“Black Panther” and the Morality of Power

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Uncle Ben was right. After all, it’s the underlying ethos of all the superhero movies I’ve ever seen, from both the Marvel and the DC universes. The climax of most of the movies, especially the origin stories, seems to be that moment of self-actualization–“I am Iron Man!”–where the acceptance of great power is wedded to a single individual, with all the messy ambiguities that such a marriage entails.

Philosophical questions of Power, and who gets to use it, and how, are ancient and universal. Prometheus is eternally punished for bringing the fire of the gods to men. That’s why, I think, superhero movies are so popular. They’re the old myths rumbling beneath the sleek veneer of modernity, not just Manichean struggles, but abstract allegories on the power of morality, exhibited through the morality of power.

Unfortunately, though, that formula threatens to become their Achilles heel; Uncle Ben’s words of wisdom are now a “catch phrase,” a truth abstracted into vapor.

Black Panther has revitalized the formula, with great success. According to Variety, the movie “is heading for a stunning $235 million debut over the four-day President’s Day weekend.” At first, it feels like Captain America: Civil War all over again, with the final fight in Wakanda mirroring Civil War’s big airport set piece. But there are crucial differences. In Civil War, the Avengers display their individual powers in an intricately choreographed, passive/aggressive dance, trying not to hurt each other. For the Wakandans, power is communal, and they fight with a fury to determine how it gets used. In fact, one of the most shocking aspects of the whole movie for me was the tragic ferocity of the battle. It’s deadly serious.

And with good reason. In the words of Audre Lorde,

Those…who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those…who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those…who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill.

It’s not a game. Abstraction is violence, and comes from a place of privilege. (Think “All Lives Matter,” for example.) It is checked only when an individual on which it feeds insists on claiming its original integrity. In Black Panther, that claim comes from Killmonger, whose entire relationship with power makes me think of Malcom X:

Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.

It also reminds me of a spurned monster’s response to his Creator, Victor Frankenstein (called in the subtitle of Shelley’s novel, “The Modern Prometheus”):

There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied in the one, I will indulge the other.

And he’s not, so he does.

As far as I can tell, Black Panther is the first superhero movie to explore power from the perspective of those who have seen it from underneath. It’s closer to Do the Right Thing than to Civil War. It takes what has been a serviceable theme in superhero films–geopolitical in Iron Man, ontogenetic in Spider Man, Biblical in Batman–and maps it onto a vital, ongoing issue, with “the fierce urgency of now.” Even Wonder Woman, as good as it is, lifts Diana into the abstract context of “good vs. evil,” and brings us 100 years into the past to do it.

At the end of Black Panther, T’Challa decides to share Wakanda’s power. His cousin has taught him that he no longer has the luxury of standing aloof, abstracted from the concerns of the real world.

And after the success of Black Panther, Marvel and DC don’t, either.


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