Despite the oft-criticised saturation of the superhero genre in recent years, a large audience knows and loves the action-filled, popcorn-guzzling films that continue to be released; and their continued box office performance shows that their dominance of the market will not let up. They still capture an audience that is not becoming fatigued – as some have long predicted – so there must be something beyond being simple and fun summer blockbusters that provide an easy form of escapism for a few hours.
With dozens of characters and multi-film arcs, it may be that we are all so invested in the worlds of certain franchises that it is impossible to now turn away from them. However, two recent releases from major rivals Marvel and DC encapsulate a different kind of appeal: the human elements of our world.
Upon their release, Wonder Woman and Black Panther both incited commending reactions from reviewers and audiences alike for seemingly going against the grain and proving that the genre need not be filled with mindless action flicks. As instalments of their respective franchises, in order to effectively create character development, they address the personal issues of their central protagonists by placing them in a wider context that provides a commentary on morality, judgement, and even global politics. Through the use of subtext, theme and setting Wonder Woman and Black Panther enhance their storytelling by addressing the struggles of both the fictional and real world.
Released less than a year apart, it is interesting to draw similarities between these two films beyond the usual comic book tropes. Firstly, both protagonists belong to royalty: Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is an Amazonian princess, whereas T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) becomes King of Wakanda after the death of his father. As royalty, there is a separation between them and the audience – something non-existent with a more relatable character like Peter Parker – forcing the hero’s challenges to have a strong familiarity with an average moviegoer. Both characters have a duty to serve not just themselves but an entire nation. As unrelatable as this situation may first appear, everyone understands the difficulty of making decisions that have a wider impact. It is perhaps a standard quality of superheroes that they are selfless, but with their specific positions and the circumstances of the world they inhabit, the films also acts as critiques of isolationism.
By design, the fictional homes of Diana and T’Challa are physically separated from the rest of the world. Both Themyscira, a mystical island, and the nation of Wakanda, masquerading as a third world country, are hidden from the outside by protective borders. Throughout the course of the two films, a case is made for breaking down the metaphorical walls of these nations and joining the world stage, although they go about it in different ways.
In Wonder Woman, World War One rages while the Amazonians are protected by both their isolation and ignorance to these external threats. But when Diana experiences these horrors outside Themyscira she is convinced that she has to help fight in the war even if this goes against the self-centred traditions of her people. For T’Challa, he at first wishes to continue the isolationist policies of Wakanda, but the voices from some of the more progressive characters have him change his mind. In fact, it is the antagonist, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who acts as a foil by criticising Wakanda for not sharing its superior technology which could aid millions of people, and despite being defeated he is still successful in changing T’Challa’s ideology. Although having a villain we can emphasise with is rare for a superhero film, it provides great character development for the protagonist. T’Challa must decide which direction to lead his country, and in the end he sets up outreach projects, announcing to the world the true nature of Wakanda. On the other hand, Diana’s journey is much more personal as she must be independent and break free from her overly protective mother in order to do what she believes is right, which is fighting to end the war.
Attention is often placed on the depiction of a strong female hero and the portrayal of African culture in Wonder Woman and Black Panther, respectively. While these are certainly significant milestones in Western cinema, the two films more broadly advocate a behaviour which should be fundamental to anybody: every person has a duty to be selfless and help others, and then projecting this to a global level by promoting interventionist policies.
Whether it is an individual helping another in danger, or an entire nation trying to resolve issues that seem distant and irrelevant to them, there is a need to intervene, because despite differences in gender or race we are all human and part of the same community. It is perhaps fitting then that groups of superheroes, whether it be the Avengers or the Justice League, often team up against threats which are extra-terrestrial. Ultimately, being didactic is crucial to the longevity of the superhero genre, and with such a large audience these films must appreciate the platform that they have and continue to convey these positive messages.