’ superhero origin story, albeit dressed up with inspired production design and some of the most exciting new faces in Hollywood — Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Winston Duke (not to mention the classics like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Sterling K. Brown). It sets up Andy Serkis’ character (Ulysses Klaue — pronounced “Claw”) as the villain, a wild-eyed South African with a tribal back tat, who’s at least an interesting twist on the white-guys-in-black-SUVs trope (even if Klaue does spend a lot of time driving around with white guys in black SUVs). In fact, it’s probably my favorite Andy Serkis performance (this coming from someone who thinks sullen, one-note, painfully earnest Caesar is far and away the worst part of the Planet of the Apes movies). So far, the film is still basically the same Marvel framework, dressed up nicely. But you suspect Joe Robert Cole’s script is saving something more. And boy is it.
With all due respect to the “Just shut off ur brain!” crowd (jk, f*ck those people), superhero movies are mostly only as interesting as their ideas (production design can only take one so far). Fistfights or rayguns or destroyed portals or exploding SUVs have a fairly low ceiling for compellingness, sans subtext. That was always the most interesting thing about X-Men, that it wasn’t just about good and evil and eating your vitamins or whatever, but that Magneto and Professor Xavier represented Malcolm X and MLK’s respective approaches to civil rights (early, pre-pilgrimage Malcolm X, anyway). It offered a somewhat nuanced conflict where you weren’t always sure which side to root for. Of course, it’s also a story where two fictional white guys personified the ideas of two real black guys, so there was clearly some room for improvement there. (And, as David Dennis puts it, “Characters just never talked about how being black and a mutant was different than being a white mutant.”)