Spoilers for Black Panther below.
The first showdown between a superhero and a bad guy was startlingly small. In 1938’s Action Comics No. 1, the newly introduced Superman hears that a man is beating his wife and rushes into their home to stop him. The man tries to stab Superman, but when the knife breaks, the abuser faints from shock. The Man of Steel dons his Clark Kent duds and hangs around until the cops show up. That’s it. That’s the whole fight. Isn’t there something wonderful about that? To a certain extent, everything you really need for a superhero showdown is there: a costumed adventurer, a baddie who would do harm to the innocent, a tussle that features larger-than-life abilities, and a victory of good over ill. Plus, a domestic abuser is far more viscerally scary than, say, an intergalactic tyrant who wants to blow up the universe.
But alas, bad guys of the latter ilk are pretty much all we get in superhero movies, these days. Just look at these recent movie supervillains and their grand plans. Justice League: Steppenwolf was an extraterrestrial warlord who wanted to conquer Earth. Thor: Ragnarok: Hela was a goddess of death who wanted to bring about Armageddon. Wonder Woman: Ares was a god of war who wanted to destroy humankind. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Ego was a living planet who wanted to assimilate every being in existence. Doctor Strange: Kaecilius (remember him?) was a reality-altering sorcerer who wanted to help a giant dude from another dimension take over ours. Tell me, did any of those schemes really excite you? Or did they just feel like placeholders?
Now, by contrast, let’s look at Black Panther. In Ryan Coogler’s stunning new Marvel film, our Big Bad is a mere mortal. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and his plan is utterly novel in the superhero-movie canon. Erik, a man of mixed African and African-American descent, believes that the African diaspora deserves a shot at liberation and that white supremacy must be dismantled. To that end, he wants to use the advanced technology of the secretive African nation of Wakanda to destabilize the world’s governments and replace them with his own new empire. As he puts it, “The world’s gonna start over.” Sure, there’s some light world domination involved, but not through the use of a magic stone or mass mind control. And he doesn’t want to destroy the world; he wants to make it more just. It’s a story about a single man who wants to implement political change.
And guess what? It’s infinitely more gripping than the average “if the Cosmic Entity gets the Cosmic MacGuffin, then we’re all screwed” plot. Black Panther has much to teach the rest of the superhero genre, and one of its most important lessons is this: These kinds of stories are always better when the stakes are human. A superpowered saga is almost always going to be more interesting if the heroes are trying to avert something comprehensible and contained. You’re going to be more drawn in if the baddie is a person with aims you can relate to and understand. If the climactic fight scenes aren’t just about stopping a megabomb’s countdown, they’re far more engaging.
This smaller-scope approach is a strategy that’s been adopted by many of the best superhero movies. In The Dark Knight, the Joker has no designs on world domination, just on introducing chaos to a single city. The Incredibles is narratively driven by a bad guy who wants to destroy his former idol and sell superhero technology to the public. Unbreakable follows a working Joe who goes up against a home invader and a serial killer. The struggle in Logan is one man trying to save one girl. In all of those cases, we’re drawn in because we can understand what’s going on and why it’s going on. They’re comparatively mild exaggerations of reality. In our dimension, virtually no one tries to destroy or subjugate all life on Earth. But plenty of people do smaller-scale bad things out of jealousy, avarice, anger, and misguided idealism. When we see a filmic plot with that kind of engine and scope, we’re more easily drawn in.
Those kinds of plots also lend themselves to more interesting fights. The third act of the average superhero flick is a real snore these days. The end of the world (or the universe, or the multiverse, or reality itself) is at hand and it’s all hands on deck to prevent the unimaginable from happening. Laser blasts and megapunches ensue. Black Panther has a massive action set piece at its conclusion, but the threat everyone’s trying to avert is far more concrete than we’re used to seeing in this kind of picture: The good guys have to stop the delivery of some superweapons to secret agents who will topple the world’s regimes, and the fighting is almost entirely hand-to-hand combat. It’s closer to the fight choreography of Coogler’s last effort, Creed, than it is to most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and the movie is richer for that fact.
To be fair, Black Panther isn’t the first MCU outing to keep its stakes grounded — and previous ones like that have been among the best in the franchise. Captain America: Civil War’s villain was just trying to get the Avengers to turn on one another. Spider-Man: Homecoming featured a villain who mainly wanted to rob rich people blind. And it’s certainly possible to make an interesting movie where the world is on the line: The Avengers was the best MCU movie prior to Black Panther and its vision of massive sky-demons descending on Manhattan from an interdimensional rift was goosebump inducing. But the fact remains that Black Panther succeeds more than any other MCU picture largely because its plot is driven by humans and their human desires, and because individual human lives are what’s at risk. Apocalypses have their place, but nine times out of ten, when it comes to conflicts, smaller is better.