This piece is written as a companion to episode 9 of The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast and, like that episode (which you can play below, contains numerous spoilers. Read on at your own discretion.
This piece was originally published on our Patheos site.
We ask what the film says is good in the world it is telling us about and we ask what the film tells us is evil. We also ask what, through its story, the film is telling us is true, good, and beautiful about the real world and what it would persuade us is wicked.
This practice is in some ways like having a running conversation with the film and, having made this my practice for some years, I have found it a deeply enjoyable way to hear what a movie has to say.
As you probably guess I am also used to having my questions answered. However, as I am sure you well know, some films leave you with questions that rotate in your brain long beyond the raising of the house lights in the theater.
Black Panther is one of those films for me.
To put my cards on the table, I (like many others) really, really liked Black Panther. I can’t remember enjoying a superhero movie as much in the theater since I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Nolan Batman films are the pinnacle of the superhero movie species in my mind, The Winter Soldier and Black Panther are the sole occupants of the second tier. Again, I really like this movie.
Having said that, I don’t think Black Panther is trying to be The Truman Show or The Advancement Bureau. The point of those movies was to push their viewers into a wrestling match with some of life’s biggest questions. Black Panther, just by virtue of having to make room for car chases and battle scenes, aims at a slightly different goal. Nonetheless, I’m left chewing on some questions raised by the film and, I suspect, so are many others who saw the movie. Not surprisingly, considering how this film resonated so broadly with opening-weekend audiences, I think there is potentially great profit in mulling over the questions this film raises. Here are the ones continuing to grip my mind after viewing Black Panther (in order of least importance to greatest):
Is the Anti-Hero Beginning to Wane?
Cinema, like other mediums, has never really been without anti-heroes. Whether you start looking at Homer’s Achillies or Pacino’s Michael Corleone you find ready examples of the archtype in every narrative vehicle. Who is your favorite? Dirty Harry? Wolverine? Don Draper? Han Solo? The diversity of possible answers proves the point.
Even so, the early 2010’s gave us a geyser of anti-heroes – see these articles from The BBC, Psychology Today, Relevant, and The Odyssey from 2013 alone. One of the most profitable moves for Hollywood, whether on the big screen or small, was to release a narrative built around a protagonist which explicitly rejected the white-bread, truth-justice-and-the-American-way model that (apparently) had driven heroic tales for centuries. Even Superman wasn’t immune; Zack Snyder’s version spent lots of his on-screen time debating whether or not he even wanted to care for humanity anyway.
Yes, there were important exceptions to this rule. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America Steve Rogers, played to perfection by Chris Evans, is perhaps the most obvious example. Nonetheless, this is a textbook case of the exception proving the rule. Anti-heroes have dominated the 2010’s so far. Does the end of 2017 indicate the end of that reign is drawing near?
2013’s Iron Man 3 was all about Tony Stark, a lovable anti-hero if ever there was one, learning to live for someone other than himself. We’ve already talked about Steve Rogers; his Captain America box office returns demonstrate audiences’ appetite for his brand of throw-back nobility is only increasing. And Superman (in the criminally underappreciated Justice League) is back, mercifully, to cracking both smiles and jokes.
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, both as King of Wakanda and its vibranium-clawed protector, is every bit the good man with a good heart that T’Chaka declared him to be. It matters that T’Challa honored Killmonger’s claim to the throne and it matters that T’Challa retook the throne through the same rules that legitimized Killmonger’s reign. When T’Challa retakes the throne of Wakanda he does so blamelessly and, in doing so, does much to undo the fatal failure of his father’s administration. I’m not sure if the same spirit of the age that gave us Breaking Bad would have rejoiced in these details of Black Panther’s story but it seems possible that the success of Black Panther may signal a change in the caliber of character pop culture consumers are looking to invest themselves in.
The most obvious counterpoint to my speculation here is the degree to which Erik Killmonger was loved by Black Panther’s audience and so important to the film’s success. I can only grant the point immediately; as I mentioned earlier I’m still chewing on the question as a possibility. Feel free to let me know your own conclusions.
Are Distinct Cultures Better Served through Interventionism or Non-Interventionism?
Quite clearly by the end of Black Panther King T’Challa has decided to lead a formerly withdrawn Wakanda into leadership on the international stage of the MCU. On the other hand, it seems quite obvious that Wakanda’s time behind the concealing façade of a third-world country functioned as a womb for their culture (and its technology) to mature into the kind of society that can lead on a global scale.
While I don’t think that Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole are consciously conflicted about whether it is better for a nation to intervene in international affairs.
But I do think their film may be.
Similarly, I don’t think our real-world community in the West, on the whole, is conflicted on the question – it appears that most of my fellow citizens and neighbors side definitively on the side of intervention. The United States hasn’t had a President who pursued non-intervention as a matter of conviction since Calvin Coolidge.
Still, our society may have under-the-surface questions about this consensus that mirror Wakanda’s foreign policy dilemma as well. Polls in 2014, 2017, and 2018 clearly indicate that Americans are tired of Forever War and well into reconsidering the benefits of activist leadership on the global slate.
The subject of President Trump’s southern border wall is one on which I have no desire to hash out. Nonetheless, that so many do (on both sides of the question) speaks to the tension arising from a national community’s need for safe space in which to grow strong and maintain what growth has been attained running up against a need to use that strength in service of others.
Here again I propose no conclusion, only note again the way that Black Panther puts the realest of real-world concerns squarely in our face even as it tells us stories about magic metal and the kings who wear it.
Is a Better World Gained through Revolution or Service?
The fundamental point of agreement between Killmonger and T’Challa (at least by the end of Black Panther) is that Wakanda must become an active member of the international community. The fundamental conflict between the two is how that activity should be carried out. T’Challa proposes civic ventures and the sharing of technology. Killmonger insists on using the wonders of Wakandan tech as the means of violent and revolutionary overthrow of existing power structures.
This question of how to accomplish needful change is at the heart of every reform (or revolutionary) movement in history. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois are seen as historical rivals over competing visions of how their community should pursue needed social and economic change. Both men, however, stand together in contrast against the more revolutionary strategies advocated for by the more radical factions in the Black Lives Matter movement. A similar contrast may be seen in the strategies of, say, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Or if you prefer other ethnic groups the difference between Democratic Socialists and Occupy Wall Street or Bernie Sanders and Che Guevara.
Continuing the theme, I don’t here attempt to adjudicate between the reform and revolution approaches beyond this point: Christians really have no options here. Christ died, most counter-intuitively, to win the contest and His Kingdom. As King He bids His people to live quiet lives and, if made to choose, to follow His example of self-sacrifice, be that in contests with other Christians or governments with the power to end human life.
What is befitting and required of Christians, however, our neighbors may not choose. Thus Killmonger’s perspective may be an option on the table and one our neighbors give themselves to. I root against that choice, certainly, so I rejoice to see T’Challa win. Nonetheless, Black Panther reminds us that life in this fallen world pushes us, often very hard, to choose between the two approaches. In that way Black Panther provides a helpful mental exercise or simulation to think through the ramifications of each choice even if the film doesn’t decide the issue finally on our behalf.
Enjoying the Questioning
I am a viewer who likes questioning films. I also enjoy trying to discern the answers movies give to the questions they raise. More often than not I am left satisfied by the answers provided to the questions raised. Every so often, though, a movie comes along that leaves questions lingering in my mental stew. Black Panther is just such a film and the questions it raises yet doesn’t quite put to bed are not only obviously important for our cultural moment but part of the lasting enjoyment of the movie.
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