To say that Black Panther is needlessly political is not only a critique mired in anti-Blackness but an insult to superhero narratives as a whole.
This essay contains spoilers for Marvel’s Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok
Black History Month 2018 saw the release of the highly-anticipated and long-awaited Black Panther, and the blockbuster juggernaut received phenomenal acclaim for what Ryan Coogler and company were able to accomplish with the story. Now an award-winning film, it broke records, made history, and went above and beyond expectations. Despite the abundant praise and its outstanding box office numbers, it has also been criticized by some folks, especially fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for being “too political” and shunned for bringing those politics into the superhero realm. Director Terry Gilliam recently called it “utter bullshit” for its vision of a technologically-advanced and superior African nation untouched by the ugliness of white colonial violence, and for “[giving] young Black kids the idea that this is something to believe in.” He went on to comment on the “political correctness” and “identity politics” of the film, claiming it makes his “blood boil.”
And it’s not the only recent narrative about Black heroes to receive this reaction. HBO’s Watchmen has upset many, having also been called “too political” and too concerned with “identity politics.” It seems these decriers have either forgotten about or are unaware of the fact that the primary source material for the show, Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel, is a commentary on Reagan-era American politics and power dynamics. These critiques of both Black Panther and Watchmen are patently unfair, firmly rooted in nothing more than thinly-veiled anti-Blackness. They also willfully ignore the incredibly political stories at the core of most superhero narratives, if not all. The genre is inherently political, and explicitly so in many cases, with its continual reproduction of villains, antiheroes, and heroes as the Other—whether racial, ethnic, ideological, cultural, national, religious, or otherwise. Superhero stories are political as fuck, people just get uncomfortable when they confront racism and white supremacy head-on.
Within the MCU alone, the politicization of multiple hero stories is abundantly apparent. The Iron Man films are rife with Tony Stark’s libertarianism. They comment on warmongering, war-profiteering, the military-industrial complex, lack of care and resources for war veterans returning home, the possibilities of techno-warfare and weaponized drones, the imminent dangers of Artificial Intelligence, terrorism in the “Information Age,” and of course Tony’s “privatized world peace.” Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Homecoming, argued by some to be a “white working middle class” Trump-supporter allegory, interrogates socioeconomic and class disparities and the particular kind of violence—like dealing arms to urban/inner-city areas populated by predominantly poor people of color just trying to survive—which is endemic to sustaining wealth under capitalism.
The political nature of the MCU is perhaps most palpable in the Captain America installments, which center on fascism and Nazism, war, freedom, corruption, imperialistic rule, global conflict and international relations, and a Post-Westphalian world. All of this positions fan-favorite, Captain America, as a veritable Antifa “Social Justice Warrior” who would not hesitate to punch the likes of Richard Spencer and Donald Trump square in the fucking face and declare that, if the law is unjust, it is our moral duty to live outside of it.
All told, the best Marvel film to consider alongside the politics of Black Panther is Thor: Ragnarok, a rambunctious gem saturated in retro-nostalgia, blasting Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” through its high-octane action. These two unlikely companions are near-perfect parallel stories—not only narratively, but thematically and politically—exploring loss, family, vengeance, ancestral guidance, retribution, redemption, and revolution, as well as imperialism, colonialism, indigeneity, and revisionist histories. They both do a lot, and they do it well.
Our heroes are both reeling from the recent loss of their paternal parent and now bear the unexpected responsibility of determining what direction their homeland will go in following these deaths. T’Challa and Thor propel themselves through these heroic journeys each in their own way, but their stories have clear similarities as they follow their respective royal families, the deaths of patriarchal monarchs, and the unexpected, pivotal returns of previously unknown family members. Each of these are core aspects of these stories and integral to the transformative experiences of the heroes at the center of them.
The death of T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, is unambiguously politicized in the preceding Captain America: Civil War, and it is ultimately what allows the abandoned N’Jadaka—codename: Killmonger—to attempt his takeover of Wakanda as the son of the murdered Prince N’Jobu. As Everett Ross puts it, the death of a monarch is a fortuitous time to destabilize a country, a directive that N’Jadaka has been well-trained to do as a CIA operative. Comparatively, Odin’s death brings about Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse myth, allowing Hela, the Goddess of Death and Thor’s own sister, to return to Asgard and bring the prophesied ruin with her.
N’Jadaka and Hela appear as long-lost family members whose existence the old kings knew of and kept secret to preserve themselves and their way of life. They return only after the deaths of these kings to rightfully challenge for their place on the throne, having waited in their respective prisons and stewed for years before seizing the opportune moment. Suddenly, T’Challa and Thor are forced to reckon with the revelation of family secrets with huge implications and have to atone for the sins of their fathers. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok are both invested in interrogating history, the ghosts it creates, and what happens when the monsters of our own making come back to haunt us.
With him, N’Jadaka brings ghosts of white supremacist and colonialist violences, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, centuries of oppression and the continued marginalization of Black Americans, global anti-Blackness, and the pain of being abandoned by T’Chaka and, in his mind, all of Wakanda. Hela’s resurfacing brings up the matter of Odin’s imperialism, colonialism, and willingness to erase the truth of these histories in order to remain on the throne and secure his son’s place on it while his daughter remained trapped in Hell for more than 1,500 years. These two are coded as villains (perhaps Hela more so than N’Jadaka) but it would be more honest to call them antiheroes.
In the midst of these challenges, T’Challa and Thor both visit an Ancestral Plane of sorts to talk with and receive insight from their late fathers. Following this, they are each able to use their own knowledge and instinct to ultimately defeat their challengers. But it is their siblings, Shuri and Loki, who are critical in carrying out their plans. These narratives highlight ancestral knowledge and influence, as well as the significance of family—how it can be both conducive and complicated.
There are other similarities, too.
Okoye and the unnamed Valkyrie both hail from elite forces made up entirely of women warriors (and the queerness of both the Valkyrie and Ayo was regrettably not explored in either film). They are each integral to the plot, even as they demonstrate two different attitudes towards their circumstances—with Okoye maintaining her deep loyalty to the throne and Wakandan tradition while the Valkyrie initially refuses to help Thor, as she would rather do nothing more than hang out with Hulk, watch gladiator fights and collect winnings, and self-medicate for her PTSD with raging alcoholism.
Nakia and Heimdall are, respectively, the Wakandan Moses and Harriet Tubman of Asgard, both indispensable to the heroes. Nakia leads Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri to safely after N’Jadaka has usurped the throne, and she does so after sneaking into the garden of the heart-shaped herb to retrieve one of the glowing hearts, which later proves to be life-saving and essential for T’Challa’s victory. As Asgard’s eternal watcher and defender, Heimdall takes on the role of its savior as well, whisking Asgardians off to the mountains in secret in order to protect them from Hela’s rage until Thor and the others arrive.
Most significantly, both narratives explore ahistorical “truth,” and they do so by providing perspectives from those who were once effectively erased, N’Jadaka and Hela—two wronged people with familial and royal roots in Wakanda and Asgard, who have been kept secret at the behest of the late kings, and who are rightfully angry about it.
Ultimately, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok can each be read as anti-revisionist and anti-colonialist. I see them as fitting and appropriate as two installments of the MCU’s epic Phase Three build towards the arrival of the totalitarian Titan, Thanos, in Avengers: Infinity War—itself an unapologetically political narrative about fascist rule, trauma, and myths of overpopulation and scarcity. Larger social conversations about the U.S. and its place in the world in the current social and political climate are continual interrogations of imperialism, colonialism, indigeneity, and revisionist histories, which makes these superhero stories more timely, culturally-significant, and relevant entries of the 2010s than many film-goers realize.
Considering the many similarities between Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, it is interesting (read: anti-Black as fuck) that Thor: Ragnarok has not received the same criticism of being “too political”, or unrealistic “bullshit” for its techno-magical Asgardian world of gleaming architectural marvels. To say that Black Panther (and/or Watchmen) is needlessly political is not only a critique mired in anti-Blackness but an insult to superhero narratives as a whole. They are political, and they should be, whether intentional or not.
Superhero stories are often an amalgam of dystopian sci-fi and horror, both genres that consistently and directly respond to contemporary societal anxieties and fears. They highlight the truths about our society that the dominant class would rather not contend with. In this way, they are an indictment, and they offer us a way to interrogate our own politics. It’s past time to fully recognize and acknowledge what they have to offer beyond lovable characters, memorable action sequences, and fanfic fodder. We need to be honest about them and their place in our world, while naming the transparent anti-Blackness of unfair criticisms leveled at superhero narratives that just happen to be about Black people.
This essay has been updated and extended for Wear Your Voice, it was first published on the writer’s personal website.