Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way.
Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, battling one another while spaceships blast one another overhead and a reinforcements of armored rhinoceroses charge in, while one good Black Panther in purple trim fights an evil Black Panther in yellow trim . . . What if all of this looks ridiculous?”
But it doesn’t. It looks awesome. The action, visuals, dialogue, characterization, plot twists, casting — this is watching a hitter make contact with every swing at the bat.
But Black Panther leaves one nagging note of dissatisfaction. The film is maybe a little too good at giving the audience something to think about amid all the action, and the science-fiction concepts at the heart of the story eventually become sand in the gears of whatever social message the filmmakers intended.
The closing scene of Black Panther features King T’Challa standing in Oakland, telling his sister he’s tearing down the run-down housing project where his father killed his uncle. He’ll replace it, he promises, with an outreach center that will help the struggling African Americans living in the community.
Maybe this is what happens when you try to attach weighty real-world problems and themes — oppression, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity — to a superhero story. Fear not, African Americans of Oakland, King T’Challa and the Wakandans are here to improve your lives with a science-and-technology center.
In the film’s backstory, the imaginary kingdom of Wakanda was founded atop a meteorite of the priceless, do-just-about-anything element vibranium, and the country has thrived in secret peace and prosperity for centuries. The rest of the world believes a technologically enabled illusion that Wakanda is a remote, isolated, backwater country, known only to Geography Bee contestants.
The story ensures that the audience will sympathize with the villain, the angry revolutionary Killmonger, perhaps a bit too much. The Wakandans did doom the rest of the continent and the world to all kinds of preventable trouble when they decided to keep the vibranium for themselves and shut out the rest of the world. They chose to keep utopia for themselves and let the rest of the world suffer.
And yet . . . In an earlier scene, one of T’Challa’s friends tells him, “When you let in refugees, they bring their problems with them.” Some members of the audience clucked after this line of dialogue at my screening, but it’s worth noting that this character isn’t meant to be a villain and that . . . he’s got a point.
As seen in the film, Wakanda shares a lot of the advantages of the United States: expansive energy resources, a stealthy air force, exceptional research-and-development facilities, and a far-reaching espionage network, all with a much better-looking all-female personal-security detail for the head of state. But we in the U.S. haven’t figured out how to sniff out those who mean to harm us from masses of immigrants and refugees. How would Wakanda? Do they have some vibranium-powered malevolent-motive detector?
A future Black Panther sequel is likely to deal with the ramifications of the world’s learning that the most technologically advanced country on the planet has been hiding in the middle of Africa. It’s hard to believe that things will run smoothly. Had the world known about the miraculous properties of vibranium at any time in the past, what ensued would have been familiar: war. Human beings fight wars for many reasons, but territory and resources are two big motivators.
In that light, the forefathers of Wakanda made the right decision. The only way to prevent Wakanda from turning into yet another long-disputed site — like Jerusalem, Alsace-Lorraine, Kuwait, or Crimea — was to take their discovery and hide it from the world. As much as we in the audience love our heroic protagonist T’Challa, experience tells us that when he reveals Wakanda’s wonders at the end of the film, he’s bringing, at best, some serious and probably painful changes to his beloved country. The worst-case scenario is that Wakanda is about to surpass Israel as the world’s preeminent scapegoat and target.
Do Wakandans mind not having free elections?
Another aspect about Wakanda that nags at the audience is that we never get much sense of what life is like for the average civilian there. Do they mind not having free elections? There doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a parliament; the nation has traditions but no discernible constitution. Killmonger seizes the throne and decides overnight to turn the country into an expansionist empire aiming to destabilize every other country on earth, and a significant number of Wakandans think that they have to go along out of respect for the throne. Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” Killmonger finds heavenly Wakanda the precise tool he needs to bring his hell to the world.
Yet the same vibranium that, if revealed, would unleash global chaos seems to somehow have made Wakandan society eerily, implausibly harmonious. The lone venues for resolving disputes of governance are fights to the death or submission by a waterfall. Has the vibranium made Wakanda so prosperous that greed and avarice no longer exist? Even if everyone feels wealthy, are there no disputes about authority? Clearly the mountain gorilla tribe broke away some time ago, and we get the slightest hint of irritation from its leader that T’Challa’s sister heads up their technological research program. Also . . . there have never been any female Black Panthers or rule by a queen? At one point, the queen urges T’Challa’s girlfriend, Nakia, to take the quasi-magical “heart-shaped herb” and fight Killmonger. She declines.
The climax of the film is more or less a Wakandan civil war, and perhaps it’s all triggered by Killmonger’s ascension to the throne and his mad plans. Or maybe an eventual conflict like this is inevitable in a society where a subject’s only two legal options are obedience to the king or challenging the king to physical combat.
Wakanda seems utopian in its skylines, endless gadgets, and magnetic levitation trains. But we know it can’t exist, and it’s not just because vibranium is fictional. Wakanda can’t exist, not owing to any inherent flaw in Africans, but because of the inherent flaws of human beings. Every human society involves trade-offs. If you want more security, you’re probably going to have less freedom from surveillance and fewer civil liberties. If you want to avoid the paralysis of division, you have to concentrate power; but absolute power corrupts absolutely. In theory you can avoid wealth disparity through socialism, but collectivism destroys the incentives to create, innovate, and work hard, and a corrupt few inevitably rise to the top, creating new wealth disparities. People have to choose what values they prioritize in their nation.
British journalist Michael Booth wrote a book on the myths surrounding the Nordic countries, which regularly top lists of the “happiest places in the world.” In an interview with the Guardian, titled “Why Denmark Isn’t the Utopian Fantasy It Is Made Out to Be,” Booth said,
The difference is, few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away. . . .
I think we’ve all been guilty of projecting some kind of utopian fantasy on them. The Nordic countries are, for example, depicted as paragons of political correctness, yet you still see racial stereotypes in the media here — the kind of thing which would be unthinkable in the U.S. Meanwhile, though it is true that these are the most gender-equal societies in the world, they also record the highest rates of violence towards women — only part of which can be explained by high levels of reporting of crime.
The film leaves us thinking that vibranium is the secret to Wakanda’s thriving society, but access to resources does not necessarily make a country wealthy, healthy, or happy. In the real world, the country of Niger has one of the world’s largest supplies of uranium, as well as gold, coal, and oil — a combination of valued resources that probably is as close as we’ll find to vibranium. But the United Nations ranked Niger as the second-least-developed country in the world in 2016, ranked 223rd in the world in GDP, with 45 percent of Nigeriens living below the poverty line and only 20 percent literate.
In the real world, Niger has one of the world’s largest supplies of uranium, as well as gold, coal, and oil — a combo of valued resources that’s probably as close as we’ll find to vibranium. But the U.N. ranked Niger as the second-least-developed country in the world in 2016.
Wakanda is a happy fantasy, and there’s no point in giving anyone grief for wishing they could live in one. It’s a similarly happy fantasy to watch an African prince with a plethora of high-tech gadgets amaze a basketball court of young African-American boys and hint at a better future for Oakland’s bad neighborhoods. But at some point, the film ends, and we’re left with our flawed world and its need for imperfect solutions implemented by fallible human beings. Fantasies can offer us visions and goals, but they can’t function as blueprints.