I’m sure you’ve seen the various memes and social media conversations featuring African-Americans writing waxing poetic about Black Panther. Between many trying to figure out what they’re going to wear to their midnight screenings, organizations and individuals raising money to buy thousands of movie tickets for kids across the country, and hashtags like #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe, you’d think this film was about a notable real life figure, not a fictional superhero.
But, as is often the case, fiction reflects real life. For many black Americans, Black Panther is more than a blockbuster movie. This is something bigger than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For many black viewers, Black Panther will be a major dream deferred finally realized. For the first time in the MCU, us black fans will finally have a film that features characters who not only look like us, but feel many of the hopes and anxieties specific to the African-American experience.
Marvel’s racial drought
You don’t need me to tell you that Marvel has been lopsided in terms of its racial representation. In fact, calling it “lopsided” is being kind. Except for Black Panther, all of the superheroes who have led feature films in the MCU have been white men.
The issue gets compounded when Marvel seems like it’s more committed to showcase people of color and women in secondary or background roles. While Nick Fury is the glue that holds the MCU together, he’s still a character that toggles between secondary and tertiary status. The more popular black superheroes, like War Machine and Falcon, are, indeed, cool. But they are also still second to their white friends, Iron Man and Captain America. They back up the white superheroes, sometimes act as their conscience, and are utilized as a soundboard for their ideas. In short, these black superheroes do a lot of emotional legwork for their friends, while the script doesn’t often write the white superheroes reciprocating much of that emotional labor back.
What’s unfortunate is how used we all are to this. It’s normal for black audiences to just hope a black character gets enough screentime and doesn’t die at the end, the latter of which was a real fear I had going into Captain America: Civil War. After all, War Machine’s paralyzing crash was heavily marketed for emotional exploitation. We are used to seeing ourselves as the “friend,” the “sidekick,” that character that is important enough to be in the top billing, but still not important enough to carry the film. After years and years of this, the anger and sadness of this reality dissipates into resignation, because it’s too tiring to be angry forever.
Ironically, where the MCU has failed, Marvel’s TV offerings have succeeded, albeit in random bursts. Shows like Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have all had men and women of color and women in general in starring roles. For many, these shows are a breath of fresh air in a sea of otherwise monotonous superheroes. But even still, Marvel seems to shoot itself in the foot.
Despite critical acclaim and a dedicated core fanbase, Agent Carter was cancelled, ending Marvel’s foray into providing women quality superhero entertainment until the announcement of Captain Marvel and Black Widow movies going into production. Marvel’s biggest failure to date has been Iron Fist, a show many AAPI fans felt squandered an opportunity to bring in an Asian actor to portray Danny Rand and make the source material feel a little more respectful of the culture from which it borrows. The decision to cast Finn Jones as an uncharismatic Danny was put in stark relief to the casting of Lewis Tan as Iron Fist’s nemesis Zhou Cheng, whose wit, charm, and actual fighting skill won over viewers and made many question why Marvel neglected Tan, who did audition for the lead role.
Marvel’s Iron Fist debacle reflects the company’s reticence to go outside of their “comic book canon” norms. Thankfully, it seems like that reticence is fading; Spider-Man: Homecoming was a hit for finally showcasing Peter Parker as a young high school student in the modern, diverse borough of Queens. Thor: Ragnarok pushed Marvel’s space odyssey trappings even further than the Guardians of the Galaxy series by including more psychedelia, a delightfully zany Jeff Goldblum, and offbeat humor. Director Taika Waititi, whose background and unique point of view, partly informed by his Indigenous heritage, gave fans the Thor film they didn’t know they needed.
While Marvel is currently reveling in claiming the title of “most woke franchise” thanks to Black Panther, the irony is that Marvel’s reticence nearly cost them this critical and box office boon. For years, fans hounded Marvel for a Black Panther movie, only to be met with excuses, particularly the excuse of Wakanda somehow being hard to make, despite Thor introducing us to an otherworldly Asgard.
Perhaps some of that reticence comes from not wanting to get important characters like Black Panther wrong; one false move, and you’ve alienated much of your base. That can be seen with Iron Fist, but also with Doctor Strange, a film that tried its best to avoid controversy, but still walked into a big mess by casting Tilda Swinton in a role that would have been better suited for an Asian actor. Even the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the lead was called into question, since the character, like Danny, perpetuates the antiquated notion of a white guy somehow mastering ancient techniques rooted in Asian mysticism better than actual Asian practitioners, thus becoming their savior.
Still, it’s better to try than not at all. It’s good that Marvel still went ahead and tried with Black Panther. Even better, it’s good to see they knew they needed outside help to make this film work. By seeking out Ryan Coogler as well as the astounding cast and crew, Black Panther has turned into more than just a tyipical superhero film with a black guy jammed in as the lead. From critics’ accounts, it’s a true tour-de-force of pan-African visuals, costuming, traditions, and salient commentary on the effects of colonialism on the African diaspora as a whole. The film is already rewiring how African-Americans see themselves, as well as how others view Africa. In short, it’s the power of representation at work. That feeling of empowerment is something white superheroes (and white audiences) have had a monopoly on for decades. It’s about time the scales start to shift towards balance.
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