I hope you’ll pardon me, but instead of yelling about roleplaying games, as usual, I’m going to take a brief break to yell about pop culture and politics instead. The post that follows is a big ol’ pile of hard-left politics, half-formed ideas, and SPOILERS, so if you’re allergic to any of those, you’ve now been warned.
I got to go see Black Panther over the weekend. Short review: I enjoyed the hell out of it. The writing was great, the acting was great, the production values were great, it was just a really fun movie. I think it’s the most fun I’ve had at a Marvel feature since The Winter Soldier.
However, it got me thinking a lot about representation and empowerment of minorities and other oppressed peoples in popular culture. Which, in turn, got me thinking again about Wonder Woman, which was the last time people made a big politically-adjacent hullabaloo about a comic book movie.
See, here’s the thing. Wonder Woman and Black Panther aren’t really about empowerment (I’ll get back to this in a moment) — the important political reason to support these films is because representation matters. In this country, oppression is the default mode for anyone who’s not a white man and high-profile visibility is one of the few “acceptable” avenues to fight this. The tragic truth is that under late stage capitalism, the only way to be seen is to be profitable. Remember, identity is just another commodity. So, it’s not enough that black and female superheroes exist, they have to be profitable. If they’re not profitable, they don’t get to exist.
Also, this is (as far as I know) the first high-profile film in recent history to showcase Afro-futurism as its core aesthetic. That’s good as hell and worth supporting.
Now, let’s get back to the empowerment question. Wonder Woman is especially problematic in this regard because it doesn’t actually meaningfully portray feminine empowerment. It’s a liberal interventionist propaganda piece. The gender of the character has no bearing on the politics of the film. Rather, Diana is a symbolic stand-in for American unilateral military action. She’s strong, powerful, and outside (even above) of the usual workings of international politics (as the liberal interventionist envisions the US). Also, in this instance, I’m pretty sure it’s even more damning that the character is white, but that’s a different conversation about race and the symbolic exercise of power. Furthermore, the movie was just kind of bad.
Black Panther is problematic for a different reason. It does a great job of demonstrating black empowerment. The protagonists are all gorgeous, intelligent, successful, powerful black people. They wield unimaginable technology with an even hand and uphold a society of laws and justice. The antagonist is hot, smart, sane, competent, and driven by a coherent ideology. Pick any one of those and you’ll have found the only positive descriptor for basically any other comic book movie antagonist.
You’ll note my use of protagonist/antagonist here, rather than hero/villain. That’s because the film misidentifies these roles. There’s a separate discussion to be had about Killmonger’s portrayed plan*, but his core philosophy is one of liberation by any means necessary. His death scene confirms this: “Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” That’s ridiculously powerful shit.
T’Challa, on the other hand, fits very easily into neoliberal views of “acceptable” black behavior. He wants to seek peaceful, incremental solutions, while casually brushing aside the continued suffering of nearly two billion people. The last scene at the UN is possibly the worst twist of the knife. What he’s proposing is not cultural exchange, but trade, right? Progress through the mechanisms of capital. Like I said before, identity is a commodity, and it seems T’Challa is willing to exchange that of his people for marginal progress.
Ryan Coogler is a very good filmmaker. I believe he wrote and directed these characters very deliberately to draw our attention to these points while producing something that would be acceptable to the Marvel/Disney money-making behemoth.
Killmonger was right.
* In fact, I’m not actually sure his plan was that bad. The end goal (him ruling the world, I think?) is ridiculous and indefensible, but the plan itself is solid. I think one of the quickest ways to see gun control in the country is to put high-powered assault weapons into the hands of poor and oppressed inner city populations. Want to politically empower oppressed peoples? Break the state’s monopoly on violence. If the alternative is bloodshed and instability, I think most politicians would happily come to the negotiating table.