By: Quentin Brown
Marvel Studios has been making superhero movies for years now. Ever since their smash hit Iron Man in 2008, the company known for its comic books has become a Hollywood juggernaut.
Since then, they’ve launched the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ (MCU for short), which is a collection of movies all connected to each other for the sake of a larger narrative. Each and every Marvel movie has done well by anyone’s measure, but some have gone above and beyond expectations to shatter box office records in spectacular fashion. Their first box office smash came with the release of the Avengers in 2012. The movie received a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and continues to be praised as one of the better Marvel films.
Every year, Marvel comes out with two or three new movies, be they sequels or origin stories, and every year fans are fed the same story. Marvel Studios has found a formula for success, and the repetitive nature of their films has been a point of criticism from fans of the studio. Every movie has featured a primarily white cast, with a white hero, who has to save the world from a villain with weak motivations. Be it an infinity stone, an alien invasion, or an extra dimensional demon who’s come to consumer earth, the stories are usually the same. Very rarely has Marvel strayed from its established formula, and why would they? It sells, it keeps most fans happy, and it makes their jobs so much easier.
So far the MCU has been rolled out in phases. The first phase was made up of, Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and Marvel’s The Avengers (2012). Most of phase one was experimenting with the concept of a connected cinematic universe and the studio establishing its characters and the world they live in.
When phase two came around, the studio had hit its stride, and was ready to try something different. Iron Man 3 (2013), while considered one of the poorer Marvel Films, was different than the others. It focused on Tony Stark’s battle with depression and alcoholism, trying to be more than just a standard hero film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) came out of left field as one of the best Marvel Films ever made. Much different then the first one, this superhero spy thriller managed to successfully pull off something completely new for the studio. The movie puts an emphasis on characters, and the plot ties into the universe as a whole in a way some like Iron Man 3 failed to do.
Another smash hit for Marvel that came out of phase two is Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the odd film taking a lighter tone then the rest of the MCU at the time and allowing fans to take a breather from the rest of the universe. Even though most of the movies were made in the same vein as former Marvel adaptations, the studio proved that it could do something different and do it well. Guardians of the Galaxy proved that even relatively unknown characters like Peter Quill and Groot can see success on the big screen as long as Marvel is willing to take a risk. The movie sent a message to fans and Marvel executives, that change was good, and fans appreciated different approaches to the classic superhero film. Three other films were released as part of phase two, Thor: The Dark World (2013), Ant-Man (2015), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), doing just okay at the box office. These movies were nothing phenomenal; their stories and themes following the formula established in phase one.
By them time phase three came around Marvel had the movie industry eating out of it’s palms. Nearly every single movie released since the start of phase three has been a hit; the different and new approach Marvel has proved to be effective at the box office. Captain America: Civil War (2016), started things off with a bang, the Russo brothers once again writing a Captain America story that puts an emphasis on the character personalities and interactions more than just the story itself. The studio followed up that movies success with the releases of Doctor Strange (2016), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Each of these movies were successful in their own right, fans eagerly taking in this new generation of Marvel films. Each of these movies presented a refreshing narrative and new stories that were unique and original, and each movie sold well.
Now we’re in 2018, Marvel’s phase three is about halfway through, and the studio is still going strong. Captain America: Civil War, fans got a look at things to come. Sporting a wide cast and introducing several new characters, like Spider-Man and Black Panther, the film served to set up the future of the MCU.
This brings us to Black Panther. Immediately after the movies release, fans became captivated with the African prince T’Challa, better known as the Black Panther. The character is one of Marvel’s most popular comic heroes, plus, he’s black. Black heroes are nothing new in the MCU, but thus far they’d only acted in a sidekick esque capacity. While characters like War Machine, Falcon, and Karl Mordo, are appreciated, they’re never the superstars.
With the appearance of T’Challa, Marvel Studios promised a superhero movie about a black man. More than that, they promised a movie where the cast was primarily black and wasn’t about the hood.
When the Black Panther trailer dropped, people were ecstatic. Twitter was flooded with positive responses and already the film looked promising. Its importance to the black community was no small contribution to its subsequent success, fans of color flocked to the theatre in droves in order to see a black superhero.
The movie takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, an isolated nation, untouched by globalization, whose abundance of the powerful metal known as ‘Vibranium’ gives it a huge technological advantage over the rest of the world. In the Marvel Universe, the public perception of Wakanda is that it’s simply another poor African country full of farmers. The truth is hidden by futuristic technology and deliberate misdirection on behalf of the Wakandans.
The film starts with a flashback, recapping the events of Civil War and setting up the villain: Erik Killmonger. Excellently played by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is the personification of black extremism. He was orphaned at a young age and left to fend for himself in the ghettos of Oakland while dreaming of the fabled paradise of Wakanda. He managed to convince himself that the solution to his people's problems lies in his father’s homeland. He is obsessed with undoing the years of oppression his people (black people) have faced, and he plans to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to bring about the revolution. He’s the prototypical black American male: his cool demeanor and laidback mannerisms make him extremely relatable to many a viewer. He stands in direct opposition of the hero T’Challa, and yet I found myself rooting for him. The two characters embody two different methods for revolution, both wishing to right injustice but simply going about it in different ways.
If Erik Killmonger is Malcolm X then T’Challa must me MLK. The king prefers peace to violence, recognizing the injustice done to black people around the world but refusing to respond violently. In the end T’Challa wins and his Obama-style message of hope is what we are left with at the end of the movie.
The film was good, it was everything you could expect of a Marvel movie and more, but the more I think about it the more bitter it makes me. I found myself resonating with Erik Killmonger, his rage and refusal to accept injustice far more easy a path to understand then that of Black Panther’s. The movie tries to show us that a path of violence and outrage is wrong, but fails to acknowledge the benefits such an approach would have. It cuts a clear line between the morals of T’Challa and Erik Killmonger, trying it’s best to demonize one while painting the other in a more positive light. This is indicative of a systematic problem, the movies demonization of Erik’s ‘extreme’ approach feels more like propaganda than anything else. The film tries to force it’s message of peace over action down your throat and make you swallow it, all without fully exploring both sides of the coin.
Marvel Studios is owned by white men, and the narrative presented here is reminiscent of anti-black propaganda of the past. It teaches black people to take the higher road no matter the cost, to swallow the negative emotions we may have towards our circumstance, and to conform. At the end of the movie T’Challa reveals the truth of Wakanda to the world, and explains his plan to help better the circumstances of blacks by working within the very system that has oppressed them for countless years. This Obama style approach to reparations isn’t necessarily wrong, but the way it’s presented in the film is.
The rage felt by Erik Killmonger and the peaceful approach of T’Challa can exist in unity, and they can both be effective tools when one is trying to right oppression, but the movie makes it feel like a choice. You can either take the path of apparent ‘evil’ that Killmonger took, or you can take the path of the hero and conform. I didn’t expect the movie to solve racism in it’s 2 hours and 15 minute run time, but I expected it to be at least a little more empowering. The director seems out of touch with black America as a whole, especially the younger generation. But at the end of the day it’s a superhero movie, and it’s a step in the right direction for representation in mainstream media. Even if I disagree with it’s message in the end, I can appreciate the importance of such a movie. The film is fun to watch, and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing right?