Minnal Murali || Movie Review || The best superhero film of the year has the potential to teach Marvel how to overcome its villain problem
Minnal Murali, a Netflix original, approaches the same trap that has consumed so many MCU films but has the insight not to fall into it. It might be able to teach Marvel a thing or two about creating fascinating villains.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, there are exactly seven good villains (one more if you count the shows). That’s a fairly low hit percentage for a franchise that has 27 films and has had over a decade to improve. Mistakes like this one would seem to teach them a lesson, but for every Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Black Panther, there’s a baker’s dozen of Wasp and Thor: The Dark World and the Ant-Man.
This repetitive offense has become known as the Marvel Villain Problem, and it has even infected the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home. But who knew that an Indian superhero picture from the Malayalam industry, released just one week later, would be the one to actually teach the multibillion-dollar-grossing Marvel powerhouse how to create interesting heroes and villains?
Minnal Murali, directed by Basil Joseph and starring Tovino Thomas, is a rollicking good time at the movies, and it’s the best superhero narrative you’re likely to see in a year that has given us 10 new MCU projects and a four-hour DC epic. This is due, in part, to the patience with which the film delivers its intentionally low-key tale, but also to the fact that it provides its hero local bumpkin named Jaison—with a real enemy, played by Guru Somasundaram. Minnal Murali is fluent in the cinematic vocabulary of superhero films, borrowing themes not only from Superman and Batman mythology but also from Spider-Man. However, on closer investigation, you’ll discover that it approaches the same trap that has eaten Thanos.
Jaison and Shibu are both struck by the same forked lightning bolt on the same fateful night, giving them the exact same powers. They’ve both been rejected by the women they love, and along the road, Shibu and Jaison realize they are and have always been, outsiders. There’s a reason why the evil guys in Hollywood movies frequently declare to the heroes, “You and I, we’re a lot like each other.” It’s because they are; they were purposefully written that way.
Jaison and Shibu are two sides of the same coin as they were (re)born as equals; they’re two sides of the same coin. However, their circumstances convert them into quite different people who start on parallel Biblical journeys. They may have been friends, if not brothers, in another universe. But, while Jaison is affected and ultimately inspired by his late father’s stories, Shibu’s anger bubbles to the surface when the only person he has ever loved is taken away from him.
They are united by pain and prejudice—the same cop throws a caste-based insult at Jaison while highlighting Shibu’s Tamil background. On the surface, Minnal Murali is a bright superhero film, but there is an endlessly fascinating subtext about religion, class, and myth-making.
You may recall that in Iron Man 2, both Justin Hammer and Ivan Drago use the same technology as Tony Stark. Or how, in Black Panther, Killmonger is physically bloodied to T’Challa.
Minnal Murali explores this drama for a good two hours, diving so deeply into Shibu’s background that you may mistake him for the hero. He surely is in his own head, as he starts on a based on the irrational journey to help a woman in great need. But when he turns, which is followed by a fantastically well-executed action on a farm, you don’t doubt it for a second. Those who are prepared to persevere with the picture as it takes twisting narrative turns that may not always make sense to fans raised on the box-ticking style of American superhero cinema will be rewarded.
This dualism not only makes for interesting drama, but it also encourages you to consider the seemingly random circumstances that determine how we turn out. Shibu hasn’t ever felt compassion in his life—he has—but it broke him. He could be a case study of a man who is lacking in affection. Shibu was humiliated and defeated, therefore he placed enormous value on the first person who showed him, love. And this proved to be his undoing. But who can’t identify with this?
In stories like this, the purpose should never be to excuse the villains’ behavior, but rather to explain it. Minnal Murali never implies that Shibu deserved to live. But by fully fleshing him out over two fascinating hours, he highlights the tragedy of his untimely death. Shibu didn’t have to die, and he didn’t have to make the decisions he did. How many of those decisions, though, were made for him? Was he always supposed to be this way, destined to a life of worthlessness from the moment he was born? The ‘what ifs’ are difficult to shake.
They claim that not all heroes wear capes. But no one ever tells you that it’s perfectly fine for certain villains to look middle-aged, mustachioed uncles.