I watched MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT last week, then rewatched BLACK PANTHER a few days later, and I was struck by the similarities. Both are about good men in a situation where other people expect them to be ruthless if they want to succeed. Both refuse but succeed anyway, partly through a circle of incredibly competent friends, and partly through their own awesomeness.
Exceedingly minor spoilers for both films.
“You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.”
To me, that’s the central line in THE BLACK PANTHER. T’challa is a good man who readily accepts the self-serving policies that have been handed down to him. Yes, black people around the world are oppressed, but Wakanda stands apart. That’s how it’s always been. They don’t liberate. They don’t conquer. They live happily and prosperously inside their secret country, minding their own bees wax. In fact, the first action scene in the film is a sequence where The Black Panther interrupts a rescue mission for the needs of the Wakandan state.
It’s Nakia who speaks up for doing the right thing, and W’Kabi who repeats the self-serving conventional wisdom. T’challa is ready to follow that tradition without even considering what it really means, right up to the point that he has to save someone’s life.
So, where T’challa talks and talks about doing what’s best for the country–what keeps them safe–but the first time he’s faced with the choice between helping and keeping his national secret, he helps. He doesn’t even consider his options first. It’s just “Here’s a person I know who has been hurt. We will help.” When questioned by his friends, he can’t even come up with a justification. It’s not a carefully thought out decision. It’s just him listening to his “good heart.”
Obviously, Killmonger is the other extreme. He wants to use the power and resources of Wakanda to kill and conquer. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” For him, nothing has value except power: not the lives of the enemies he’s recorded in the scars on his body. Not the girlfriend who helps him on his heists, and not the Wakandan traditions that put him on the throne.
If Killmonger had not blown off The Black Panther’s call for a resumption of their trial by combat, the climax of that film might have gone very differently. The Dora Milaje would have been honor bound to stay out of the fight, and Shuri, Nakia, and Ross’s attempt to stop the shipments of weapons would have failed. That’s a much better chance at victory, but Killmonger couldn’t honor the local tradition because he doesn’t care about doing the right thing.
With MI:FALLOUT, Ethan Hunt is continually put into situations where the expedient thing is to sacrifice someone else for sake of the mission. It’s pretty much the entire plot, front to back.
But because this is a movie, the protagonist can be as clever/fast/tough/resourceful as he needs to be to make it all work out. The real thrills come from seeing how effectively the movie makes you think he has to “go there”, then lets him be the hero instead.
The biggest difference between MI:F and TBP is that T’challa wields incredible power and authority. When he decides to do the good but not expedient thing, he only has to give the order, then endure the astonished expressions of his pals. For Ethan Hunt, he’s surrounded by enemies and allies he can’t trust (plus a couple of real friends, obviously). The stakes are much higher than “Our culture will have to open up to the world” so the tension is greater.
Fact: I enjoyed them both. The only thing I hope they do with the second Black Panther flick is to make T’challa as smart as he is in the comics. I want to see him win not because he used a clever karate move. I want him to show off his brains, too.
And, just to say in passing, that earlier this week I rewatched both Jack Reacher films, and as I said on Twitter, Christopher McQuarrie is a severely underrated writer/director. No matter how frantic or desperate the movie gets, it never feels like the story is skimming over something important. Great stuff.