By Abigail Nussbaum
In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its political realities, we discuss the superhero movie Black Panther. Spoilers for the entire movie follow.
A few days ago I tried to put into words the reasons for my frustration with Star Trek: Discovery. Far more than the problems with the show’s writing or plotting, what bothered me about Discovery were the obvious limitations in its understanding of the Star Trek franchise, and of what could—and should—be done in it:
Like the reboot movies before it, Discovery seems to think that the most—perhaps the only—interesting question to ask within the Star Trek universe is “should we have a Federation?” Does it, for example, make a civilization weak to live in peace and prosperity? And what happens when such a society meets an existential threat? Does it give up its values and civil liberties in order to survive? But the thing is, this is literally the most boring, basic question one can ask about Star Trek. The real challenges posed by a society like the Federation aren’t questions of if, but of how. How do you create a truly just, fair, equal society? How do you balance freedom of conscience and opinion with your core values of tolerance and peace? How do you prevent the exploitation of those who are weaker than you? How do you help people outside your society, and do you have the right to encourage them to be more like you?
Who could have predicted that only days after publishing these words, I’d find the story I’d been looking for on Discovery in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie? In general, one does not go to the MCU for thought-provoking worldbuilding. Despite the increasing strain on plausibility that this poses, the movies and TV shows in this universe all insist that they take place in a world virtually indistinguishable from our own, except that it has superheroes. And aliens. And magic. And killer AIs. And Inhumans. But other than that, totally the same!
The reason for this enforced stasis—and the reason that until this weekend I’d had no reason to expect a Marvel movie to budge from this approach—is that superheroes are an inherently conservative concept. They have the power to remake the world in their image, but the ones who actually try to do so are almost invariably termed villains (or, in the case of Age of Ultron, good guys temporarily breaking bad and suffering no consequences for it. No, I’m not still bitter, why do you ask?).
Whether they were intended to do so or not, superheroes end up propping up the status quo. In the MCU in particular, stories that purport to be revolutionary often end up circling right back to where they started. Iron Man 3 ends with Tony Stark destroying his suits, but in Age of Ultron he’s right back in them with no explanation of why. Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes a bold statement against the security state when it reveals that SHIELD was infiltrated and taken over by the very organization it was created to fight. But it ends with an impassioned speech from Black Widow about how the world needs secret, unaccountable police forces, and on both film and TV, such organizations, unchanged except for sometimes their name, immediately crop up. Most recently, Thor: Ragnarok seemed to strike a stand against imperialism when it revealed that the wealth of the supposedly benevolent Asgard was rooted in plunder and genocide, but the film ends by concluding that “Asgard is an idea” (a bad one, surely, if the previous two hours were to be taken at face value). It leaves the Asgardian ruling family in place in the shape of Thor, and even his recovering-Nazi brother Loki, and sends them forth to make a new home on Earth, regardless of how the current inhabitants might feel about it.
Which brings us to Black Panther, a film set in the fictional African techno-utopia of Wakanda, whose fabulous resources of vibranium have fueled a centuries-long technological and economic flowering even as they’ve allowed the Wakandans to remain hidden from the world. So, obviously, some worldbuilding was in order, but unlike in similarly fantasy-world-set MCU series like the Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy movies, director Ryan Coogler and his team have been keenly aware of, and eager to embrace, the political component of their construction of Wakanda.
From architecture to interior design to costuming, every aspect of Wakanda was designed from the ground up to incorporate traditional African imagery while projecting it into a bold, positive future. Costume designer Ruth Carter’s bywords for the film were “Beautiful. Positive. Forward. Colorful.” Camille Friend, head of the movie’s hair department, has spoken about her determination to feature only natural black hair, in varying styles reflecting the different characters’ personalities. (In one amusing scene, no-nonsense Dora Milaje leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) complains about having to wear a Western-style wig while undercover. Later, during a fight, she throws the wig in her opponent’s face as a distraction.) Star Chadwick Boseman has explained his decision to give T’Challa, the new king of Wakanda, an African accent as an attempt to forestall the preconception that as a cosmopolitan member of the elite, he would naturally have been educated in Europe. In every respect, Black Panther is hard at work crafting an image of African life that is sophisticated, knowledge-based, and futuristic, while at the same time producing a society that is just, prosperous, and benevolent.
Beyond its importance as a work of worldbuilding, however, what excites me about Black Panther—and sets it head and shoulders above any other work in the MCU, as far as I’m concerned—is the fact that it’s a story about worldbuilders. “Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved”, T’Challa is informed by his sister, the bright-eyed inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright). And indeed, Black Panther and Wakanda are full of people who, despite living in a seeming paradise, keep asking themselves how they can make it better, and what responsibility they have to help improve the rest of the world.
As a newly-crowned king, T’Challa has to decide what kind of path he’ll forge as a monarch. Will he follow the lead of his father, T’Chaka, who maintained Wakanda’s isolationist stance? Or will he embrace the thinking of his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who in her work as a spy has seen too much of the suffering and unrest in other parts of Africa to be happy living in Wakandan luxury? When T’Challa tells his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) about Nakia’s exhortations to allow refugees into Wakanda, the other man demurs:
You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them. And then Wakanda is like everywhere else. Now, if you said you wanted me and my men to go out there and clean up the world, then I’d be all for it.
I really can’t express how thrilling and unexpected it is to find a conversation like this in a mainstream Hollywood tentpole, much less an MCU movie. What T’Challa and W’Kabi are talking about is something that we’ve debated right here at LGM: what does a progressive foreign policy look like? Is military interference ever justified, or should rich, well-meaning nations content themselves with aid and refugee resettlement? It’s also, to bring us back to where this essay started, exactly the sort of question that should be (and once was) the purview of Star Trek. If you live in a techno-utopia, what is your responsibility to the people living outside of it, and how can you help them improve their lives? That Wakanda is an African nation set in our own world, surrounded by a legacy of slavery and colonization, adds an extra layer of significance to this question. The Wakandans have daily reminders of how the world treats African nations that have something it wants. But on the other hand, they are also keenly aware of the suffering they’ve allowed to run rampant.
This dilemma is brought to a head in the form of the film’s villain, Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who turns out to be the unacknowledged son of T’Challa’s uncle, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown). Sent to the US as a spy, N’Jobu not only fathered a child with an American, but became so invested in the plight of African-Americans (the word the film uses is “radicalized”) that he betrayed Wakanda in order to fund armed revolt against the US government. Upon learning this, T’Chaka had his brother killed and left his nephew behind. Trained by the CIA in infiltration and regime-change, Killmonger maneuvers tensions within the Wakandan tribes, as well as his own heritage, to claim the throne. His argument is that Wakanda, and the house of T’Chaka in particular, have abdicated their responsibility to Africans all over the world. He plans to utilize Wakanda’s worldwide spy network, and its vibranium-powered weapons, to start a global revolution.
It could be argued that Black Panther struggles to establish that this would be a bad thing. Certainly the film wastes no time in conceding that Killmonger is right in both his personal and political criticisms of T’Chaka’s actions. What it falls back on, instead, is the revelation that Killmonger would be a very bad king. He doesn’t care about Wakanda as anything but the means to an end, and even kicks off his reign by destroying the supply of the herb that gives the Black Panther his powers. (He is also casually and relentlessly violent towards women, even killing his lover without breaking his stride.)
Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent caught in the chaos of Killmonger’s machinations, helpfully explains that “It’s what he was trained to do. His unit used to work with the CIA to destabilize foreign countries. They would always strike the transitions of power, like an election year or the death of a monarch”. But this is a rather fraught strategy, signifying a black revolutionary’s evil by having him engage in tactics traditionally applied by the CIA to recalcitrant African governments (while Ross gets to play the self-sacrificing hero). Despite his revolutionary aims, Killmonger’s approach is eerily familiar—he plans to exploit an African nation for its natural resources—which is, again, a little uncomfortable to watch.
What saves it, to me, is that unlike so many other “political” MCU stories, Black Panther doesn’t foreground guilt, but responsibility. This, to me, is the essence of superhero stories, one that far too many entries in this genre seem to miss—the idea that it’s not important who broke it, but who’s going to fix it. Unlike Thor: Ragnarok or Winter Soldier, whose orgies of redemptive destruction conceal the absence of any meaningful change, Black Panther is a story about how to concretely build on a flawed past to make a better future. As a Jew who has seen too many superhero stories reduced to tired Jesus metaphors, it also feels like a profoundly Jewish approach. Black Panther is a story about tikkun olam, about people realizing that it is their duty to make the world a better place.
The choice turns out to be not between T’Chaka’s isolationism and Killmonger’s global war, but between both and Nakia’s active engagement with the world and its ills. When the film ends, T’Challa, having defeated Killmonger, resolves to bring his country into the light, to share its technological and cultural treasures. He opens the first Wakandan outreach center in Oakland, where his uncle was killed and his cousin grew up.
There is, obviously, a lot to argue with in this ending. Some critics have blasted the film over what they see as a choice to have Africans fight each other in order to save white lives and prop up the status quo. (Personally, I feel like there has never been a superhero movie to which white people, individually and as a group, have felt more beside the point, but others might disagree.) Others have criticized the choice to have Killmonger die at the film’s end, in a scene that is deeply moving and which reaffirms his concrete, historically grounded political vision, but which certainly feels like a harsh choice given this franchise’s willingness to give second chances to characters like Loki or even Tony Stark. And for me personally, I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little weak sauce about the form chosen for Wakandan outreach—it’s probably not much more than what your average Stark Industries community outreach program looks like. A truly bold vision would be to have Wakanda start to interfere in global politics, especially in Africa, but this is probably more than the MCU is willing to countenance.
Ultimately, however, this is all outweighed by the image of an African utopia conjured by this movie. Like the Federation, Wakanda is perfect because it doesn’t exist, because we can project upon it all our ideas of what a truly good society would look like, and how it would behave to make the rest of the world a better place. Both are a fantasy of what it would be like to live with all of the good things brought to us by the Enlightenment, but without any the (not so) hidden costs. That in this version of the story, it is Africans—historically the people most screwed over by the real Enlightenment—who embody that ideal, and who struggle with the question of how to bring it to the rest of the world, is a welcome and necessary expansion of science fictional utopia. It’s certainly one of the best possible uses of the increasingly dominant superhero form.
Next time on APHotF: still planning to get to Altered Carbon, hopefully before the end of the month.