Last week Marvel Studios released their next slate of movies and a pretty interesting mix of movies were announced. Included in the announcement was the first female heroine lead, Captain Marvel, and the first non-white lead superhero movie, the Black Panthers. A handful of online commentators have correctly noted that the by the time the Black Panther movie comes out—in 2017—Marvel studies will have made 10 consecutive movies starring white male leads. Even so, I am excited for the Black Panther movie.
So who is the Black Panther?
The Black Panther was the first nonwhite super powered hero for Marvel comic, making his first appearance a few months before the creation of the Black Panther Party in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). The Black Panther is the honorary title that is held by the warrior leader of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is an East African nation that has, depending on the time, between located in between Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia or between Sudan and Congo. Either way, in the Marvel lore, Wakanda is an isolationist African nation that is home to the majority of the world’s vibranium, the rare and valuable metal that Captain America’s shield was made out of. Due to the presence of the resource, the Wakandan people are economically developed and incredibly scientifically advanced. The vibranium not only provides a valuable resource for Wakanda to sell it also has led to an above average level of mutation for the people of Wakanda. The first Black Panther, Beshanga, closed the mines to outsiders and created a religious movement around the Black Panther spirit to protect his people. From that time on, the political-religious leader of Wakanda holds the mantel of the Black Panther. For most of the comics history the Black Panther has been T’Challa, who took over as king after his father, T’Chaka, was killed by Belgian explorer and villain Ulysses Klaw. Klaw found his way to the hidden African nation and in his search for vibranium and in the process killed T’Chaka. T’Challa, the most well-known Black Panther, is not just an accomplished fighter and superhero (with super strength, speed, agility, etc), a multi-billionaire, and political powerhouse, but also a brilliant scientist (holding a phd in Physics from Oxford).
Why is the Black Panther movie important?
The black panther will be the first nonwhite superhero movie by Marvel studios but not the first black superhero represented on the screen, as Marvel studios has already introduced us to War machine and The Falcon. More importantly than being the first lead superhero the Black Panther is the first character that represent a radical break from the white European superhero archetype. Both War Machine and Falcon, while interesting characters, are members of the US military and are symbols of racial liberalism and US military imperialism. The Black Panther, on the other hand, is not a member of the US military but instead the leader of an anti-colonial African nation that has historically fought to maintain its autonomy.
Black Nationalist Superhero:
Using the framework of “nationalist superheroes” developed by Jason Dittmer for the rest of this blog entry I want to try to untangle some of the cultural and political meaning that is developed through the Black Panther character.
Dittmer in Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphor, Narratives, and Geopolitics looks to the Captain America, Captain Britain, Union Jack, Captain Canuck and other nationalist characters as a means of exploring the construction of national identity. His assertion throughout the book is that the nationalist heroes he examines all provide valuable insights into the ways that national myths and meaning are constructed and reinforced. He looks to the ways that national borders are made natural, with the series Excalibur and Alpha Flight, the way that US hegemony is justified through Captain America, and the ways that “alternative histories” and alien invasions all bolster the perception that the current political/social order is the ideal. This phenomenal book offers a unique lens to examine comics but interestingly does not look to explore the Black Panther as a nationalist character.
By looking at the Black Panther as a nationalist superhero we can gain cultural insight into the meaning of “black nationalism” and African decolonization from the perspective of US liberalism. For instance, it is important to note that in Wakanda there is a fusion of science, technology, religion, and magic. Unlike the US heroes who gain their power through science or luck, the Black Panther gains his power through a religious ceremony. It is the magic of Wakanda, combined with the technological advancement of this people that makes the Black Panther an Avenger. In this comic the existence of this alternative system of knowledge, one that is regularly viewed as superior to the Western view, highlights the ways that power (in this case colonial power) not only constructs systems of knowledge but also provides some with a universalizing bent. Even though Wakanda is seen as advanced economically and technologically no one but the Wakandan’s embrace their syncretic form of science/magic and this is because they have not attempted to use their technological and economic power to expand their cultural hegemony. Even though they are not a global power, Wakanda is able to maintain their traditional ways of knowing because of their autonomy from the west.
In addition, the Black Panther narrative, inherently ties Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism to anti-imperialist politics. This can be seen through the long historical isolation of Wakanda from European colonizers and by the role that European colonization played in unsettling the political life of Wakanda (it was a Dutch villain that killed T’Chaka in at attempt to open Wakanda up to European corporations). From that point on, a large number of the Black Panthers have been to protect his nation from foreign invaders—American, European, and Alien. Interestingly, one of the central battles that the Black Panther has is fighting against resource colonialism as European powers are constantly trying to gain access to the Vibranium mines of Wakanda.
It is also important to note two unique attributes to the Black Panther that sets him apart from other nationalist superheroes.
First, is the fact that unlike Captain America, Captain Britain, Captain Canuck, or even Sabra (the Israeli nationalist hero), the Black Panther is the only nationalist hero tied to a fictional nation. As Dittmer mentions, one of the primary aspects of the nationalist superhero is to naturalize the concept of nation-states and construct a realist understanding of international foreign policy (where each nation has its leviathan like superhero representing the nation). As such, this critical reading of the Black Panther highlights how to US liberalism Black Nationalism is a utopian project, one that, in order to comprehend needs to be tied to a physical nation. Of course, from the position of the US there is no black nation that represents a hegemonic threat, and as such, the Black Nationalist hero needs to be mapped onto a fictional space. Wakanda serves as an anti-imperialist counter to the US liberalism but one that is simply ideological and nonexistent as a political threat.
Secondly, unlike all the other well-known nationalist superheroes, the Black Panther is the only figure that is also the head of state. While there was an arc of Captain America in which Cap debated running for president (Captain American #250), in the end he decided not to because he feels that being president would make it harder for him to fight for the ideals of the American state. By creating a division between political power and the nationalist superhero, Captain America here can be seen as highlighting that the ideals of a nation are threatened by involvement in the political process; that politics, which is rooted in compromise, threatens the purity of liberalism. As best as I can tell, one of the only Marvel figures that is not only super powered by also the political leader of a nation is the villain, Dr. Doom (leader of Latveria). There are actually a handful of similarities to the two characters as both Dr. Doom and the Black Panther are leaders to fictional nations both whom are not democratic. Both of them came to power through feats of strength (Dr. Doom by a coup and Black Panther by besting his rivals in a physical tournament) and both nations are described as being isolated nations free from foreign entanglement. The primary difference comes down to the characters moral compass. As such, Dr. Doom is greedy while T’Challa is compassionate; the people of Latveria suffer under a despot, the people of Wakanda a benevolent king. What can we make of the fact though that the Black Panther is also a political leader? I would argue, that the anti-democratic and authoritarian nature of Wakanda is there to highlight the way that US liberalism understands African politics and Black Nationalism; it views them as anti-liberal and anti-democratic. As such, it would be easy for Wakanda to turn into Latveria if the moral purity and strength of the Black Panther where not there to protect the nation. Likewise, this justifies US foreign policy in Africa, where the US constantly props up autocratic despots and works to fight against democratic movements. Much like Wakanda, Africa needs strong-armed leaders.
What do folks think? What do you see when you think of the Black Panther as a nationalist superhero?