The media’s insistence on making more of the film than a big, enjoyably dumb action movie only highlights the drastic shift in representation in casting and marketing as a predatory arrestment of social anxiety into an empowerment fantasy for those comforted by Disney’s sanitization of complex cultural problems into disposable blockbuster entertainment.
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Black Panther purposefully carries the name of the race-right group that personifies the cultural anxieties of marginalized black youths. Like that controversial movement, it is tireless in grooming its image while becoming its own form of marginalization that postures fatherlessness and disempowerment as problems that can be solved through blockbuster action, satisfying the need for cultural acknowledgment but without addressing it on any terms except those of a superhero. Indeed, the action may not even resolve on the side of right, instead manufacturing conveniences that force the film to side with the guys who were the heroes before we even started.
Marvel’s icons of this social conflict – a warrior rebel and deposed king fighting to be fathered in an Afrocentric fantasy land where the people are as advanced as Atlanteans but haven’t yet acquired a social conscience – battle each other without ever conflicting. The resolution is Marvel status quo. Yet resounding critical praise (it “elevates superhero cinema,” says Rotten Tomatoes, ranking it the best superhero film ever) promises that the result is some acclaimable forward progress in social justice. Fake resolutions fuel the media’s acceptance of the film’s promises as social truths, such as the elevation to kingliness of the stoically Marvel-esque mains by the divine right of franchises and the separate but equal marginalization of all the film’s white people (“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer,” someone says). This is a film made with the intention of proving that black actors should not be typecast as thugs, yet part of its comedic scheme is the counter-marginalization that all white people are colonizers. Black Panther admirably opposes prejudice when it’s directed at certain groups, but I would have preferred it, especially if its goal was “elevation,” to oppose all prejudice equally.
But regardless of its attitude, will anything be representationally different in the Marvel films following Black Panther? Has the status quo changed? No, it has not. And if it has not changed, then nothing has changed it.
The action and direction are typical in Black Panther. I have the same praises for stunt choreography and pleasant performances and the same gripes with animation and plot resolution that I do with any of Disney’s Marvel films. Black Panther does not commit a crime being typical. But the media’s insistence on making more of the film than a big, enjoyably dumb action movie only highlights the drastic shift in representation in casting and marketing as a predatory arrestment of social anxiety into an empowerment fantasy for those comforted by Disney’s sanitization of complex cultural problems into disposable blockbuster entertainment.
Wakanda is an African nation-fiction so advanced and secluded that it’s become an oasis of kingliness and explorer fetishes and technocracy, an “El Dorado of the East.” It’s like an H. Rider Haggard serial adventure novel reenacted by J.C. Penney’s afro-futurist summer lineup, a land of gold bracelets and perfect teeth and Epcot dining fortressed on all sides by child soldiers, National Geographic photoshoots, and unimaginable poverty. The citizens of Wakanda live in mediated contradictions. They pantomime rurality even while they worship the technological windfalls of an alien metal alloy; they perform respectful music that is ancient and full of rain sticks and skin-drums and awe while also adhering to Spartan barbarism in their accession rituals, which glorify glory, guts, and action figure poses. It’s only luck that the men who can punch the hardest have until now also been basically nice guys. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), heir to the Black Panther kingship, unlike many of the Marvel heroes when they start out in their own story, is a nice guy.
Black Panther is different for starring a nice guy but indifferent in using him, as all Marvel movies do, for the glorification of punching people. Actually, I admire how blatantly it’s about this: the film literally apotheosizes hitting people, having its hero close to godliness by siphoning ancestral power through the conduit of an edible alien flower. The plant gives him panther powers that T’Challa must learn to deserve (not to overcome, as it would be in a humbler hero film). But no power T’Challa receives from the plant is as strong as that which it gives to the animators, in the form of the blank check on physics most of these movies have to forge. Genuine stunt battles do provide fleeting exceptions to the normal visual puffery, such as a fight in a casino that contains one shot that lingers for minutes, tracking across a balcony, down to the tables, and back up again, a single take of T’Challa’s warrior general (Danai Gurira) kabobbing bad guys and parkouring over railings. The physicality is admirable. But fights in the film degrade with scale: this physical rumble on top of card tables is an anthem to martial arts and Bond films (complete with its own Q gadgets, pointless car chase, and insistence on pugilistic diplomacy), while the spaceships drop in and out of a video game, the green screen waterfalls shimmer unrealistically, and the rhinoceros worker’s union ought to raise horns in protest to losing their jobs to bad cartoons.
Most egregious of all, while director Ryan Coogler’s masterful one-take fight at the end of Creed really might be an elevation of fighting cinema, his climactic fight between T’Challa and his rival is an elevation only in the pay-scale of Marvel’s animation team. Two panther-shaped blurs fight mid-air, Moonraker-style, as they fall into Space Mountain, bounce off cartoon trains, sparks flying, grunting. It’s just so deflating.
My point is not to criticize effects but to unearth from all these complex expectations the same old Marvel monomyth.
Despite its cultural grandstanding, there is never a point in Black Panther when the route to victory is obscured by anything other than people that need to be punched. If the more cautious Captain America is the most diluted of the might-makes-right heroes, Hulk is the least, being the most conscientious of how important hitting people is to his heroic oeuvre. Black Panther is somewhere in between. He is strong of intentions but never tested in character.
I was reminded, for instance, when T’Challa throws himself onto a live grenade in his invincible armor, that it tells us nothing about him, as it did when Captain America did so without even his steroidal pecks to shield him. Walking into gunfire is not brave or noble when you’re bullet-proof. Panther’s suit is so omnipotently powerful that it doesn’t really even need T’Challa inside of it; when Spider-Man, a hero made vulnerable by his own power, attained this level of superiority, the name they gave to it was Venom.
Action in Black Panther obstructs the narrative to the point that I’m unclear who is siding for or against the tournament rituals, or who is even ethically invested in human life (unlike most Avengers, the characters in this film brutally murder those who block their forward path; after the good guys run a guy over, another good guy says coolly, “Don’t worry about it”). But action is an even greater thematic obstacle. Through it, the film’s values and its pretentions of cultural progress slip between its fingers like a myth half-told, traced in the sand. The source of the problem is Killmonger.
Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who also starred in Creed) is a royal Wakandan raised in Brooklyn by a defecting father who was killed by a worried king. At a young age in the grimy streets, Killmonger became, as the king’s aide (Forest Whittaker) put it, “the truth I chose to omit.” He has that in common with quite a lot of history. In response partly to the problems in his life but mostly to his feelings of disempowerment, Killmonger physically wields these feelings against the status quo, which in this movie is represented by T’Challa. Killmonger is disenfranchisement turned into a person, someone for whom killing is a better fate than life and death is a better fate than bondage. He recalls slaves specifically, who would rather throw themselves from the ships than face a lifetime in chains. His enemy is the status quo: both the Africans who decided to live and, in his mind, perpetuate their bondage, and the Wakandans who must have watched the ships come, collect, and leave with their neighbors in shackles. Wakanda has always omitted truths, it seems.
Killmonger is the modern spirit of ethnic invulnerability, but with the will to break his chains: to stop voting for political parties that harness the media’s willingness to exploit racial anxiety for votes, to reject entertainment that Disneyfies inner-city dreams. Killmonger is tired of playing a rigged game. If he were real, he would hate Black Panther.
Killmonger takes over Wakanda via the same accession ritual through which T’Challa became its king. But now the man who can hit the hardest also has an agenda, which it would be impossible for the Marvel universe to address. He doesn’t want to take over the world – he wants to change it. And change is anathema to a comic book, which must be able to continue its story for as long as possible without conceptual upheaval. Marvel’s solution is to smear Killmonger’s goals of racial liberation with the deadpan gangsterisms of a neo-terrorist, a Black Panther in the other sense (or at least a specifically skewed interpretation of one).
The film’s idea of solving its dilemmas is always contained, to avoid conflict with other kinds of civics, to black-on-black violence: Killmonger murders his girlfriend when Klaw (Andy Serkis) takes her hostage, ’cause he just can’t be bothered with it. No sooner than Killmonger identifies white supremacy as the element fracturing his people does the black hero murder him, his blood relative, for beliefs incompatible with the Marvelized repo of inner-city ambitions into action schlock. In other words, Marvel never proves Killmonger wrong, despite selling the movie with him (his theme song in the trailer, his goals motivating the tone of the release and its politics). They just prove him ethically inconvenient to their empire of action figures. They recruit their hero to take him down, not by refuting his claims or being better than him, but (you guessed it) by punching him really hard. There’s a point in Black Panther where, after all the talk about rights of accession and racial anxiety, the entire governing body of Wakanda is inexplicably divided down the middle, conveniently set up for the “Battle of the Five Armies” it was apparently waiting to have. The issues never come up again.
Meanwhile, the ignorant CIA doof (Martin Freeman), the “colonizer,” gets a hero’s resolution. Loki, the divinely ordained Thor’s brother, who leveled New York in The Avengers and betrays humanity as soon as you take your eyes off him for two seconds, always gets another shot at doing things right. The conflict between Loki and Thor has been propounded so often that they’re no longer even feuding brothers so much as a cutthroat Laurel and Hardy act. But Killmonger is so inconveniently convicted that he must die.
How did Killmonger get this way? He is as much the avatar of a culture as of a conflicted director trying to balance his beliefs with the desire to hit Hollywood gold. Both Killmonger and Coogler grew up in Oakland, California, and both of them have convictions that are compromised by peddling violence in the place of real debate (one as the villain of an action movie with pretensions of political grandeur and the other as a director of action scenes with similar pretensions). Black Panther identifies and neutralizes its target audience by marketing empowerment but ultimately discarding it as the foolhardy goal of a Marvel villain. The media’s response is to be so obsessed with a culture’s consensual desire for vengeance that in so elevating a typical action film as socially relevant the same media implies that the culture they’re trying to praise lacks the self-awareness to tell the difference between arguments and merchandise. Black Panther has much less to do with reflecting on racial tension than what manliness means to a bunch of kids who grew up without a father, and especially how those kids are viewed by the cinematic establishment. Even Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a more maligned film, presented a much less exploited outsider, whose plea for a social identity was universal enough to be empathetic to any outgroup, not just those of a certain background.
Corporatizing cultural issues under a smokescreen of spectacle, Black Panther has Marvelized racial tension by purporting to solve it through Disney’s usual exploitative derring-do. Everything that goes into the Disney machine is reduced to the same exotic kitsch that Black Panther is especially susceptible to, since more people than usual are flattering themselves at the wonderful job they’ve done and no one is stopping to wonder what has been sold, to whom, and why. It represents a coolly industrial approach to social conflict, reducing its icons to status quo merchandise, pushing its debates and questions into the backdrop of resolutions that all depend on action. In other words, it is a great success for the institutions that made it: through our ignorance it resolves Disney’s own anxieties at being perceived as imperial. It satisfies the thirst for rebellion without dealing with the consequences. It wins the fight to be fathered, by becoming a big brother.