The arguement for streamlining characters in the movie By M.Schinke
Welcome again, Opinionnerrds!
So, I’ve been trying to center my thoughts on what it is about Black Panther, the 2018, Ryan Coogler directed release from Marvel Studios, that irks me. I’ve started, scrapped and started again on a few pieces trying to center on something to say about the film to ease this gnawing sensation at the back of my brain. My first thought was to write something about howT’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Stephens, AKA Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) were essentially two people made of the same raw material and molded to form based on their differing circumstances. But I chose not to go with that as I felt it was too obvious. It’s an interesting topic and one I would love to read about, but I didn’t feel I had anything more to say about it past simply pointing out the obvious. More than that it didn’t address my emotions concerning the film. See my problem with the movie is; I just didn’t find it very interesting. I didn’t connect with it and most of it has to do with the characters. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there are any bad performers in the bunch. I think the entire cast brought their full measure to bear in this film with a special shout out to Sterling K. Brown as N’Jobu who is simply not getting enough love for the weight he brought to that extremely important role. That character, however, is an example of what they did right in terms of the use of characters in the film and it is something they should have done more of; it was economical. And within that lay my issue with this film; I feel it has more characters then it needs and it doesn’t quite know what to do with them all.
So once again let’s unhitch the drag chains; I’m not here to tell anyone what IS wrong with the movie. My point of view is my own, as is my evaluative process. It should not be used as a metric of quality for any film as it only showcases my reaction to it. If you like a movie; that is all that matters and any other consideration is, literally, academic.
Someone Should Go
It’s hard to know where to start because I don’t want to get into what might seem like a full on take down that the movie does not deserve. Aside from some pretty sophomoric CG work there is nothing that I consider objectively, “bad” about the film. What I do see is that few of the characters outside of T’Challa has much of an arc to follow that’s meaningful to the story being told. Even in the sense of a character having a flat arc, their story changing not them, but instead the world around them, there isn’t one that fits the bill. You could make a case that M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the Jabari tribe, and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) both go from being outsiders to insiders but these arcs don’t address the films story or themes in any meaningful way, in my opinion, and only exist to service the particular parts they play in the plotting. All of the characters, including Killmonger, are supporting characters in T’Challas story and his arc – believing he knows a truth, losing that truth and learning a greater truth in the end – is the one that film is built on. So if T’Challa, as the main character, has the arc that the film will follow the question that needs to be asked is what each supporting character brings to the table to, “support” that story. Here, let me start by whacking away at the low hanging fruit:
I love Martin Freeman, I really do, but; why was this character in the film? As far as I could tell from my single, admittedly emotionally detached, viewing he doesn’t bring anything important to bear either thematically or textually. Ross is the outsider who, by taking a bullet for Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is brought into Wakanda. His life is saved by Wakandan technology and later on plays a part in stopping Killmonger’s plan. The outsider allows us to see the best outcome of the, “correct” choice that T’Challa can make in the film. It’s a visual aid that is, in my opinion, not necessary to understand the point that Wakanda can offer more to the world that it has been. To be honest the only function the character serves in the plot is to fly the remote plane in the finale, not so cleverly set up with his career as a pilot being called out earlier in the film. Until that moment he doesn’t contribute anything to the movie that could only be provided by his character; and even in that his contribution wasn’t unique to his specific personality or skill set as a character as he isn’t the only capable pilot in the film. And this is what I feel from many of the characters that we end up spending quite a bit of time with and it’s rather the same problem that I had with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – the film makers want to have this large cast of characters but can’t make reasonable space for all of them to actually contribute to the story in a meaningful way.
Another example of this is the character of Zuri, played by the usually far more interesting Forest Whitaker. As a character, Zuri is given two duties to perform in the film; to be the bearer of the secret of Erik Stephens and to later die at Erik’s hands. Arguably, Erik’s quest to punish someone from Wakanda for the death of his father N’Jobu is a problematic aspect of the film to begin with. His issue should be with Wakanda and their position in the world as a whole and not with any individual given he didn’t know who Zuri was until he stepped up to take responsibility for this death in an attempt to save T’Challa. This choice doesn’t affect any of Killmonger’s decisions or make any changes to what he wants; it’s an action without a story purpose that doesn’t even serve as an emotional motivator for T’Challa, who I don’t believe mentions the man again. The only reason I can think of for this is to show Killmonger as being some kind of brutal monster, an aspect of his character that the movie tells us exists but never actually shows. If we were to remove this function from the character we could easily shift his other story functions to characters that have more of a reason to be involved; General Okoye (Danai Gurira)could handle the ceremonial duties and T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Basset) could be the keeper of the secret, or she could perform both functions – which makes more sense to me anyway.
Then Two Become One
Now I know how this next part is going to sound but just bear with me; I can easily see combining the characters of Shuri and Nakia into one character, not because I’m trying to minimize women in the film but because I would like to see more focus on a smaller group of supporters surrounding the lead. Nakia has two functions in the story; to be the love interest and to provide T’Challa, and the audience, the opposing view from Killmonger’s extremist position on how Wakanda should use it’s power in relation to the world. Normally the role of the, “love interest” in these films is to provide the audience access to a side of the lead character that the films plot does not always allow. It’s cliche and can seem lazy but it gives us an insight into these characters that we might not have otherwise. However T’Challa is not a stoic character and the film allows us plenty of opportunity to see his softer side in how he relates to other characters. Nakia doesn’t serve as a typical love interest, and I understand why the film makers wanted to do this, but without that part to perform she starts to have less of a functional role in the story. So again if we start looking at how we reduce and streamline the characters we can ask who else could provide the second function; to be the films ideological counterpoint to Killmonger. To me the answer is obvious;
In terms of storytelling Shuri could, and in my opinion should, be the most important supporting character in T’Challa’s story. Within her characters framework you have a repository for the functions that multiple other supporting chatacters perform. Giving her these functions does not elevate her to an uber-character status either; it simply streamlines the number of characters and gives T’Challa a primary sounding board for the audience to relate too. First off; she’s family. She’s not a love interest but by being T’Challa’s younger sister she gives the audience access to that softer, more playful side; something they already accomplish in the film more successfully than with Nakia. And speaking of Nakia, you can easily take her opposing ideology and give it to the idealistic young woman. This is practically built into the film already as the ending has T’Challa and Shuri in Oakland, CA discussing T’Challa’s plans as opposed to T’Challa and Nakia, who was supposed to be the primary source of this ideology. Further streamlining the characters, we put Shuri in the field with T’Challa and Okoye in the Korea mission. This not only supports the point that she could be part of the fight during the finale (something I never really got behind as the movie didn’t establish her as a fighter) but it also streamlines the car chase set piece by actually putting all the characters together. I don’t know about you but watching someone in a movie play a video game a few thousand miles away from the action isn’t particularly appealing.
I don’t like to Monday morning quarterback these things but, hindsight being what it is, there may have been an opportunity to create a little more dramatic storytelling space with the finale as well. Shuri andGeneral Okoye start out fighting Killmonger and General Okoye breaks off to handle the planes, as we have already established her as a pilot. This allows Shuri opportunity to fight N’Jadaka alone for a time before being joined by her brother, who eventually takes the fight over. There is a metaphorical fight between the two opposing ideologies in the film before T’Challa comes and takes up Shuri’s position. It puts a pin in the idea that T’Challa is not just stopping Killmonger from doing something terrible but that he has actually taken on the opposing point of view because someone close to him convinced him it was right; something the movie barely scratches the surface of. You remove the lack of focus caused by splitting these elements between Shuri and Nakia and strengthen the drama in the finale.
Breaking Bad Down
There is a case to be made about removing the Ulysses Klaue character and making Killmonger the primary antagonist in the film. I understand that Klaue is used as Erik’s entry fee into Wakanda but I felt that reduced the strength of that character and ultimately made him unimportant to the story. I could never understand why, when facing criticism for Klaue’s escape, T’Challa didn’t tell people he had help from someone who may have been Wakandan. At no point in the story does T’Challa have any reason to feel personally guilty or responsible for what happened to the young Erik; that never felt legitimate to me from a character perspective. So we make Killmonger the primary antagonist for the entire film, not just after the mid-point shift, and let him sway people in Wakanda with the weight of his ideas and the strength of his perspective, not just because he satisfies one persons need to revenge his parents death. Hell, you can still have Klau but have him working for Erik instead of the other way around. This isn’t about streamlining the character but using some of the new space we’ve created to beef him up. On the topic of things that are *NotThePopularOpinion I don’t believe that the character of Killmonger, is particularly deep or interesting. As I have talked about in other articles, this is marketing concerns destroying what should have been a major reveal in Erik being Wakandan and prince N’Jobu’s son. So we have to try to separate what we know going into the movie from what the storytelling is doing and, as it stands, the shift from Klaue to Killmonger as antagonist didn’t feel natural to me. It’s not that it wasn’t foreshadowed well enough, but when it actually happens it just felt very businesslike.
Michael B. Jordan is a dynamic young performer and I take nothing from his screen presence but one of the hallmarks of a great ideologically driven villain is whether or not you ever get to a point where, maybe, you consider that their point of view might be correct. But because Killmonger’s plan boils down to becoming a world dictator, I could never get to that point with him. The movie never once presents the idea that Erik might actually be a good king for Wakanda, or that what he plans to do might actually be right or beneficial. You never get the impression that he truly cares for people more than the fulfillment of his own ideological agenda and desire to hurt T’Challa for what his father, justifiably, did. Everything he does is portrayed as being so objectively not-cool that I could not get to that place where, as an audience member, I honestly thought that his solution might be the right one. In my opinion his ideological arguments, right or wrong, are undercut by the fact that he wants to take over the world. Now maybe that was the point, that you can’t use the tools of oppression to combat oppression but, if it was the point, it’s been lost on so many who insist that, “Killmonger was right”. For crying out loud; he’s called, “KILL-monger”; and no one with that name can ever be, “right” in this context. If the Marvel framework actually allowed us to see what kind of monster the movie tells us the character is there might be greater contrast in his supposedly revolutionary actions, but that would make it more difficult to sympathize with him; which is something the movie clearly wants us to do. I think that people have been much more forgiving of the characters relative shallowness because it contains any kind of intellectual content at all; something Marvel has had a bit of a problem with as a film storytelling entity. As an idea the Killmonger character in the film is very interesting but, as an actual character, it’s pretty bland. He isn’t awful enough for me to want to see the hero beat him, but I also don’t see why the culturally and socially advanced people of Wakanda would want to side with him unless they just have no choice.
Unlike the leads in Batman v Superman, who aren’t meant to relate to one another, N’Jadaka and T’Challa have a legitimate difference in ideology and a legitimate grievance between the two of them; why not let that marinate between the two men for a while? If you streamline the characters in the film you can put more focus on the dramatic tension between the protagonist and antagonist either before or after their dual. Maybe Erik can allow himself to be imprisoned and T’Challa confronts him before accepting his questionably legitimate challenge? Maybe Erik imprisons T’Challa somehow instead of tossing him away to what, rightfully, should have been T’Challa’s fate. At least that way you wouldn’t have the two trying to carry on a conversation during the dual or their final battle; a thing I have a legitimate issue with in these films. I understand that characters in comic books talk during fights all the time but, in my opinion, that doesn’t often translate very well to film.
Bring It Back To Me
I believe one of the movies issues is that it wanted to tell a bigger story than it’s run time would allow, and that’s too bad because I think it really could have said as much as people want to believe it did. As it stands as a singular piece of work I think the film is a little unfocused because it wanted to have this big cast of characters but it didn’t have enough story for all of them to matter. Each character carries a little piece of what the film wanted to say but instead of the voices harmonizing to tell the story they seem to trade off singing portions of the same part. It becomes clear early on which voices, or in this case which characters, are stronger and it drags the film down when we are forced to follow one of the weaker ones. I put a lot of emphasis on Shuri because she’s a character that can carry a lot of storytelling weight in this film and she simply isn’t allowed to. She plays second to Nakia who, in my opinion, just isn’t as interesting or vital to the story or plot and, in my eyes, that makes a good case for streamlining at the screenplay stage.
I completely understand why all these characters are included, especially the circle of women in T’Challa’s life. When it comes to CBM’s and action movies in general (and Black Panther is an action movie as presented; of this there should be no doubt) women often play roles limited to those like the love interest – meant only to allow the hero to show a softer side or to be his conscience. Black Panther relies on the strength of it’s women to support the hero in more ways than just letting him show his emotions. They are his partners, his allies, his backup, his hero’s and rescuers in times of peril. I’m not looking to minimize the role that the women T’Challa’s life play but, dramatically, I think there is a good case to be made for mini zing the number of them. Along with Zuri the plot doesn’t feel like it supports the weight of all the characters in the film any further than the single thing the plot really needs them for. Nakia gives the opposing ideology, Zuri holds the secret and Ramonda’s only real contribution to the movie is to place herself at the mercy of M’Baku for her son’s life – another action that could have been performed by Shuri as his sister. It doesn’t matter if they are good characters or how much we love the actors. If the story, or plot, doesn’t have space to make their presence meaningful then it might be a good idea to combine some characters and make some more dramatic space in the story.
I’m not going to lie and tell you I think Black Panther it a great movie. If I may share an anecdote; the movie was released on my wife’s birthday and she had been CRAVING it since the release date was announced. For months she made sure to let me know what we were doing that weekend. I swear I don’t think I’ve seen her look forward to something this much and we married each other twice! By the time we got to the mid point shift, the dual between T’Challa and N’Jadaka for the throne of Wakanda, I looked over at my beautiful wife to gauge her reaction to this thing she had looked so fondly towards.
She was asleep.
And that’s the tragedy of the film in a nutshell. As an idea the movie is powerful. Divorced of all of the surrounding conversation the movie itself isn’t all that great. It’s far from terrible, but it’s not so far from average. There are great elements of thought that go into the film such as Erik being left in Oakland, CA; the birthplace of the American Black Panther party. Or the idea that T’Challa and Killmonger represent two ideologies of that same party battling it out for the future of, “the culture”. Writer Adam Serwer has a great article over at The Atlantic that points out a number of these interesting factoids and it is a fascinating read. These things show a great depth of thought on the part of the storytellers. However before any of that can be assessed for what it may or may not contribute to the film you have to get over the hump of storytelling and one of the first precepts is controlling the characters.
I feel with a bit of streamlining the movie could have put a stronger focus on the relationships that matter, mainly T’Challa and Shuri, and give the film more opportunity for the hero and villain to relate to one another. Reportedly, director Coogler’s first cut was four hours long and I wonder what material was taken out that supported these characters more. I’m sure some of it will come to light but, unless there is an official directors cut released, I can’t personally allow any of this material to affect my analysis of the film. I’d give a longer version of the film a chance to say more to me but, if the released cut is all we ever get, I think I got enough the first time.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.