The revolution has been commodified. During its opening weekend, Black Panther sold nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of tickets, thanks in large part to Marvel’s ability to sell black pride to black people. It’s a proven strategy used by some of the world’s most successful brands.
Take two figures as dissimilar as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Beyoncé. In recent years, the former has been photographed in a T-shirt with the hashtag #StayWoke printed above the website’s logo, while the latter performed her Super Bowl halftime show alongside dancers in berets and leather outfits inspired by the black radicals of the 1960s. But just as Twitter has branded itself as socially conscious while verifying the accounts of white supremacists, and the NFL has nodded to black radicalism while black-balling Colin Kaepernick, Marvel has promoted a film as revolutionary whose politics are fundamentally conservative.
As a popcorn spectacle, Black Panther is one of the more competent superhero movies of the past decade. It’s well-acted, well-written and frequently entertaining, even if its plot feels like several television episodes fastened together by lifeless CGI set pieces. Marvel’s latest is more serious, thoughtful and ambitious than the likes of Ant-Man or Dr. Strange, and no one can accuse it of wasting its audience’s time. Scratch beneath the surface, and Black Panther is a troubling film that preaches moderation to black audiences in a multiverse of radical white superheroes. A $200 million anti-revolutionary superhero film would have been hard to stomach during the Obama administration. In the age of Trump, when even a Star Wars prequel can be interpreted as a call to arms, it’s inexplicable.
The film’s fictional African setting is itself problematic. In the comic book series, Wakanda is an afro-futuristic paradise, lovingly rendered by the likes of Jack Kirby and John Romita Jr. In Black Panther, it’s a mostly drab reimagining of Dubai—a utopia only insomuch as it hasn’t been ravaged by the twin evils of white supremacy and capitalism.
Like Cloud City, Asgard, Themyscira or Atlantis, the Wakanda of Black Panther floats above the world, both its inhabitants and their troubles. Wakandans are largely uninterested in using their immense wealth and technological prowess to help the downtrodden and disenfranchised. When one of the nation’s leaders suggests that accepting refugees would threaten the Wakandan way of life, it’s not treated as a racist declaration from a Trumpian villain but an argument genuinely worthy of consideration. If Black Panther were a Greek tragedy, it would be a story about an opulent and decadent people destroyed by the gods for their arrogance.
The most insidious theme in the movie centers around its antagonist, Erik Killmonger, played by the magnetic Michael B. Jordan. In the Black Panther comics, Killmonger’s evil stems from his loyalty to capitalism. He wants to open Wakanda to multinational corporations for exploitation. Given that these multinationals are the sorts of companies that tend to finance blockbusters like Black Panther, it’s not surprising this critique was omitted from the film. But how director Ryan Coogler employs the character instead is nothing less than shocking.
Killmonger doesn’t plot to conquer Wakanda and sell its vibranium, the wonder metal that gives the country its security and wealth. Nor does he attempt to smuggle Wakandan technology to the U.S. military-industrial complex that gave him the training to depose the country’s monarch, T’Challa. No, his ultimate goal is to provide oppressed people the world over with the weaponry to overthrow their oppressors.
When Killmonger asks the Wakandans where they were during slavery and Jim Crow, they have no answers. When Killmonger lectures them about their responsibilities not only to black people but to all of humanity, they stare at him uncomprehendingly. In virtually any other work of science fiction, a character like this would be portrayed as unambiguously heroic, a man whose passion would inspire the feckless and passive Wakandans to take action. Here he is given the pathology of a supervillain.
Black Panther poses a stark contrast to last year’s purportedly progressive blockbuster, Wonder Woman, whose hero, Diana Prince, shares the most powerful weapons at the Amazons’ disposal as soon as she learns of the great suffering outside her island paradise. The movie encourages its audience to applaud her decision at every turn, glorifying her slaughter of German soldiers to save a defenseless village. Wonder Woman never questions its heroine’s use of violent force to protect the innocent. These films seldom do. But whereas Wonder Woman is fighting to save Europe, Killmonger is prepared to kill on behalf of poor blacks.
There has always been something rotten at the core of the Black Panther mythology. The Black Panther Party, with whom the superhero shares his name, drew its power from black people asserting themselves as a community to protect other black people. The comic book character, by contrast, is rooted in fantasy. Its creators had to invent Wakanda because real black people weren’t considered heroic enough themselves.
To its credit, the Black Panther movie features no giant purple laser beams threatening global annihilation, just the grinding destruction of empire. But a truly revolutionary film would have seen T’Challa dig his claws into U.S. drones and send his woman warriors at Africom. Instead, the last act of the film consists of Africans hacking each other to death to preserve the global status quo. In one especially stomach-turning scene, T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, helps a CIA agent shoot down a ship of radical Wakandans. (One wonders how anyone remotely familiar with the agency’s history on the African continent would have approved this.)
Black Panther concludes with T’Challa buying up blocks of Oakland for an outreach center before meeting with several openly racist UN representatives to share his country’s technology. It’s almost impossible to imagine a movie about Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen ending on such a conciliatory note. Black people deserve heroes every bit as self-assured, driven and uncompromisingly radical.