Welcome to Film Luck’s first ever Movie Duel! This will be a recurring series in which we look at two movies that were released within a short time of each other and have a great deal of similarity. This has happened many times over the history of cinema. Sometimes, it is one studio brazenly copying another in an attempt to steal away some box office sales. Sometimes it’s pure coincidence. Personally, I believe this first example we’ll examine is in the latter category.
We’ll compare and contrast the two films using various points. We’ll discuss which film is better at each of these elements. We’ll pick an overall winner at the end.
Today we are looking at Black Panther and Aquaman. Both films were released in 2018. Black Panther (BP) is based on a Marvel comic book hero and is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aquaman (AM) is a based DC hero and is part of the DC Extended Universe.
Both films will be discussed with full spoilers.
Both films share their titles with the name of their primary protagonists. Each features a hidden kingdom that exists alongside modern society. Each of these kingdoms is made of a few, smaller subkingdoms. Each has a king that rules over the entire thing. The throne can be taken from the king via one-on-one ritual combat to the death. Both movies feature the threat of the hidden kingdom waging war on the rest of the world. The hero doesn’t want to unleash a new World War, but the villain does. The hero must dethrone the villain to prevent the war. There are a number of other similarities, but you get the point.
Now let’s get down to business (no Huns were harmed in the making of this blog).
We should start with our titular characters. Which is a better hero?
T’Challa is the Black Panther. He is newly crowned as king in the first act of the film. He was a prince raised up to become the king. He has been preparing for this his entire life. He is a good man. He has an open mind. His greatest wish is to keep his people safe and happy. He will not hesitate to give his life for his kingdom. He seems kind-hearted. He is wise, yet still seeks greater wisdom continually.
As far as powers are concerned, he has enhanced speed, strength, and agility, thanks to a magical herb. His sister develops a supersuit for him which can absorb kinetic energy and then unleash it in a sort of explosion.
Arthur Curry is a simple man. He is not the smartest, strongest, or fastest man alive. But he’s a good man. He has powers, and he uses them to help people. He is never cruel. He doesn’t take advantage of others. He doesn’t crave power or wealth. He’s just a good person.
His powers are somewhat vague, but he absolutely has superhuman strength, speed, and agility. He can also breathe and speak underwater. He can withstand the intense water pressure and cold of the deepest parts of the sea. He can communicate with all manner of sea life, and even command them. His skin cannot be punctured with normal human weapons.
I know this will sound like a cop-out, but I like both of these heroes very much. They’re both good people. They’re very earnest. They try to do the right thing. And, assuming T’Challa has his suit, I can’t say who’d win in a fight. Though I suppose this would greatly depend on how much water is around when the fight takes place.
The primary antagonist of BP is Killmonger. He’s definitely one of the best villains to ever grace the MCU. He was abandoned as a child after his father was killed. He grew up hating Wakanda and all that it stands for. As an audience member, we really get where he’s coming from. He’s definitely one of the most empathetic villains I’ve seen in a comic book film. He wants to make the world a better place. He sees the plight of Black people all over the world. He sees how systemic racism has hurt them for centuries. He wants to correct this. His solution is to use Wakanda’s incredible weaponry and vast network of spies to create insurrections in every major country on Earth. He is also cruel. He kills a woman that seems to be his girlfriend. He chokes an elderly woman when she questions his orders. He also tries to prevent Wakanda from ever having a proper king after he is gone. Though we get where he’s coming from, we also see that his methods are anything but altruistic.
BP also has a secondary villain named Claw. He really doesn’t do much in this movie. He helps Killmonger steal an artifact made of Vibranium. And then is quickly killed by the primary villain. Though his presence is important to the plot, Claw himself is a waste.
AM has King Orm aka Ocean Master for an antagonist. He is mostly just a really angry dude. He wants to wage war on the surface. We can empathize with him as well. I mean, humans really have wrecked the ocean. It’s pretty indefensible honestly. What’s more, he blames Arthur for the death of their mother (and to be fair, Arther blames himself for this as well). He is justifiably mad. But he lies and manipulates in order to get what he wants: war. He will not hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way.
AM also has a secondary villain in Black Manta. Manta is awesome. He has an amazing suit that he builds out of an Atlantean suit of armor. It shoots massive beams of destructive energy out of its eyes. He is very skilled in hand-to-hand combat as well. He hates Arthur because he (kind of) killed Manta’s father. He is a bad dude. He kills and steals with glee. It also certainly looks like he’ll be the primary villain of Aquaman 2, and I am very excited for that.
Winner: Black Panther
I have no problem with Ocean Master as a villain. He is fine. He works as a foil for Arthur. He just lacks any complexity. He’s just an angry dude. That’s his whole schtick. Killmonger is terrifying, menacing, evil, and I totally get where he’s coming from (intellectually, at least).
BP has a big chase scene in the streets of South Korea. It involves remote control cars. It has guns and spears. It’s good fun! And it comes right off a big fight scene in an underground casino, which is probably my favorite scene in the movie. The chase itself has a lot going on, but we can follow it pretty easily. T’Challa does succeed in the end and catches Claw. I also just really like the imagery of a panther hunting its prey. Very thematically appropriate.
AM has a chase scene in which Arthur and Mera are being chased by Black Manta and several Atlantean soldiers. This takes place across a series of rooftops in Sicily. It is a foot chase, rather than a car. It has a great sense of momentum. Arthur and Mera split up, but we manage to follow each of them continuously as they flee. We follow the whole sequence without difficulty. It’s all very coherent. It has a scene of a guy putting his head in a toilet, which I personally find very amusing.
This is a really close call. Both scenes are thrilling. I can’t fully explain why, but I just find rooftops in Aquaman a little more fun. It also has the benefit of not being rendered totally pointless by the plot a few minutes later, unlike BP.
Wakanda and Atlantis are absolutely beautiful to behold. Atlantis itself is absolutely breathtaking. Wakanda is very visually interesting. It is also quite varied in its landscape.
We don’t learn nearly as much as I would like about these 2 cultures within these movies. Atlantean culture mostly seems to be one of classism within, and anger towards the surface-dwellers without.
Wakanda is highly xenophobic and introverted. The people live pleasantly in their ivory tower, content to hide from the world. They deeply fear losing their precious Vibranium, which is the source of their immense power and wealth. We also hear a great deal of the Wakandan language itself. From what I gather, this language was developed by Marvel to specifically emulate real African languages from the region where Wakanda would exist if it were real.
Winner: Black Panther
We spend at least a good 60% of the movie within the borders of Wakanda. We spend time with its denizens. We see various perspectives from the people. We really get a feel for what the people in Wakanda are like. I would absolutely like to know more, but we get more here than we do in AM. Aquaman spends a much smaller percentage of its runtime within Atlantis. We get to know fewer Atlantean characters, and we don’t get to know those ones quite as well as we do in BP.
There isn’t much for me to say here, as taste in music is extremely subjective. However, I think most people will agree with me.
Winner: Black Panther
BP’s music (like the language) is also supposedly based on real African music from the region. And it’s thrilling! It is also incredibly unique. It sounds absolutely nothing like the music in other superhero films. AM’s score is fine. It’s pretty standard action movie stuff. Unfortunately, where it really loses me is with an absolutely abominable cover of Toto’s Africa by Pitbull. It’s a travesty.
It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, but I’m trying to take into account all of the visual elements of the film. From the hair and makeup, to the costuming, to the props and sets, to the camera angles used.
BP is a very visually interesting film. Every scene has something cool to look at. The hair and makeup are absolutely top-tier. The costumes are rich and diverse. They also communicate effectively how each person fits into the culture of Wakanda itself. And the main city within Wakanda is really cool. It has a fascinating aesthetic of ancient tribal relics mixed with futuristic technology.
AM, as mentioned earlier, has Atlantis. When Arthur and Mera first cruise through the capital city, it is just wondrous to behold. I like the costuming quite a lot here. Although Mera and Atlanna have….. less than stellar wigs. What AM really has going for it is the camera work. There are many shots that are awesome. As in, they fill me with awe. They are definitely designed to feel like a massive two-page spread. It really feels like an actual comic book somehow leapt onto the screen and started moving.
This is another close one, but I just find AM to be a visual feast. It’s one of the greatest strengths of the film. There is an amazing shot to be found in almost every major scene of the film. There is a lot going on in many of these. At times, it walks right up to the point of being overwhelming, but it doesn’t actually cross that line. Most superhero movies try to fit in one or two money shots. AM has them by the fistful.
The end of both of these films is structured similarly. There is a large battle between warring factions of the kingdom. Then the main hero and villain step aside from the battle to fight one-on-one.
BP has a fight in a large field. It has a few dozen soldiers fighting each other. There are 3 or 4 CGI Armored Rhinos in the mix. Overhead, there is an air battle in which Agent Ross attempts to shoot down a number of Wakandan Transport ships, while fighting off a few fighter planes.
T’Challa and Killmonger split off from the group. They are both wearing the fancy Panther suits. They fall from a great height into a dark cave and fight in the air. Then they fight around a train, which also has a field that inhibits their suits’ abilities.
AM has a massive battle. People ride sharks, and whales, and all manner of underwater life. Crab people emerge from trenches. Energy weapons and lava abound. Oh, and there’s a massive tentacle-crab monster.
Arthur and King Orm head above the water to duke it out. The rest of Atlantis watches to see who will live and keep the throne. The two combatants fight with tridents. They leap and jump and spin, while lightning strikes around them and the sun rises in the distance.
AM wins in a landslide here. BP’s large final battle feels very small scale for what should be an entire country in civil war. The CGI Rhinos are awful. And the fight between T’Challa and Killmonger is two people wearing dark suits in front of a dark background. It’s not only uninteresting, it’s also incoherent. I can’t always tell who is doing what.
AM has what feels like an entire ocean at war with itself. Thousands (if not tens of thousands) of sea creatures of all varieties are fighting. And to top it all off, there is a massive, Cthulhu-inspired tentacle-crab monster just for the hell of it. Furthermore, I find the final fight in AM to be much easier to track. It is also quite visually arresting.
This whole finale is just an incredible sequence. If you ever get the chance to watch this climax in 4K, I highly recommend that you give it a shot.
So who wins? It’s a close call. I really enjoy both of these movies. They’re some of the finest films to come out of comic books, well, ever, for my money. But one is a better film and has to win:
Black Panther takes the crown!
I think Aquaman is a remarkably fun film. It’s so much better than it has any right to be. They took one of the most mocked and derided superheroes and made a thrilling movie out of him, which also makes me really like him as a character. There’s so much to like here. And yet!
Black Panther is a more cohesive film. It has more clearly defined (and more interesting) character arcs. The dialog is better than AM’s. The side characters are more interesting. The music is sensational. The hair and makeup are top-of-the-class. It was made with incredible craftsmanship in every area. I can only hope that Black Panther 2 finds a way to be even more compelling.
What do you think? Which movie do you think is better? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to let us know what films you’d like to see duel in a future blog!