This is a G+ post I pulled out of the archives for no reason. Except for removing an Obama joke1 and some markdown, this is what I wrote back in 2018.
Last night I left my hermitage to see Black Panther. In my opinion it’s most definitely not over-hyped: a special effects superhero extravaganza like we’d expect from Marvel with excellent performances, an ethical dilemma at its heart, and a resonance with Africa’s tragic history. I can’t really speak to that last part; many others can and have, far more eloquently than I. But the part I can relate to, as a suburban white guy, is the tale of a modern superhero.
To explain what I mean, I must, as I always do, refer back to Doctor Who
BILL: Perhaps there’s just some bloke, wandering around, putting everything right when it goes wrong.
FIRST DOCTOR: Well, that would be a nice story, wouldn’t it?
BILL: That would be the best!
FIRST DOCTOR: But the real world is not a fairy tale.
– from “Twice Upon a Time” (air date 25 Dec 2017)
Leaving aside the intentional irony of the scene, it truly is the story mankind never gets tired of: a person of superior abilities and/or means uses their gifts to help mankind without reward, simply because they can. Accustomed as we are to the powerful afflicting the powerless, this premise is extraordinary; religions have been founded on it. It’s where DC’s heroes started before grimdark overtook them; it’s where Marvel’s more human heroes dwell.
Black Panther follows this grand tradition; it posits not just the Black Panther but Wakanda, a small corner of Africa not laid low by desertification and colonization and possessing a miracle metal that puts it centuries ahead technologically. For its entire existence it has hidden from the rest of the world, convinced that the many looters, slavers, and colonizers that despoiled the rest of the continent would roll over them. Beneath the superhero action is the dilemma of a young king: continue to hide from a world which is rapidly catching up not just technologically but ethically, or put their vast resources toward helping their struggling brethren across the continent and across the world. (And enter the king’s evil counterpart, a previously unknown rival to the throne who was abandoned in the ghettos of America; he would use Wakanda’s wealth to conquer the former conquerers in a war that would engulf the world.) The king, deposed by his rival, vows to use his country’s wealth to help a suffering world and battles not just for his throne but for a better future.
This is the part anyone can understand. But it’s a nice story; there is no Wakanda or T’Challa, just as there is no Wonder Woman, no sons or daughters of Krypton, no Doctor and no TARDIS. There’s just us.
As the First Doctor says, “evil” – the will to power, the loyalty to self and tribe over all others – should be a winning strategy. In our universe it seems to be winning, daily. But maybe that’s because we didn’t learn the right lesson. We can’t wait for a billionaire (or nation, or alien) to save us. Nor is the true problem “crime”, as the creators of those 1930s heroes thought, or violent media as Wertham and his successors thought, but rather political corruption and social decay; the criminals are inside the White House. (And Congress and Supreme Court and governors’ houses and state legislatures and …)
Do we tell ourselves these stories merely to escape “the real world”? Or are we trying to psych ourselves into giving what comparatively little we each have toward a greater good? Are we telling ourselves to prepare for the struggle ahead, not with weapons but with ideas, not fought solely by casting out the evildoers but by bringing our forgotten back home?
Honestly, I hope so. And I hope enough people are listening. We’re fresh out of vibranium.
I wrote this during a previous presidential administration. This one seems less corrupt.
My vague political plea still applies, though. It’s fashionable in white straight male nerd circles to complain about “politics” invading our escapist media. But that’s the South Park generation talking, the one that rejects all uncomfortable ideas because opinions about the real world are bad and people protesting unjust treatment are just whiners. (Opinions about how bad Star Trek: Discovery is, however, are MANDATORY, and anyone who even slightly likes it is a n00b.)
I subtitled this article “The Audacity of Hope”. ↩︎