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Minnal Murali: The best superhero movie of the year could teach Marvel how to solve its villain problem

Post Credits Scene: Minnal Murali, on Netflix, tiptoes around the same trap that has consumed so many MCU films, but has the good sense to never fall into it. It could teach Marvel a thing or two about crafting compelling villains.

Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
Updated: January 7, 2022 6:11:29 pm
Guru Somasundaram as Shibu in a still from Minnal Murali. (Photo: Netflix)

There are exactly seven good villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (one more if you count the shows). That’s a rather disappointing hit-rate for a franchise that includes 27 films and has had over a decade to fix this. You’d think that missteps such as this would teach them a lesson, but for every Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Black Panther, there is a baker’s dozen of films like Ant Man and the Wasp and Thor: The Dark World. Collectively, this repeated offence has come to be known as the Marvel Villain Problem, which also found a way to infect the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home. But who knew that an Indian superhero film from the Malayalam industry, released just one week later, would be the one that could legitimately give the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel juggernaut a lesson in how to craft compelling antagonists.

Directed by Basil Joseph and starring Tovino Thomas, Minnal Murali is a rollicking good time at the movies, and in a year that has given us 10 new MCU projects and a four-hour DC epic, it’s the best superhero story you’re likely to see. This is not just because of the patience with which the movie tells its deliberately low-key tale, but largely because it gives its protagonist—a village bumpkin named Jaison—a worthy adversary, played by Guru Somasundaram.

Minnal Murali is well read in the cinematic language of superhero films—it borrows elements from not just Superman and Batman lore, but also key elements from Spider-Man’s backstory. But on closer inspection, you’ll notice that it tiptoes around the same trap that has consumed Thanos knows how many MCU films, but has the good sense to never fall into it. Like Iron Man 2, Ant Man, and even Black Panther, the villain in Minnal Murali is essentially an evil clone of the hero.

Both Jaison and Shibu are struck by the same forked lightning bolt on the same fateful night, which gives the two of them the exact same powers. They’ve both been scorned by the women they love, and along the way, both Shibu and Jaison come to the realisation that they are, and always have been, outsiders. There’s a reason why you often hear the bad guys in Hollywood movies say things like, “You and I, we’re a lot like each other,” to the heroes. It’s because they are; they’ve deliberately been written as such.

In a sense, both Jaison and Shibu were (re)born as equals on that fateful evening; they’re two sides of the same coin. But their circumstances transform them into very different individuals who go on parallel journeys of Biblical scope. In another world, they could’ve been friends, if not brothers. But while Jaison is touched, and ultimately inspired by the stories of his dead father, Shibu’s bitterness boils to the surface when the only person that he ever loved is taken away from him. “Only I know the value of my loss,” he cries. “Neither you nor I can do anything about it.”

They are bound by grief and prejudice—the same cop hurls a casteist slur at Jaison, while pointedly noting that Shibu is a Tamilian. Minnal Murali is a vibrant superhero movie on the surface, but there is endlessly fascinating subtext about religion, class, and myth-making.

You might recall how, in Iron Man 2, both Justin Hammer and Ivan Drago weaponise the same technology that Tony Stark uses. Or how, in Black Panther, Killmonger is quite literally bound by blood to T’Challa.

Minnal Murali mines this drama for a solid two hours, as it delves so deep into Shibu’s past that you could mistake him for being the hero—he certainly is in his own head, as he goes on a delusional mission to help a woman in desperate need of it. But when he turns—followed by a wonderfully well-done sequence on a farm–you don’t doubt it for a second. Those who are willing to stick with the film, as it goes down winding narrative avenues that might not always make sense to viewers who’ve grown up on the box-ticking style of American superhero cinema, will be rewarded.

Not only does this duality make for compelling drama, but it also forces you to examine the seemingly arbitrary factors that influence how we turn out. It’s not like Shibu has never felt compassion in his life—he has—but it broke him. He could be a case study of a man starved for affection. Ostracised and defeated, Shibu assigned undue importance to the first person who showed him love. And this became his undoing. But who can’t relate to this?

The goal should never be to excuse the behaviour of antagonists in stories such as this, but to explain it. At no point does Minnal Murali suggest that Shibu deserved to live, but by fleshing him out over two engrossing hours, it highlighted the tragedy of his inevitable death. Shibu didn’t have to die, you rue; he didn’t have to make the choices he did either. But how many of those choices were made for him? Was he always destined to turn out this way, condemned to live a worthless life from the moment he was born? The ‘what ifs’ are impossible to shake off.

Not all heroes wear capes, they say. But they never tell you that it’s okay for some villains to look like middle-aged, mundu-wearing moustachioed uncles.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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