Subtext. Though sometimes it’s less subby and more in-your-face text.
First, if you’ve never understood the concept of subtext, lets break it down. It’s defined as the underlying theme of a narrative. Well, great, but don’t you also have to have a regular theme overlying your story? Yup. Which is why subtext is not called theme. Let’s make sure theme is understood, too, so we know the difference.
Theme is what you’re trying to say about some aspect of the human condition. Subtext is the social or cultural forces that play out underneath (acting as a backdrop) to the characters and plot that ramps up the conflict.
According to this article, Black Panther’s theme is about the “good, bad, and ugly side of family.” Underneath is the subtext of racism in America brought to light by Killmonger’s character. Killmonger, because of his past experiences with racism (and that thing with his dad), is driven to face his family. This creates conflict between the characters, which drives the emotional journey for T’Challa .
Black Panther uses both the theme of family and the subtext of race to deliver a powerful and entertaining film.
Then let’s look at Wonder Woman. Feminism. Amiright? Black Panther also embraced a feminist flare, but Wonder Woman ran with it. Set during WWI, Wonder Woman’s sense of confidence, power, and refusal to do as men demand sets her against expectations of the time—many of which still stand today.
But is feminism the theme? No. The theme revolves around how violence and war don’t solve anything. Which would make the underlying gender issues of the time drive the undercurrent of character conflict as Diana tries to find and defeat Aries.
Here’s a quick test. Is Wonder Woman about feminism? No, but it makes quite the commentary on it anyway. Is it about saving mankind from itself? Yes. Is Black Panther about racism? No, but it hits some powerful notes along the way. Is it about accepting all facets of family? Hell yeah.
Two movies, totally different in their approach and meaning, yet by using juicy subtext, each excels at conflict, motivation, plot, and especially character.
Just shut up and take my money.