Whenever a superhero movie comes out, part of the cultural reaction is to find the politics in its bones. Last year’s Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t just about the god of thunder and lightning fighting with the goddess of death — it was also about refugees, immigrants, the pitfalls of imperialism, and Donald Trump’s vision for America. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman was, depending on whom you ask, either propaganda about American exceptionalism or a subversive piece of feminism designed to sabotage tired Hollywood conventions.
There’s a strong desire to find what these stories about super soldiers, iron men, and guardians of the galaxy say about American life and politics — perhaps because of the way studios tend to blur out those details when translating the stories from comic book form.
The most striking thing about Black Panther, then, is that you don’t have to dig to find its message. Nothing is hidden. Director Ryan Coogler has created Marvel’s most political movie yet, one that’s unapologetically grounded in the jagged reality of black American identity.
Coogler, his team, and his cast create a fantasy where the most powerful nation in the world is Wakanda, a fictional country in the heart of Africa. But Black Panther also acknowledges the ghastly history of slavery, colonization, and their lasting contribution to inequality in the United States, letting all of it inform the fantasy of Wakanda.
Unlike Marvel films that dwell on the inherent divide between good and evil, Black Panther is interested in showing the circumstances that dictate its characters’ sense of morality, including race. The answers it gives aren’t tidy, embodied in a villain who’s more thoughtful, with more thought-provoking motives, than his counterparts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In doing so, Black Panther is the rare Marvel film that doesn’t shy away from telling us something — possibly something very painful — about an aspect of American culture that superhero films rarely address.
Black Panther interrogates Western assumptions about Africa and its people
A thing that keeps popping up in Black Panther is how media and pop culture in the film’s universe portray Africa, and by extension Wakanda. There’s a scene featuring a television news report where Wakanda is referred to as a Third World country. That same scene has the anchor downplay the coronation of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) because Wakanda isn’t perceived as a country that would have the lavish spectacle of such an event.
Later, in a post-credits scene, T’Challa and his entourage arrive at the United Nations and tell those assembled that they are ready to share Wakanda’s riches and information with the world. Without skipping a beat, an unnamed white man condescendingly asks, “What can Wakanda give the world?”
The audience, of course, knows by now that Wakanda is the greatest and most technologically advanced civilization in the world, highlighting the extent to which these people can’t see beyond their own ignorance. Wakanda thrives, secretly, in a world that can’t fathom an African superpower. And while it’s easy to smirk at the nameless characters who underestimate Wakanda’s power, the inclusion of these false notions of African inferiority force viewers to confront their own biases and prejudices about the continent.
What makes Coogler’s vision of Wakanda so stunning is the context around it, in which it’s rare to see Africa portrayed as a wondrous technological marvel and common to see it portrayed as poor, war-ravaged, and uncivilized. It was just in 2016 that the Avengers were in a dreary, war-torn Lagos, Nigeria, to apprehend bioterrorists in Captain America: Civil War. And it isn’t just Marvel movies in which you see this depiction — it’s incredibly common in entertainment and news media alike, leading some Africans to worry about the depiction of their continent by Western media.
These depictions of African countries are often extended to Africans and people of African descent — not unlike the way the newscaster brushes off T’Challa’s coronation. Wakanda is even more important, then, because if it’s a beacon of wonder that’s underestimated by Westerners, by extension its people, too, are capable of proving that ignorance wrong.
Wakanda is effective because of the reality that’s informed it
Since they were created, superheroes have functioned as sociopolitical fairy tales. Captain America famously punched Adolf Hitler on the cover of a comic book a year or so before the US entered World War II. As early as their fifth issue, the X-Men grappled with protecting a society that hated them because they were born mutants. Spider-Man specifically tackled drug addiction in the ’70s. And more recently, Ms. Marvel has been dealing with issues around immigration and religious persecution in America.
Black Panther was no exception when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character in 1966 — even though Kirby and Lee may not have fully been aware (at the time) of the importance of the character.
“I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black,” Kirby told the Comics Journal. “I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else.”
Kirby’s words are far from eloquent, but he does get at the point of representation and how important it is for readers to be able to see themselves in these stories. The comics he and Lee created were a way for them to express their own stories, but also to inspire their readers who shared their feelings. Kirby and Lee’s experience as first-generation Americans from Jewish immigrant families showed up in their stories, even though many of them weren’t explicitly about the Jewish experience in America.
Over time, the comic book writers and artists who helped continue Black Panther’s narrative — and now Coogler as well — refined what Kirby referred to as feeling “ignored” into an exploration of black identity.
Coogler’s Black Panther is a superhero movie that’s also, if not more so, a movie about identity. The film’s villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), is a ruthless killer who believes violence is an agent of justice. That’s both what he’s been taught and a result of how he’s been treated. What makes Black Panther different from Marvel’s stable of other movies is its willingness — eagerness, even — to acknowledge that Killmonger’s worldview is shaped by a number of things, including his race, specifically the inequality and oppression he’s witnessed and experienced as a black American man.
In Killmonger’s opening scene, he makes clear that he sees museums as storage vaults for what the Western world has looted. He sees Wakanda as weak because it didn’t and won’t help its African brothers and sisters who were taken to the West as slaves. He sees T’Challa and Wakandans as privileged since they don’t face the prejudice, racism, and inequality experienced by black people not living in Wakanda. He’s an American who’s trained in destabilizing countries (as agent Everett Ross tells us), many of which are still dealing with the lingering effects of colonization.
Killmonger believes that justice means colonizing the colonizers and oppressing the oppressors. As marvelous and as beautiful as Wakanda is, it’s also a point of disappointment and frustration for Killmonger because he feels that Wakandans never showed compassion or care for its brothers and sisters in the outside world.
At the same time, Coogler’s vision of Wakanda is a utopia precisely because it’s never been colonized. This is an idea lifted from the page, as Wakandans in the comics have resisted all kinds of invasions and attempts. In conjunction with Killmonger’s experiences, Coogler’s vision of Wakanda shows the potential of African countries to be wondrous zeniths of technological and social success, but also how many of the problems that strangle Africa are byproducts of colonialism.
As king, T’Challa is tasked with reconciling these two sides of Wakanda’s legacy, sifting the good away from the bloodlust in Killmonger’s worldview and tempering his esteemed perception of Wakanda with the consequences of its isolationism. The film isn’t concerned so much with delineating between good and evil — Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, one of the film’s heroines, has a worldview adjacent to Killmonger in terms of Wakanda’s isolationism — as it is making clear the circumstances that have shaped these characters’ worldviews.
Black Panther isn’t satisfied with just being a movie featuring a black superhero. It strives for something more complex than right and wrong and more powerful than a vibranium-laced fight scene. It truly is the first Marvel movie that unapologetically addresses the sort of painful realities that superhero movies rarely make room for. The historic reception that’s greeted the film is indicative of how rare movies like it are, and how alluring the fantasy of being able to transcend our frustrating and spirit-killing realities is.
So many superhero movies based on comic books have been powerful enough to change the way we think about humanity and how we act with empathy. But Black Panther is the first film to recognize that in order to tap into that power, we can’t shy away from or blur out the painful realities that inform it.