So I’ve been waiting a while to publish this one … Not just so the Bang2writers can catch up (seriously, if you HAVEN’T watched this, what are you waiting for??), but also so BAME commentators, especially Black Twitter, can have their say on the movie FIRST. Because: obviously 😉
So, here’s my thoughts on the much-lauded BLACK PANTHER, plus what I feel writers can learn from this story and its execution. Ready? Let’s go …
Well, where to start … Sooooooo much to love here. Here goes, though:
i) Behind the scenes
I’ve been a huge fan of Ryan Coogler since he exploded onto the filmmaking scene with the brilliant FRUITVALE STATION just five short years ago with 2013. I absolutely loved CREED in 2015, so when it was announced he would be behind the much-anticipated BLACK PANTHER, I knew we’d be in a safe pair of hands.
Even so, this is a particularly luscious offering of a movie. The costuming, the storyworld, the role functions of the characters, even the way they hold themselves … It all looks fantastic, as we might expect. The fact Coogler has so-far only worked with female cinematographers (such as Rachel Morrison, here) makes this fact even sweeter. In short, intentional inclusion WORKS, on all levels, both cast and crew.
Though I watch all the Marvel movies for the sake of my kids (and my writers, via this blog!), I had very little background knowledge (or interest, if I’m honest) of the Black Panther character when I went in, yet the exposition is handled for the most part very well, so fans and non-fans alike can get on board the story with ease.
ii) Theme & Storyworld
Theme is always important in the Marvel storyverse, but I am struggling to remember one as layered and capable of multiple interpretations as BLACK PANTHER. I have seen many commentaries, both for and against Erik Killmonger’s behaviour; or Wakanda’s hiding from the world; plus what it means to be a hero or present stories that promote black empowerment. With a story this good, I suspect the conversation will be ongoing for years to come yet – good!
Explorations of duty, sacrifice and redemption are key in the hero’s journey and BLACK PANTHER is no exception here. T’Challa is presented with unpalatable truths about the way ‘right’ things are done in Wakanda, yet crucially everyone’s reasons for doing what they do are not for bad reasons, but for the mythical ‘Greater Good’. In other words – no one may be 100% ‘right’, but no one is 100% ‘wrong’ either … More in keeping with REAL LIFE, than movies. In a comic book movie. Wow!
Lastly, what I loved here was the representation of both tribal and technological motifs, presented side by side. This was mostly presented in the character of Shuri, T’Challa’s kid sister. She is a rounded, three-dimensional character in her own right: a highly intelligent, capable inventor, doctor and scientist. But just as importantly, she has not lost her roots either, as we see her dressed and involved in the various celebration dances, such as when T’Challa is crowned king. When so often movies say women must be one thing OR the other, for Shuri and the other characters to be BOTH should not be underestimated.
iii) Heroes & Villains
In a world of white saviours and lone wolves, T’Challa is a breath of fresh air in the Marvel storyverse. Though I’ve seen many (white) commentators arguing the toss online that Blade was the ‘first, true black superhero’, T’Challa is wildly different to his predecessor. Yes, T’Challa is a ‘black superhero’ but this is within the context of his own storyworld, populated by his Wakanda countrymen (and women). In comparison, Blade is an anomaly, living very much in a ‘white world’. This is because movies are usually presented via what commentators call ‘the white lens’ – white people are the default, which in turn usually influences the racial characteristics of story by default, too (even when created by BAME people).
In addition, T’Challa’s unusual characteristics include compassion, like Diana in DC’s WONDER WOMAN (which will also plays a massive part not only in his own story arc, but also the narrative of BLACK PANTHER as a whole). When heroes pursue vengeance and/or isolation so regularly, this compassion makes T’Challa unusual. Blade in comparison is yet another lone wolf, like Mad Max, Wolverine or any other number of white heroes. (Incidentally, I love the first BLADE movie, as well – but that doesn’t mean Blade’s role function in the actual story is ground-breaking, even for 1998. It was instead the fact Wesley Snipes was heading up a successful superhero movie, a big surprise back then).
I love great villain, so Erik Killmonger was electrifying. Played by Coogler’s muse/lucky charm Micheal B. Jordan who brought a real humanity to the role, Killmonger is a real reminder the BEST villains can be empathised with. When so many antagonists have nonsensical plans, or behave totally unreasonably for no reason (other than they just ‘can’), Killmonger is both a monster AND humane. What’s more, Killmonger is absolutely RIGHT in his convictions, even if the way he goes about them is totally wrong.
The women, of course, were my favourite. I took my Wee Girls, aged 11 and 6, to see the movie and they were in awe of Nakia and Okoye (their favourite part, and possibly mine, was when Okoye tackled the baddies in the casino in that awesome, flowing red dress). I also loved the fact they were not ‘just’ back up – at one stage, both women race after the bad guys, leaving T’Challa, who has been stunned by a blast they have managed to avoid (suggesting they are better prepared for battle than him!):
Nakia: Do we just leave him behind??
Okoye: He can catch up!
What’s more, their picking up of the mantle when they believe T’Challa is dead was fabulous. How many superhero movies have we seen in which the hero ‘dies’ and yet the story continues, unabated, for more than a couple of minutes? I can’t think of one apart from BLACK PANTHER.
What Needs Further Development
BLACK PANTHER is a critical and commercial success (not to mention an adapted, pre-sold, commissioned work), so anything offered up here is not so much about what would make it ‘better’ for audiences or critics, but rather craft elements writers could consider avoiding in their speculative works. After all, getting our ORIGINAL screenplays and novels sold, especially without the financial backing of various money moguls mean we may have some additional hoops to jump through. Here goes:
iv) Structure and Plot
As with so many Marvel films, Act 1 is far, far, far too long. Whilst exposition was handled pretty well overall, it did have moments of overkill in my opinion. For example, the bedtime story introducing us to the Black Panther myth and Wakanda at the beginning – again, reminiscent of WONDER WOMAN – did little to advance the story. Also, given we’re introduced to Wakanda two more times (first via T’Challa and Nakia, then again via Everett K. Ross, Martin Freeman’s character), I don’t think it was needed … OR they could have had the bedtime story, but NOT so many subsequent reminders. Whatever the case, it was just too much for me.
Similarly, all the stuff going after Klaue – especially the scenes in Korea, in the casino – ‘bumped back’ the REAL meat of the story. Now, I did love the Korea scenes – Okoye’s red dress fight is already iconic and will go down in movie history before long – but this is nevertheless a classic example of produced movies getting away with what spec works cannot.
v) Double Villains
So, this somewhat unwieldy Set Up meant we ‘reached’ the real crux of the story – Killmonger’s revenge on Wakanda – rather ‘late’ in the day in my view. Andy Serkis as Klaue is brilliant as ever and a real scene-stealer … Almost TOO much of a scene-stealer, in real terms. Killmonger is such a great villain in his own right that making him play second-fiddle to Klaus so ‘long’ felt like a misstep, to me.
Now, obviously Klaue is important in getting Killmonger TO Wakanda in the first place (and ensconced with his people). This means Klaue’s sudden death at Killmonger’s hands is a fantastic reversal, but FEELS like it could be hoodwinking the audience (ie. Klaue may come back to life at some point and pop up somewhere else). This is because we’ve literally spent ‘too much’ time with him. If his role function is to be what I call The False Leader thriller trope, Klaue needs to killed quicker to take advantage of this notion … Probably a good ten minutes earlier I’d bet, if we took a stopwatch and timed it.
vi) Everett K. Ross
I don’t know why Hollywood is so enamoured with the likes of Brit comedic actors like Martin Freeman, but **shrug** (he at least can do an American accent and act a bit, unlike some **COUGHJamesCordenCOUGH**). Apparently Ross is in CIVIL WAR too, though I’d forgotten, which speaks volumes. (I’ll never understand ‘agent characters’ like these, they’re just ‘Expositional Joes’ – there solely to explain various stuff. They’re often needed for that function, maybe he was for the last movie – I don’t remember! – but it’s still a dull role function, imho).
So my problem was not Freeman really but the fact his character was in this story AT ALL. Seriously, WTAF is Ross doing here? He stuck out like a sore thumb for me and NOT because he was white, but because his role function was so redundant. I’ll explain.
Some would argue he’s the classic ‘point of view character’ – the aforementioned ‘Expositional Joe’, there to help the audience access an unfamiliar storyworld. But Ross turns up far too late for this, especially given the first we see of him is in Korea (after the plethora of exposition to do with Wakanda and Black Panther!). This means by the time Ross wakes up in Wakanda (after taking a bullet for Nakia – another heroic white guy, spare me!!!), we have YET ANOTHER introduction to the country via Shuri. Blimey.
I have a friend who works in the Studio system in Hollywood who says these type of characters turning up and sticking out like a sore thumb ‘smell of studio’. In other words, some movie mogul pulling the purse strings insisted Everett K. Ross was included, to ensure audiences can follow. I would bet real money this is what happened here. Whilst Expositional Jos are sometimes needed for this purpose, I just think Ross was totally extraneous in this case. But hey, Freeman has his fans, so whatevs.
Look I love a MacGuffin, particularly in thrillers and adventures, but Vibranium is SO useful, it’s quite ridiculous. There’s literally nothing it can’t do! It provides technology and transport, but also weaponry, medicine … It can even disappear, store energy, you name it. Is there anything it can’t do??
Plus in real terms, it’s not a ‘true’ McGuffin. Yes, Vibanium may have provided Wakanda with its way of life and technically, this way of life is what Killmonger wants to help his people fight oppression all around the world. But this element is sidelined towards Act 3, with Killmonger abruptly switching and favouring revenge for his father’s death over the Vibranium in any case. Which takes me onto my last craft point …
viii) The Showdown
I talk a lot in my Thriller Screenplays book about ‘The Showdown’, aka Act 3. Everyone remembers a great ending, because the plot should escalate – even accelerate! – towards it, smashing through any number of obstacles, whether literal, metaphorical, or both.
Marvel has been widely criticised craft-wise for its third acts across many different films and BLACK PANTHER has been no exception.
For me, there are elements that work and elements that don’t, here. I loved the final fight amongst the citizens of Wakanda as a whole: I thought Coogler et al did a great job of pitting the people against one another, for those aforementioned ‘good/bad’ reasons.
This lead to a believable and authentic fracturing of relations between the characters, signified in Okoye and her lover, W’Kabi on opposite sides. What’s more, the arrival of M’Baku and his mountain-people, signified in the chanting of ‘Oooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!’ makes us punch the air – especially considering not only had M’Baku adopted a Switzerland-like stance before this, T’Challa had kicked his ass spectacularly at the waterfall.
Meanwhile, T’Challa and Killmonger have their one-on-one fight. We already know the Vibranium trains will figure somehow – Shuri had gone to great lengths to explain them to us, earlier – and sure enough, they create obstacles in the fight that for me, threw up comparisons to the Act 3 fight against Darth Maul in STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE. Ack!
If that wasn’t red flag enough, Killmonger has donned his own Black Panther suit to fight T’Challa. In other words yet again our intrepid hero fights his doppelgänger self at the end of the movie. We have seen this trope most recently in LOGAN with the X24, but a variety of others including the IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, INCREDIBLE HULK and ANT-MAN franchises.
For a movie as otherwise innovative as BLACK PANTHER, this seemed a bit too familiar to me. I’d wager this ‘smells of studio’ too – makes me wonder if some money-man has said what HAS to go into the endings of these movies in the Marvel franchise, given they’re all essentially the same. Shame.
What Writers Can Learn
Regardless of any craft issues I might have perceived (or perhaps even despite them?), there’s still plenty to learn in BLACK PANTHER. When it comes to our own stories, most of us can only dream of the kind of success and acclaim this movie has received. But it’s important to remember we can ALL note of the innovative and revolutionary lessons here and apply them to our own screenplays and novels.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a screenplay or novel, or what type of story or genre you’re going for, there’s plenty of meaty craft lessons writers can take away here, such as:
- Take note of how heroes are perceived traditionally and how they might have changed over the years. Don’t just recycle the same old traits, again and again. Politics aside, it’s BORING!
- The best villains have plans that make SENSE, so we can emphasise with their counter-struggle. This doesn’t mean we condone their bad behaviour (whatever Twitter might say to the contrary).
- Always remember your female characters. You don’t have to have a female lead, but if your characters are secondaries, make sure they are not ‘just’ back ups, there for HIM to facilitate the plot and his emotions. Again, this is DULL and modern audiences – both viewers and readers – just won’t stand for it.
- Even classic themes like ‘Good versus Evil’ can be far more layered than you think. The best stories and character motivations can be viewed multiple ways and bring so many viewpoints to the table … It goes beyond just being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
- Make sure the Set Up of your screenplay or novel does not take TOO LONG – this will impact on the real meat of the story and again, modern viewers and readers just won’t stand for it.
- Careful not to ‘double up’ too long on similar character role functions, plus don’t involve ‘Expositional Jo’ characters for the sake of it.
- If you’re using a MacGuffin, don’t make it too easy or forget about it as you switch abruptly to something else.
- Endings count. Don’t go for the tried-and-tested, always push boundaries. Your screenplay or novel might not ‘pre-sold’ like BLACK PANTHER, but one advantage of speculative works means you can go for the truly unusual, shocking or devastating. Don’t fall back on reliable or cheesy tropes.
- Lastly, surround yourself with people who SHARE your vision and who will work tirelessly with you to make your dreams happen.
By keeping the above in mind, you can produce excellent work too. Good luck!
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