Having just come from seeing Black Panther, I’m happy to say I enjoyed the movie greatly: It was another example of a fantastic superhero movie from Marvel Studios. I have to admit here that, when the Marvel Studios logo animation and music started at the beginning of the film, I actually got tingles in my body; they have managed by now to subliminally associate the logo with epic excitement with characters I’ve known since my childhood, tapping into emotions I rarely have a reason to exercise. And those emotions were put through their paces by this movie.
At the core of the movie is, of course, T’Challa, the prince who is made King, and given the Black Panther title, when his father dies in a terrorist incident. T’Challa is ready to accept the mantle of King, and encounters the expected (and unexpected) challenges to his authority; in the end, his superior fighting prowess and support of many followers wins him the day. Just like you’d expect from any superhero movie. But in many ways, Black Panther is very different from other superhero movies, and in the afterglow, I found myself thinking of those differences and reflecting on what they really meant, within the movie and in the greater scheme of things.
Just to get it out of the way, I must consider the science fiction aspect of the movie: The mythical land of Wakanda has incredibly developed technology, courtesy of an asteroid that struck that part of Africa, made of a unique metal unlike anything else on Earth, Vibranium. Vibranium is not only an incredibly hard metal (Captain America’s shield was made out of it), it absorbs impacts, and it can be used as a power source. Learning to harness these characteristics has turned Wakanda into a modern-day Atlantis, capable of technological wonders that dwarf anything else in the world.
Vibranium also doesn’t exist; nor, I’m sure, could any material in this universe exhibit the properties it has. So Wakanda’s technological gifts are the kind of magic that even Arthur C. Clarke would have belly-laughed at, before shooing you out the door. But that’s okay, because this is a Marvel Studios superhero movie, always chock-full of otherworldly beings, godlike powers, unimaginable energies and impossible engineering marvels (like Iron Man suits, spider-webbing and shrinking technology)… so science fiction isn’t even a label I’d seriously apply to these movies. Just call it all fantasy, and move on.
And like all superhero movies, the underlying theme is “might makes right;” the winner is always the one with the most powerful punch. Like all superhero movies (and far too many other adventures, dramas, comedies, etc), so much of the action, fighting, tension and antagonism could have been solved by people talking out their disagreements or just stopping to think about what they were doing… and Black Panther is no exception. Again, we have to forgive this flaw as it is part-and-parcel of superhero movies (and, ye gods, so many others) and keep moving.
Since this movie is about an African King and his family and subjects, demonstrating a superiority in science and technology and a noticeable lack of influence by non-African races, Black Panther has an embedded quality of empowerment and independence that shines like a beacon to African-Americans in the United States who have felt restricted, controlled, denigrated and insulted by their country and its largely European leaders. Black Panther provides a symbol for them to stand beside and even emulate. In the US’ current social atmosphere, fanning the flames of racism seemingly as a knee-jerk reaction to the elevation of an African-American to the highest place of office in the country, Black Panther will surely take a prominent position in America’s future racial conflicts (though whether that position will be primarily positive or negative is, at this point, impossible to say).
And I’d be remiss not to point out the level of female empowerment in Black Panther. Much like last year’s Wonder Woman movie became a shining example of female empowerment, Black Panther is brimming with even more equally-powerful female characters, whether it’s T’Challa’s mother, his sister the scientist (who would put Q to shame), his all-female royal guard, or his love, who functions as one of Wakanda’s spies out in the rest of the world. Maybe it’s significant that when they are outside of Wakanda, they rarely meet or interact with any other females… a clear indication that, outside of Wakanda, it’s a man’s world. Within Wakanda, men and women work together, and succeed, equally.
Black Panther is also a family epic on multiple levels. At first, we discover that T’Challa disagrees with some in his family and circle of advisors about the future of Wakanda, choosing instead to follow the isolationist direction set by his father and other Kings before him. But the discovery of an unknown family member who has lived outside of Wakanda, and who also questions Wakanda’s isolationist choices, puts T’Challa in the position of finally weighing the wisdom of his ancestors against the views of his family and friends.
The family drama plays in parallel to Wakanda’s mission to stay isolated from the rest of the world and its problems. On one hand, the Wakandans can honestly say that, with their superior technology, they could almost certainly take over the world if they so desired; and their resistance against that is part of a moral code not to impose themselves on others. But as the antagonists of the movie ably point out, the other side of that coin is doing nothing when one group is wronged by another, stronger group… and everyone is well aware of how Africans, in particular, have been wronged by other nationalities, losing land and sovereignty, kept down and destitute, taken as slaves, and much worse. The antagonists want what’s right, after all: They want protection for the powerless, the ability to defend themselves against aggressive outside forces, and to live free. If, as European doctrine teaches, “might makes right”—and Wakanda is truly the most mighty—shouldn’t Wakanda protect their fellow Africans and rule the world?
Although there is merit in protecting your own people from harm, taking no action while your brothers and neighbors are harmed is much harder to justify. And T’Challa has been put in the position of deciding whether isolationism is still the best course for Wakanda and for the world, or whether Wakanda must choose to take a stronger guiding hand in improving the lot of all humans on this planet. It’s not unlike the position the United States has been, on one side or another, since its founding; at first needing the protection of stronger nations so it could survive, and later becoming the protector of other nations when it was strong enough to do so. And the resources of the US have often been seen as almost Wakanda-like by other nations and their people, many of whom have fled dangerous or hopeless conditions in order to live a better life in the US… and in so doing prompting just the kind of isolationist viewpoints in the US, keeping outsiders out and denying US resources to others.
In a significant way, Black Panther addresses the greatest threat against a peaceful and enlightened world: The danger of treating others as threats instead of family—the destructiveness of deliberately anti-social behavior, pitting brother against brother. It’s an argument that transcends the movie screen and echoes throughout our modern reality, the debate between isolationism and philanthropy, protectionism for disadvantaged populations elsewhere, and our role on the world stage. Indeed, later in the movie T’Challa speaks in carefully-chosen words of the need to build “bridges, not barriers,” insisting that, essentially, we are all of one tribe, and must start treating each other that way.
In essence, the best of Marvel’s movies have equally embodied epic conflicts with personal conflicts—Tony Stark became Iron Man when he discovered his weapons were being sold to the enemy and used against civilians—Steve Rogers volunteered to become Captain America because he wanted to protect the world from the “bullies” in Nazi Germany—Thor learned humility and understanding through his careless actions. In Black Panther, T’Challa learned that leadership is more than blindly following tradition… it’s about embracing the truth. And in watching Black Panther, we are presented with not only a pro-brotherhood social message, but a better view of all peoples as part of one big family, deserving of our respect, cooperation and support.