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The Ideological Clash at the Heart of Black Panther

Today’s big-budget superheroes are a cosmopolitan crew. Internationalism is in; “truth, justice, and the American way” are out. Indeed, Bryan Singer’s Superman was fighting for “truth, justice, and all that stuff” as early as 2006, while Zack Snyder’s 2017 version of the character remarked that he “likes truth” and is “a big fan of justice.” Even Captain America himself, clad in ever-more tactical armor that downplays the Americana in favor of a sleeker look, bears little connection to his homeland at this point. (And that doesn’t even touch the revelation of Cap’s latent Nazi sympathies in a recent and controversial comic.)

Black Panther, the 18th installment in Marvel’s swelling cinematic universe, breaks that mold. Beyond the requisite fight scenes and high-dollar effects, it’s unapologetic about its sense of place and identity in ways previous Marvel films have never dared to be.

A pre-title sequence reveals the history of Wakanda, the tiny Central African nation at the heart of the story. After a giant meteor containing valuable “vibranium” crashed to earth thousands of years ago, the tribes of Wakanda waged war to claim its powers. They were finally united under a single monarch, the Black Panther, chosen warrior of the ancient goddess Bast. Following unification, the nation flourished and prospered in secret, relying on vibranium to power its advanced technologies. To the outside world, though, Wakanda languished in isolation and poverty, eschewing external relations and accepting no foreign aid.

Enter T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly king of Wakanda after his father’s murder in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Upon his return home, we’re introduced to Wakandan national culture through scenes of ritual combat, coronation, and a dreamlike visit to the “ancestral plane.” And through it all, a rich diversity of distinctly Wakandan subcultures unfolds. (For instance, the mountain-dwelling Jabari employ the iconography of the gorilla rather than the panther, rejecting technology and valorizing brute strength.)

Moreover, Black Panther gratifyingly resists the temptation to explain away its own mythology. We’re not, for instance, told that the goddess Bast is actually just an extraterrestrial visitor (a la Guardians of the Galaxy), or that the ancestral plane is merely a hallucination or hologram. As far as the audience is concerned, these elements—which comprise the religious architecture of Wakanda—are real and powerful.

In short, Wakanda is unapologetically Wakandan in all the ways that matter; the Afrofuturist setting is as much a centerpiece of the film as Boseman himself. This sensibility couldn’t be more different from the gleaming CGI cityscapes of the Thor series, the spotless Avengers Tower of the later Iron Man flicks, or the sterilized Washington, D.C. of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Indeed, the only Marvel Cinematic Universe setting that’s felt comparably real—a place people might actually live and thrive—was the New York sketched in last summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

What’s more, these flourishes aren’t merely aesthetic—they set up the ideological clash that gives the movie its bite.

The real star of Black Panther isn’t its hero, but its villain: Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka (also known as “Killmonger” because, yes, this is still a comic book movie). N’Jadaka—T’Challa’s cousin—is not only far more charismatic than his rival, but also has a far clearer vision for Wakanda’s role in the world: using Wakandan military technology to arm the descendants of the African diaspora and settle some millennia-old scores. For N’Jadaka, Wakanda’s isolationism is not merely apathy, but a nigh-unforgivable betrayal of black identity.

Thus emerges the fascinating question at the heart of Black Panther: what social realities beyond ourselves define us most fundamentally? T’Challa fights on behalf of nationalism, his heritage, and a distinctive culture rooted in a physical place; N’Jadaka fights on behalf of a race that has suffered through centuries of oppression and violence, embracing a Pan-African vision of liberation through war. (In an ironic twist, N’Jadaka bears a far closer resemblance to the real-world Black Panthers than the film’s eponymous protagonist.)

The film does falter a bit when it comes to resolving this tension. Director Ryan Coogler (or his Marvel Studios higher-up) isn’t quite willing to make N’Jadaka as sympathetic as he could be, even if the Killmonger’s arguments do cut deep. Disappointingly, N’Jadaka becomes a one-note megalomaniac by the end—though for a good chunk of the film, I actually found myself thinking he’d probably make a better Wakandan king than T’Challa. Theory must eventually give way to formula: at the end of the day, this is still a comic book movie that needs to be wrapped up in roughly two hours.

On the scale I’d typically use to evaluate a Marvel movie, Black Panther falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The action scenes are fine but not terribly memorable (Boseman, for one thing, comes off as a bit too courtly to fully inhabit his superhero alter ego). The score is adequate, if a bit generic—sadly, it lacks the pounding hook from the Run The Jewels song “Legend Has It” that featured prominently in early trailers. The supporting cast—including Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, and others—is strong across the board, although Jordan absolutely steals the show. What makes Black Panther a success is its story and the powerful themes it deploys; everything else comes second.

When all’s said and done, there’s a superficial reading of this film’s politics in which Black Panther is a straightforward tale of Wakanda’s journey towards Marvel-approved globalism. To be sure, T’Challa eventually announces the opening of international outreach centers for the sharing of Wakandan knowledge, and suggests that Wakanda will start giving aid to other nations. But Black Panther as globalist propaganda is far too facile an interpretation. Early on, a character denounces T’Challa for not admitting foreign refugees into Wakanda, yet there’s no indication by the film’s conclusion that T’Challa has relented on this point. A screenwriting oversight? Perhaps—or perhaps a subtly provocative unwillingness to flatter audience expectations. A T’Challa who exercises his royal prerogative to prioritize a Wakandan Wakanda over a fully internationalized Wakanda isn’t a character one expects from Hollywood, but it is a much more interesting one.

Will Marvel have the nerve to double down on that subversion in the inevitable Black Panther sequel? Time will tell.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post and a graduate of Yale Law School.

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