Black Panther and the Meaning of Fight Scenes

I saw Black Panther recently, and (without getting into the details1) enjoyed most of it but was bothered by some aspects. The former have been discussed to death, which is better than the alternative but leaves me little to talk about. But there is one bothersome aspect which I think is worth talking about. It’s nitpicky, but some nits are worth picking, if only so you can spot when that nit hatches into a louse…erm, a giant louse…or maybe a louse infestation…? 

Let’s just drop the metaphor and get on with it. (Oh, and minor spoilers, but they don’t go far beyond “the hero beats the villain”.) 

 

The nit I’m picking today has to do with two fight scenes in the second half of the movie. Both involve the titular superhero and the movie’s main antagonist; the first is a ritual combat over the throne of Wakanda, the second is part of the climactic battle. Both have T’Challa and Erik engage in hand-to-hand combat in an area with poor footing and easy access to long falls. Erik tries to push T’Challa down that fall; one of the few differences between them2 is that Erik succeeds the first time and fails the second. 

Why? 

This sort of thing—the hero failing in his first battle against the villain but prevailing in the rematch—is extremely common. You see it in everything from comics to movies to video games, and in works with tones ranging from lighthearted to grimdark to introspective. It can be a powerful moment, and many stories would be horribly incomplete without such a reversal. But, generally, there needs to be some kind of reason for the hero to succeed where he once failed—actually, scratch that, he needs two.3 

 

Let’s start by explaining an important distinction used in this sort of media analysis, and introducing another example of a hero initially failing to overcome a villain then succeeding which will be compared to Black Panther. Then we can move on to explaining what reasons Black Panther needed for its climactic fight scene, which one it lacks, and why that matters. 

The distinction I am speaking of is the distinction between Watsonian and Doylist. These two terms come from the fandom of the Sherlock Holmes novels, back before Holmes was an international icon. A Watsonian viewpoint treated the Sherlock Holmes stories as if they were written by Dr. John Watson, and answered questions using in-universe logic; by contrast, a Doylist viewpoint treated those stories as if they were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and answered questions using real-world logic. 

While most questions can be answered by both of these methods, it’s absolutely vital that one identifies which viewpoint one is using and respond in kind. For instance, take the fight between Frieza and Goku4 in Dragon Ball Z. At one point, Frieza starts fighting Goku without using his hands, relying on his feet and tail to beat up Goku. Why does he do this? Someone answering from a Watsonian perspective might says that Frieza is doing it because he’s bored, and wants to give himself a handicap so that it’s more interesting. On the other hand, a Doylist answer might speak of adding tension to the scene by drawing out the fight. Both of these answers have their strengths and weaknesses, but it would be pointless to respond to the first by questioning whether adding more events would actually make for a better fight than cutting them, or to point out that Frieza is never suggested to enjoy fighting (as opposed to causing pain) when someone used the second. 

 

Now that we’ve established all of that, I can get back to the “two reasons” thing I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. You may be unsurprised to hear that these reasons are a Watsonian reason and a Doylist reason. To explain what I mean, I’m going to turn to that same fight, whose turning point comes after Frieza kills one of Goku’s friends. Before that, Goku was barely able to keep up with Frieza; even his strongest attacks had little to no effect on him. Afterwards, Frieza couldn’t keep up with Goku. The Watsonian reason for the shift in dynamics is simple; he transformed into a Super Saiyan. The Doylist reason is equally simple; he was filled with righteous fury at the death of his friend, contrasted with the cowardly anger which Frieza felt after facing Goku’s super saiyan swagger. 

Why does this matter? Simply put, the final struggle between hero and villain is usually the climax of the film, and should hence be the conclusion of every major element of the film. That struggle should not only cap off the main plot (and as many B-plots as possible), also but symbolize the conclusion of the protagonist’s character arc and clearly demonstrate the thesis which the work’s themes have been building to.5 All of this needs to be tied up as cleanly as possible, relating each element to all the others as best as possible. 

The same is true of the reasons for the hero’s ultimate triumph. The Watsonian reason should be connected to the plot, the Doylist reason should be connected to the themes, and both should be connected to the protagonist’s growth and to each other. All of this ensures that the final conflict of the story flows as naturally as possible from the rest of the story while fitting together as a cohesive whole. 

To go back to our example, Goku’s Super Saiyan transformation has been alluded to for the entire arc and beyond; Vegeta was constantly striving to reach that legendary level, but always failing, because his heart didn’t let him feel the right type of righteous anger. The “theme” of overcoming obstacles through such righteous anger can be seen elsewhere in Dragon Ball, most prominently in Goku’s son (who regularly surpasses his own limits and beats up the bad guys when his father or friends are in danger6). The Super Saiyan transformation is said to be triggered by that kind of righteous anger, so the two are linked. It’s not the deepest, most thought-out arc in the world, but Akira Toriyama is hardly known for deep stories that he thinks out ahead of time.7 

But these sorts of techniques are used in other works which are deep and thought-out. For instance, look at Azula and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Azula is consistently the more powerful of the two for most of the series, but when Zuko sorts out his inner conflict and Azula’s is brought to the surface, Zuko defeats Azula. In Wonder Woman (the 2017 movie), Wonder Woman is unable to best Ares until she embraces the truth about who she is and her place in the world, as well as the truths of that world and why it’s worth protecting. Even simple training montages fulfil this purpose, with a theme about the importance of working hard to better yourself. And, of course, these Doylist reasons are connected with the Watsonian reasons for their change of fortune; Zuko’s self-control lets him master techniques like lightning redirection, Wonder Woman unlocks her divine potential, Rocky builds muscle mass and memory, etc. 

 

Having gone through all of this, we can finally return to Black Panther. If I had to pick a central theme of the movie, it would be the importance of establishing positive relationships with “outsiders”. After all, both establishing harmful relationships (Killmonger’s goal) and remaining aloof to others (the status quo) are heavily criticized by both the narrative8 and various sympathetic characters, and the last scene of the movie is T’Challa announcing that he will be embracing such positive relationships with those he once called colonizers. 

There is a small problem with this. T’Challa doesn’t display much prejudice against colonizers, just a bit of distrust (which most of them prove is at least somewhat earned). This is perfectly understandable from a Watsonian perspective, but does weaken the connection between protagonist and theme; if the protagonist never shows much reluctance to form positive relationships with the outside world, it’s hard for him to engage in a journey where he learns the value of doing so. 

More relevant to this essay, however, is that T’Challa doesn’t have a strong moment where he decides that he should help outsiders. In the beginning of the film, he’s somewhat reluctant to trade with outsiders or reveal Wakanda’s secrets, and he’s perfectly willing to do so by the end…but we never get a moment where this attitude shifts. If I had to pick one, it would be about halfway through the film, where T’Challa brings Ross to Wakanda to treat his wound. This man, who has been a somewhat disruptive ally to T’Challa while pursuing Klaue, ends up risking his life to save one of T’Challa’s friends. Because of this, T’Challa decides to bring Ross to Wakanda, exposing the outsider to their secrets and sharing their technology. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything that suggested that T’Challa would have been especially reluctant to do so at the beginning of the film. There were people talking about preserving Wakanda’s secrets, but nothing has suggested that T’Challa valued those secrets so much that he would let a close acquaintance die to preserve them. This comes off less as a moment of character growth, so much as an affirmation of the more outsider-friendly aspects of T’Challa’s character. On its own, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it does rob the moment of any strong character growth which would either justify or require a moment where the villain initially defeats the hero.9 

But there is a further issue, and that’s timing. Between the scene where Erik defeats T’Challa and where T’Challa defeats Erik, T’Challa doesn’t show up that often; he has a scene where he rejects his ancestors’ offer to join them10, a scene where he chats with his family, a scene where he asks the Jambari to help (they say no), and then It’s off to confront Erik. There are other scenes, focusing on Erik asserting dominance over Wakanda and how T’Challa’s family and friends react to this, but none of them can affect T’Challa’s growth because T’Challa isn’t in them. 

 

All of this adds up to what I consider Black Panther‘s greatest flaw—its protagonist. Oh, T’Challa isn’t actively awful like, say, Michael Bay’s Witwickies11, or even just boring like Son Goku12. He’s not a bad protagonist, he just doesn’t have much that’s exceptional about him. He doesn’t initially have any crippling problems like Tony Stark or Thor or Scott Lang, and he doesn’t have any persistent inner demons like Bruce Banner or Bucky Barnes or Natasha Romanov. He doesn’t display any flaws serious enough to merit their own character arc, and none of the aspects which make him unique when compared to his fellow superheroes (such as being a head of state) are used to create stories which couldn’t have been given to other superheroes.13 He’s basically just a superhero in a position of power who has to come to grips with the fact that his father wasn’t the awesome person he was thought to be, which happens to be the core internal conflict of at least three other Marvel Cinematic Universe films to date (two of which also feature protagonists in a position of power, and one of those had the protagonist take the throne of an unearthly realm). 

This isn’t to say that Black Panther is a bad movie. The protagonist is compelling enough to not drag the supporting cast or antagonists down, and they are a delightful bunch in their own regard. While Black Panther’s arc of redeeming (and reliving) the sins of the father is far from unique, it provides a sufficiently engaging journey for T’Challa to go on. But if the protagonist had been a little more flawed, if he had to overcome an overzealous trust in tradition or paranoia about the “colonizers,” T’Challa could have been so much more, and so would his movie. 

Without character flaws, there can be no character growth. Without character growth, so many common narrative devices fall flat (or at least flatter than they should). When things fall flat, they fail to live up to their potential. And that’s disappointing.

1: Both for space and because, like many white guys, I feel a little bit uncomfortable criticizing the first major film starring a black superhero and his African family and nation. The good news is, its failures were all ones which could have happened to a whiter superhero movie…aside from how Afro-primitive Wakanda (and especially its military) is, but that’s the kind of problem that most white guys don’t know how problematic it is. Maybe I’d have a better grip on it if I was familiar with Afro-Futurism, but I hadn’t even heard the term before reading up on Black Panther.

2: There are some other differences, of course; one has the two of them bare-chested and using weapons, while in the other they’re wearing their Vibranium-laced suits and mostly using their claws. But those details are irrelevant to what I’m talking about today; they might add up to a Watsonian reason for T’Challa to win, but they don’t provide a Doylist reason. (If you’re actually reading these footnotes as you come across them, the relevance of this distinction may not be entirely clear.)

3: Much the same is true of any two scenes which are similar, but with one thing changed. It might involve the protagonist ignoring a vagrant in the beginning of the movie and giving them $20 after learning a lesson about the importance of charity, for instance, or it might be a scene where both protagonist and antagonist react to the love interest rejecting their advances. However, I’m choosing to focus specifically on this variant—where the villain beats the hero in one scene and the hero beats the villain in another—both because of how common it is and how it nearly always coincides with the climax of a story. And, well, because trying to broaden a single essay to cover all types of paired scenes would be ridiculous. 

4: Note that said fight continues for a few more videos. And is interspersed with various other scenes.
…And that I linked to the Team Four Star dub, which I maintain is by far the best. 

5: The importance of themes and whatnot will have to wait for another essay.

6: Up until he grows up and, presumably, goes through therapy over all the trauma that his training and combat experience gave him. You know, Dragon Ball has no right to be as lighthearted and upbeat as it is…

7: To be clear, I’m not trying to bash Dragon Ball Z or Akira Toriyama. It is very good at what it is (hence my use of it as a citation), and Toriyama is very good at what he does. He has made it clear that thinking through his stories ahead of time is not something he does. 

8: What I mean by “the narrative” is, sadly, another of those things that will need its own essay to explain. 

9: There is one part in there which I assume must have been intended as a character growth moment for T’Challaand that’s when he reaches out to the Jabari tribe. There are two problems with this. First, aside from some exposition at the beginning of the film saying that the Jabari never accepted the Wakandan king as their own and a few lines reinforcing this, there’s nothing to suggest that the Jabari are outsiders in the way that, say, Ross or Klaue are. In fact, the Jabari aren’t established that well at all; their chief, M’Baku, challenges T’Challa at the beginning of the film, but they then completely vanish until T’Challa’s family flee to the Jabari as a last resort. Second, the Jabari don’t really play a part in T’Challa’s victory. Oh, they help his family and allies against Erik’s allies, but by that point that battle has been rendered largely irrelevant to T’Challa’s struggle. Overall, there are too many weak links between T’Challa accepting the Jabari and his comeback against Erik.

10: Or maybe this was supposed to be the turning point? But it seemed to me like T’Challa’s reluctance to engage with the outside world was based in practical concerns more than tradition… It would fit with having T’Challa fail when he was engaging in traditional ritual combat and succeed when using modern technology, but that thread wasn’t established well enough for that link to carry the conclusion to any kind of arc.
The more I think about it, the more this character arc bugs me. There were so many ways in which small changes could have made it so much stronger, but what we have is an almost nonexistent character arc for our protagonist, which ends up wasting a lot of what could have made him fascinating. It’s still a good movie, but it could have been so much more, and that bothers me more than any run-of-the-mill bad movie could.14

11: Is that the plural of Witwicky? 

12: Through all of Dragon Ball Z, Goku has literally one consistent character trait—his love of fighting. It overrides even what you’d think would be default heroic character traits, like wanting to save lives (trying to spare two [at the time] unrepentant planet-destroyers and asking a third to be reincarnated) or caring about his family (that senzu bean). If that’s not boringly flat, I dunno what is.

13: Look at Iron Monger. Like Killmongerhe’s someone who should be fairly close to the hero (coworker/cousin) who thinks that the organization run by the hero should be more militant, ends up forcing the hero out of his position (including an attempted murder), and ends up in a climactic battle against the hero where the hero wins by exploiting a weakness in the suits they’re both wearing. All that’s missing is a major subplot about revealing that organization’s secrets to the world and sharing their technology, and a complication where Tony Stark has to confront the sins of his fatherBy no means are they “the same movie,” but there are enough similarities to make it clear that you could have made an Iron Man “the same movie” as Black Panther, just without the Afro-Futurism. 

14: I made that point both in the footnotes and in the main body of the essay, but I think it’s important. And maybe I want to make it clear since my last article caught me some backlash that bothered me enough that I tried to work responses into my next essays.
…But that didn’t work out great, so I hope you like this instead.

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