Superhero films in the past decade have single-handedly changed the complexion of the Hollywood film industry. Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), responsible for ‘The Avengers,’ and all the films starring its constituent superheroes, has grossed close to $4bn at the box office – all from one genre. The idea of a shared universe spanning television and cinema and other forms of media has been considered so revolutionary that universities are now offering programmes centered around on what makes the Marvel model so viable. The global success of MCU (and to a far lesser extent, its DC Comics counterpart DC Extended Universe) has studios all over the world scrambling to thoroughly examine the machinery and ingredients used to create the behemoth.
But, at the end of the day, you can take the franchise global but you can’t take the Hollywood out of the franchise. The films fail on one truly crucial aspect:
sexism gender wage gap sexual abuse allegations the lack of a solid, fleshed out, minority (i.e. non-white, non-male) superhero in the same league as Captain America or Iron Man. This issue is worsened considerably when you realise that the handful of minority superheroes that do exist are played by white actors (Exhibit A and B).
But if we are willing to justifiably criticise Marvel and superhero franchises for being insensitive to racial nuances, we should similarly be willing to acknowledge the one brilliant decision that Marvel have taken in this aspect: introducing Black Panther in the latest Captain America film and far more importantly, making him come from the pseudo-utopic background that is present in the comic books.
For this is the matter for which this article has been written: it is all well and good that Black Panther (followed closely by Marvel’s Luke Cage, to air in September) is a black superhero, but that in itself is not enough. What is just as important, without which the introduction is really just fulfilling the bare minimum criteria, is that the character’s background – his family, his culture, his home country – are developed taking into account their differences from stereotypical ‘white’ backgrounds. In other words, Black Panther or any minority character cannot just be a racially different superhero implanted in a society which predominantly/exclusively caters to Caucasians. The environment in which someone like Captain America operates CANNOT be the one where Black Panther plies his trade. Further down the line, the writers may have a plan to incorporate the character fully into the USA or a Western country or generally make Black Panther’s objective the same as his counterparts in The Avengers, but as a precondition of introducing Black Panther to the MCU, it was essential that his roots were somewhat explored (they will be further explored in his own stand-alone film releasing in 2018) and crucially, the positive aspects of it are brought to the fore.
For the unaware, Black Panther or his alter-ego T’Challa, is the King and protector of Wakanda, a fictional African country. This is already a major step up from the rest of the ethnic superheroes, who usually tend to originate in the USA. Secondly, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country on earth due to an abundance of a particular natural resource ‘vibranium.’ Enormous credit has to be given to creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for maintaining parallels between comic books and real life and moreover for portraying this synonymy in a positive light (and this too in 1966, with civil rights and segregation still an extremely controversial topic). Pick up any social or economic paper, a mainstream article or even colloquially, having an abundance of natural resources equates to doom, with Africa (bandying together a continent by the way, not even looking at individual countries) being the primary basket case because of said abundance in natural resources. In fact, almost all mainstream media associated with Africa takes a negative slant on the continent; be it poverty, corruption or terrorism.
Which is why the inclusion of Wakanda is so important to a generation growing up consuming superhero films: even if it is fictitious, the Africa portrayed in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and no doubt in Black Panther’s stand-alone film is one that is as technologically and socially developed, with as much human capital as any Western country today. At the same time, it makes sure that the distinction between Wakanda and a Western country remains steadfast all the time: right from the names, the exotic wildlife (Black Panther is the mythic protector of the Wakandans) to the monarchic system of a small, tribal African country.
This positive image created by Lee and Kirby extends to the leaders of the country: T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father and predecessor and then Black Panther himself. Portraying African leaders as anything other than corrupt and despotic is a significant step for pop culture and for the kids growing up on a superhero movie diet; it shows that intellectual capacity is possible on the continent and that Mugabe isn’t the norm. T’Chaka is extremely aware of the lucrative potential of vibranium and takes steps to put in safeguards to protect Wakanda from foreigners keen on exploiting the resource (parallels can once again be drawn here between fiction and reality). T’Challa is an astute military commander and tactician and this is proved when he staves off an attempted invasion from a far larger Skrull army, using trickery and strategy (Black Panther, Vol. 4 #40 and #41 for anyone interested in reading about it). Whether or not all of this will be brought to the audience’s attention in the future remains to be seen; but the steps were taken in Civil War, especially in the post-credits scene, to allow Marvel to hopefully explore and portray it.
Ultimately, beyond the undoubtedly brilliant cinema that superhero films have brought into our lives over the past decade, they will in the end be judged by how and in which ways they influenced the generation growing up. Despite some insensitive casting decisions, which have rightly been criticised, studios such as Marvel have also started bringing about under-represented demographics into the wider picture, with Black Panther being the most promising. This is not only due to his skin colour: it is predominantly significant because of his environments and his upbringings. It is perhaps the franchise constituent which is actively celebrating what is hitherto seen as a ‘backward region’ of the world. It is actively celebrating and showing leaders as humble and intelligent, compared to the despotic stereotype which circulates in the media. If nothing else, the rest of Hollywood would be served well to incorporate that particular aspect in its films.
Article by Mihir Choughule