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March 12, 2018

Black Panther: Something Something Politics (Part 1)

*massages forehead*

*takes a deep breath*

*sighs*

*puts on a full suit of armor*

All right.  Let’s talk about Black Panther.  And “politics”.  In the largest air quotes you can imagine.

PREDATOR ARTS!  PANTHER BITE!  PANTHER BITE!
LIKE AN ARROW -- RIGHT THERE!
AIR INTERCEPTOR!  DID YOU THINK YOU WERE SAFE?
(That’s my signal for the incoming SPOILERS.  Blame Mahvel.)  

(And bless Desk.)



So here’s the question of the day: is Black Panther a political movie?  

I don’t know.  That’s a really broad and vague way of putting it.  Still, the word “political” seems to have come up plenty of times whenever this movie is mentioned, and I only partially understand why.  If we go by the basic definition of politics?  Yeah, I’d say so.  At the end of the movie, the title character says flat out that the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.  Sub in “walls” for that last word, and suddenly you’re giving a giant middle finger to a certain modern-day administration.

From a broader perspective, though, you really could argue that BP as a whole is trying to make a political statement while also being about a man who fights crime in armored kitty pajamas.  Our hero T’Challa is the newly-crowned king of the fictional country of Wakanda, and the assumption (and his original intent) is to preserve the isolationist policies held in place for centuries.  While Wakanda can more or less manage that by virtue of its vibranium deposits and the tech advancements that followed, I think -- with the bare-bones understanding of economics and globalization I have -- that isolationism doesn’t work.  


It might have worked in the past, but in the real world, the interconnection brought about by commerce and communication have made playing the lone wolf a dangerous proposition.  We’re too interconnected to lock the doors.  Crucially, the fictional world of Wakanda has to learn this fact as well.  It’s stated in-universe that, even if the country is ahead in the game, other countries and competitors are catching up.  More importantly?  The people there live in splendor -- if not blissful ignorance -- as they hoard their vibranium blessings for themselves.  They have the power to heal otherwise-irreparable spinal injuries, but would rather let people who need it suffer because “it is not their way” or whatever.

At least the Wakandan people have an excuse: given that one psycho used vibranium to give himself an arm cannon that would make Mega Man green with envy, it would only be a matter of time before plenty of crooks used it to wreak havoc on a massive scale.  And with this being the Marvel universe, it goes from being a concern to a legitimate plot point (see: Spider-Man: Homecoming).  Plus, at least Wakanda can survive exclusively by itself.  Can America?  Can it do without the flow of goods and information that keep its people fed, clothed, sheltered, mobile, aware, and safe?  I have severe doubts.  Yet here we are, with an “America First” initiative primed to do anything but.

(Almost) starting a trade war with Canada.  I don’t…I mean…I just can’t…I don’t.


Maybe I’m reaching here, but it always felt like something got lost in translation.  I’m of the opinion that fiction, in any and all forms, acts as a more important, effective, and beloved teacher than…well, teachers.  And parents.  Whether you’re aware of it or not, you absorb the ideas and beliefs behind stories.  Whether you reject or internalize those ideas is up to you, but given the impact a good yarn can have on a person -- and trust me, I’m one of them -- I’m inclined to say that at the very least, there is a process going on.

In that sense, there’s a part of me that thinks the MCU has, and continues to, drop the ball.  Superheroes and their fiction might as well be our new mythology.  Considering how widespread they are in cinema, we’ve got no choice but to look to them and absorb what we can from the silver screen.  That’s…to our detriment, I think.  On one hand, you’ve got the flailing DC Extended Universe that’s not only sailing without a rudder, but has consistently been so bad I swear the execs’ goal was to sabotage their stable of heroes.  

How do you turn a beacon of hope -- a character who epitomizes truth, justice, and the American way -- into a dour, thoughtless, walking, talking catastrophe?  Ask Zack Snyder.  And David S. Goyer.  We can’t let a key writer off easy just because he can go under the radar.


So on one hand, we’ve got Batman v. Superman (and Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad, at a bare minimum) flooding the world with pointlessly grim distortions of beloved characters -- and that grimness leaks over to create a false, yet easily-absorbed, picture of our reality.  That’s not great.  It’s a good thing that we have another branch of comics and heroes on tap to repair the damage and massage the collective consciousness, right?  Right?

Uh…well, yes and no.  Granted it’s not as if I’ve gone out polling anyone on the matter, but the more time passes, the more I feel like the MCU has abdicated a lot of responsibility.  That’s changing with Black Panther making the rounds -- in a sense, but I’ll get to that -- but it shouldn’t have taken like 18 movies and about a decade for it to happen.  And no, this isn’t just about the MCU getting progressively more grim.  That’s actually to its advantage.


Take Captain America: Civil War as an example.  That entire movie was built on one fight -- not between the heroes and a big bad villain, but heroes against heroes.  Cap versus Iron Man.  Spider-Man beating up whoever gets in his way.  Ant-Man being there for some reason.  Even if there’s a plot and attempts to advance the canon, it’s still ostensibly an excuse to have a dozen superheroes kung fu fight.  The big airplane brawl is almost pornographic in the way that it’s presented.

Both Batman v. Superman and Civil War were about two distinct heroes (or teams of heroes) clashing in a big, brutal beatdown.  Both tackled some of the same ideas, like the place and regulation of superheroes in the modern world.  And, crucially, both had token attempts to run back the lavish dedication to rivalry that consumed the earlier 95% of each movie.  In BvS, Bruce realizes that he’s been a terrible person and decides to build the Justice League to appease the Warner Bros. shareholders honor the memory and desires of the now-dead Superman.  In Civil War, Cap -- after nearly killing Iron Man and running away to Africa with fellow criminal Bucky/The Winter Soldier -- thinks he can patch things up with…a letter and a spare cell phone.


These were (and are) two major motion pictures devoted entirely to opposing opinions (embodied by the core heroes) who couldn’t reconcile their differences.  It was the backbone of marketing, promotion, and countless conversations online and off -- a way to drive a wedge between people by asking them “Whose side are you on?”  So tell me, which do you think had the greater impact?  Which will last longer in the collective consciousness?  Which will codify countless, partisan divisions in the actual political sphere, on the highest rungs and the trenches?  The fight that hundreds of millions of dollars went into, up to and including months-long promotional campaigns?  Or the runback in the last five minutes telling people to “give peace a chance”?

The DCEU is its own problem child that deserves to be sent to time out in the corner.  But let’s not give the MCU a pass here.  They’re holding the ball; no other franchise has such a monstrous mindshare right now, and it’d behoove Disney and Marvel Studios to wield that power wisely.  If they want to make a message, then great.  In fact, they should make a message (as long as they have the right people and the right level of execution).  These movies can’t and shouldn’t be interchangeable, ineffectual piles of film.  If you’re on the stage, make a statement -- even if it’s political.  


Say something about the world, or a vision of a brighter tomorrow.  Or better yet, use the tools and context of that movie to let people come to their own conclusions.  Give them a venue to start probing the nature of man and society, or investigate an abstract concept in spite of -- or maybe by virtue of -- the costumed heroes throwing haymakers that can stop freight trains.  The last thing we need right now is for these movies, or any movies, to stop mattering.  We learn from fiction, so we have to learn from the MCU.

If BP is political, then that’s to its advantage.  More than its brethren to date, it’s made an effort to be about something.  Overtly, it’s about the folly of isolation, the threat of being overly dependent on past traditions, and the proper method to help a world (and peoples) in dire need of it. Covertly -- or metacontextually, if you prefer -- it’s about giving proper representation to people who often don’t get it.  Showing off societies and cultures that are far too easy to sweep aside in favor of the same old, same old.  Giving roles to people that deserve it, but aren’t given it because…well, the obvious reason.

But here’s the real issue at play here, and the problem with both a political appeal and the MCU in general: there’s no telling how much of it is going to matter.  And all things considered, the answer is probably going to be “not a lot”.


I’d say that Captain America: Civil War was a game changer.  It’s a big shakeup, even before Thanos drops in for Infinity War.  And beyond that?  I think it’s an outstanding movie in its own right.  (Even if its message of cooperation got muddled along the way.)  But what’s been the fallout from that?  What are the consequences?  That movie came out in the front half of 2016.  We’re a quarter into 2018.  I still couldn’t tell you what impact the Sokovia Accords have had on anything, even though it helped split The Avengers right down the middle.

I mean, think about it.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 couldn’t tackle it because that happened in the far reaches of space.  Doctor Strange sidestepped it completely because we had to go through his origin story.  The latest Spidey movie sidestepped it in turn because it was busy being a live-action cartoon.  Thor: Ragnarok?  Get outta here.  Black Panther focused on building an entirely new world, rather than further develop the old one.  Right now, it looks like the closest we’re going to get in terms of follow-up is Ant-Man and the Wasp.


I’m a supporter of the Marvel movies.  It’ll be that way for a while, until I see a bunch of failures back to back to back.  But just because I’m a fan or supporter or whatever doesn’t mean I’m blind to one of the core problems.  Individually, and in the context of their runtimes, these movies matter.  Beyond that?  With the exception of Black Panther, they don’t.  And sure, I can make arguments -- and have made arguments -- about the importance and far-reaching aspects of each movie, and the lessons we can pull from them.  (The Winter Soldier is an example of that.)  But not everyone is so keen on doing a deep dive for popcorn fare like the MCU.

And why should they?  Even if the canon is advancing, the constraints of the MCU -- its very nature -- nearly makes it a fool’s errand.  Though they stand under the same umbrella, different movies are made by different directors, writers, and crews; they’re released at different times throughout a calendar year over the course of years.  How do you stay consistent when by definition you can’t be consistent?  How do you stay on-message, or make a statement, or have meaning, or be political when you’re going in five directions at once?

The correct answer is that you don’t.  Or, alternatively, you can’t.


Maybe that’s part of the reason why Black Panther is the best one.  Like the other movies, it exists in its own bubble -- but within the confines of that bubble, it actually tries way harder to be relevant to the modern day and the people that live in it.  Given its success and critical reception, I hope that it’s the start of something.  Maybe from here on out, future Marvel movies will try harder to be more than just movies.  With such an intense focus on them, it’d be downright irresponsible not to.  

Still, it does beg the question: what does it mean to be political?  I’d say that Black Panther is, to its benefit, but I’m adopting the vague, wide-open interpretation of the word instead of any strict definition.  The obvious intent is to reach out to people, from the upper echelons of the government to the innocents in the streets, and teach them a valuable lesson.  But is there more to it than that?  Is there something in particular the studio and the film crew hoped to accomplish?

I wonder.

*looks at skin color*

Huh.  Now I don’t wonder anymore.


Tune in next time, because there’s more to say about Black Panther and its politics.  And with it, the internet’s favorite topics: diversity and proper representation in fiction.

I’m…probably gonna need to stay in this armor.

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