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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.)

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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.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The Ideological Clash at the Heart of Black Panther"

#1 Comment By collin On February 28, 2018 @ 9:48 am

American Diversity Globalism Sells! And isn’t that a good thing? Hollywood action movies are incredible exporter for our country.

Well it is probably better for Marvel to tell a straightforward tale of Wakanda’s journey towards Marvel-approved globalism and avoid any 1970s blaxploitation (or 1990s urban) cycle type politics. These are in the past and many conservative ticket buyers across the globe not buy a ticket.

1) And Have you seen the foreign grosses on Marvel movies lately? They are SuperHero movies and politics needs to be limited.
2) I wonder if they do something similar with other cultures? I am still surprised there isn’t an Asian Martial arts hero (with a Chinese director maybe) or Indian hero (with Bollywood director). Marvel makes a pandering action movie to certain cultures that supports Globalism in the long run.

#2 Comment By Rosita On February 28, 2018 @ 11:00 am

Excellent review! And I agree, N’Jadaka was the standout character.

#3 Comment By Will Harrington On February 28, 2018 @ 11:09 am

“(In an ironic twist, N’Jadaka bears a far closer resemblance to the real-world Black Panthers than the film’s eponymous protagonist.)”

To increase the irony, Marvel’s Black Panther predates the party by several months.

It could be argued that what T’challa institutes by the end of the movie is not globalism at all, but rather Jingoism, only this time it is Wakanda’s burden to help and transform the rest of the world. Is it globalism or a strange kind of reverse colonialism. It will be interesting to see how Marvel incorporates other nations into their cinematic universe, especially Atlantis and (if the fox deal goes through) Latveria.

#4 Comment By Quimbob On February 28, 2018 @ 11:15 am

It’s just a comic book – sometimes silence is golden…

#5 Comment By cecelia On February 28, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

And the real irony of the Black Panther is that the Marvel series was created by a bunch of white guys (Stan Lee most notably).

I was unimpressed by the film. Too much obvious CGI, too many film clichés (the high tech gadgetry borrowed from 007 films). No acknowledgment that slavery continues today and it is black people enslaving other black people or that Africans played a huge role in the selling of other blacks in the past. It perpetuates a lot of myths that ignore the complexity of oppression or that people from Africa are not the only people who have experienced brutal oppression.

#6 Comment By positive thinker On February 28, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

This movie is ‘comfort’ politics.
PC romanticized.

#7 Comment By Will Harrington On February 28, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

Cecelia

You demand a lot from this movie. How long do you want it to be? I know I’m getting old, but I am stunned when every movie with CGI gets criticized for having obvious CGI and I think it looks great. Of course, I have also heard, just recently form a student, that the CGI in the Original Star Trek series looked cheesy. It seems that in the world of nerds and geeks (among whom I count myself) there is an idea that being unimpressed or critical of something lends one some sort of status. Of course, I remember the live action justice league TV special from back in the seventies and I know how far this type of genre has come, and I am usually impressed. Only very occasionally am I bored. This was a beautiful movie that dealt with one theme. What are the responsibilities of a King to his people and how do you define who your people are? Exploring the continuation of slavery. Did you not see the scene where T’challa drops in on what is obviously a Boko Haraam convoy and rescues young girls who were being hauled into slavery? Nakia was not impressed because his actions were to get her, not rescue the enslaved girls, which also addresses your point that Africans have turned a blind eye to slavery. Anything beyond that would have been just poor story telling and preaching. That would have been a reason to be critical of the movie.
As for the other half of that bunch of white guys, let us not forget the King himself, Jack Kirby, nor the contributions these two Jewish men have made to our country and its culture. Jack fought on the front lines of WWII while Stan worked for an army studio along with men like Theodore Geisel. Both Jack and Stan can arguably be said to have had a role in the acceptance of Civil Rights in America. Jack never did well with Publicity, which is why Stan is the one who is well known.

#8 Comment By cka2nd On February 28, 2018 @ 7:04 pm

Mr. Ehrett, please, PLEASE reach out to the black socialists who run the Black Agenda Report website and Black Agenda Radio podcast and volunteer to discuss the film on one of their podcasts. The best reviews I have read of the film and its politics, so to speak, have been on BAR and TAC, and I would dearly love to see you and Bruce Dixon or Glen Ford have a conversation (I’d guess it would be more that than a debate) about the movie together.

Also, I totally agree with you about how relatively real “Spider-Man: Homecoming’s” New York City was. I was amazed about how familiar the city seemed, far more so than in any of the other MCU movies or the “Kick-Ass” flicks.

#9 Comment By Light Horse Harry On February 28, 2018 @ 10:18 pm

Talk about cultural appropriation-

The Black Panther plagiarizes the plot line, lock stock and elemental Maguffin, of a 1936 horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi,

In The Invisible Ray /i >the pair harrow darkest Africa ( Uranium rich Katanga to be exact) in search of an ancient meteorite bearing the wonder metal Radium X, from which their superpowers flow.

#10 Comment By Paul Oksnee On March 1, 2018 @ 2:59 am

I agree with positive thinker.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 1, 2018 @ 7:10 pm

“This movie is ‘comfort’ politics.
PC romanticized.”

Ah yes those comfort films:

Tarzan
Quartemaine
Superman
Supergirl
Wonderwoman
Thor
Shira – the Warrior Princess
Ironman
Black Widow
Batman
Catwoman from villain to heroine
Wasp
X-Men and Women – an introductory course in “Transhuman” scholarship
Batgirl
Fantastic Four
Aquaman
Green Hornet, Green Lantern

The list of heroes as comfort food along with their accompanying background stories is long and endless.

#12 Comment By Jon On March 3, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

And so the cycle continues, rinse and repeat. The old ideology haunts the screen in animated shadows characterizing itself through these imaginary avatar superheroes. The intellectual, I suppose, is sacrificed to the activist nay denigrated or rather remains invisible to the saga as non-entities unworthy of mention. Books do not redeem and the written word does not save the day — just the action which titillates grabbing the young person’s attention in moments of shattered time.

Knowledge is gained through tedious study and research. When a new source of energy is brought down to earth in the form of a meteorite it would at first require said society to recognize it as such and then figure out ways to harness it. What then becomes of the scientific method essential for the incremental accumulation of discoveries that would make such a society advanced? Is that laborious process evident in this particular sci fi fantasy?

Ah, (sigh) well, I do not plan on seeing this movie unless of course my grandchildren insist I treat them to it or unless they can download it somehow. But then from where they reside, it might be dubbed in Spanish or better preserved in English with Spanish subtitles. In any event thank you for the synopsis and the review of this film that people here are raving about. It adds grist to the mill of reasons for not partaking of the popular culture.

I just love cliches such as “rinse and repeat,” and “grist to the mill.” After all, what is this form of entertainment but a laundry list of visual cliches as an animated cartoon no less?

#13 Comment By Inspector General On March 11, 2018 @ 11:06 am

I can appreciate John Ehrett’s interpretation of this movie, especially in the context of the Marvel panoply. I knew one thing going in, that Marvel is not (primarily) about “message” movies or social justice. Whatever the political undertones, they would ultimately serve the story line, not the reverse. After all, it’s entertainment, right? Except, as Ehrett pointed out, this movie breaks the Marvel mold. The theme of pan-Africanism is present, but it gets defeated by a much milder, friendlier point of view: a Wakanda willing to share its technology and secrets. No world-wide Nate Turner style rebellion. Yay! Cooperation wins out, as opposed to the “American way,” of brute force domination. The writers allude to something post-American, a far broader point of view based on an ancient, timeless human heritage. I for one am fascinated by new research on lost African roots. (Just read Graham Hancock to learn more about Africa’s lost technology. Speculative of course.) Ultimately the movies succeeds because it defuses the notion of pan-African rebellion, instead favoring a global cooperation, albeit one in which Wakanda does not seem to open its borders to refugees, as the author pointed out. So it implies that national borders are a good thing, which is a conservative theme and one of great timeliness in light of the African population dilemma. Another positive is that young people will see a side of black culture seldom seen, one with deep historic roots, laced with mystery and heroism, as opposed to the standard fare that in which Africans are secondary characters, prone to crime and violence, whose heritage is that of a defeated race of slaves etc. Modern scholarship is showing that Africa is quite complicated. Kudos to the to Black Panther for going beyond the stereotypes. Great entertainment, but also a great way to shift the consciousness about race in a better direction.