f comic book movies have taught us anything it is that superheroes are not very good at protecting their home turf. Christopher Nolan’s Batman, for instance, was astonishingly ill prepared to avert the demolition of Gotham’s infrastructure, right down to the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Gotham Bay. Zack Snyder’s Superman was helpless to prevent the demolition-style leveling of entire city blocks in downtown Metropolis. What is ironic here is the aesthetic ambiguity of such heroism that combines defense with destruction. Gone are the “golden era” days of comics when good always triumphed over evil with the former clearly delineated from the latter. Today, in the post-Image “modern age” of comics, we tend to see a kind of Nietzschean immediate coincidence of opposites: strength and impotence should coincide; the very hero that saves the city should already be the secret cause of its utter annihilation. Hence, it was not at all shocking to learn that Wayne Enterprises financed the weaponized fusion reactor that took Gotham hostage for all those many months. Similarly, it came as no surprise to critics that it was Superman himself who effectively lured Zod and his gang to terrorize Earth.
From this perspective, the problem with contemporary superheroes is not that they are “too heroic,” but that they are not “heroic” enough. The contours of this deadlock came into sudden relief last year when Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige confirmed at a press junket that the live-action adaptation of Black Panther is “absolutely in development.” Many a discriminating fanboy couldn’t help but applaud the move: Finally, a comic book movie about a superhero who isn’t covertly an emo anti-hero, a superhero who doesn’t have a Christ-complex – secretly desiring for this world to end. If you’re not familiar with the character, you’re not alone. Here is writer Reginald Hudlin’s synopsis of Black Panther’s unusual origin story:
There are some places you just don’t mess with. Wakanda is one of them. Since the dawn of time, that African warrior nation has been sending would-be conquerors home in body bags. While the rest of Africa got carved up like a Christmas turkey by the rest of the world, Wakanda’s cultural evolution has gone unchecked for centuries, unfettered by the yoke of colonization. The result: A hi-tech, resource-rich, ecologically-sound paradise that makes the rest of the world seem primitive by comparison. / Ruling over all this is the Black Panther. / The Black Panther is more than just the embodiment of a warrior cult that’s served as Wakanda’s religious, political and military head since its inception. The Black Panther is the embodiment of the ideals of a people. Anyone who’d dare to make a move on Wakanda must go through him.
Not unlike Wonder Woman creator William Marston’s original vision of the Amazons as a proto-feminist totalitarian utopia, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s subsequent vision of Wakanda echoes Marston’s ideals of a “loving submission” – albeit with an Africa-centric orientation. Of course, to certain readers the notion of a technologically advanced, morally superior Atlantis-like utopia in the heart of Africa will smack of liberal PC-triteness and may initially seem embarrassingly multicultural. However, by the end of issue 1 of the 2005 run of Marvel’s Black Panther one is immediately disabused of such suspicions. Even if you’re just a casual comic book fan here are some of the reasons why the series will win your heart: In Issue 1 we learn that Captain America entered Wakanda during World War II to hunt down Nazis who were out to exploit superior Wakandan science; in the process Cap and Black Panther have an extended hand-to-hand battle – with Black Panther coming out on top. And if that doesn’t whet your nerd appetite, in Issue 7 Black Panther decapitates Sabretooth and sends his head back to Magneto in a box à la David Fincher’s Seven.
In the same issue it is revealed that Storm is a love interest of Black Panther and more importantly, a catalyst of change in the African continent as the queen of Kenya; one would be hard pressed to find a comparable X-men episode where Storm plays the role of a Bell Hooks in the Marvel universe. Here are but a few lines of Storm’s cultural studies-inspired dialogue from Issue 7 of Black Panther:
“Castro once claimed that racism was a natural byproduct of capitalism, and that the communist system would naturally eradicate prejudice. Wrong. . . . No ‘ism’ is going to fix the persistence of prejudice . . . We have to acknowledge that the myth of white supremacy continues in the mutant-controlled world. I mean the ideal is still a white person with a human appearance. I haven’t noticed any furry, feathered or scaled beings deliver the news, have you?”
That such words were spoken by a character in a comic book series is a minor cultural achievement; no surprise, then, that certain Africana Studies departments have identified Storm and the Black Panther as the Lacanian “big Others” of a future African Diaspora yet to be.
The term “big Other,” even divorced from its strict Lacanian signification, is an apt descriptor of the Wakandan hereditary warrior leader; recall that the whole point of Black Panther is that, like Captain America and Superman, at the very core of the big Other is the dimension of the enlightened nationalist (i.e., the early “Golden Age” superheroes being assigned US agents fighting Nazis and Stalinists). In the case of the new Marvel movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is precisely the diminishing faith in the increasingly feudalistic nation-state that deprives the community of its support in the big Other. Perhaps this is why our superheroes today are becoming increasingly Christianized: to make up for the fact that our secularized faith in the nation-state has lapsed. Of course, it goes farther back then Joss Whedon’s Avengers, certainly farther back then Nolan’s Bat Christ and Snyder’s Super Christ.
Immediately following the “bronze age” of comics, the transition to a secularized anti-hero is probably most memorably discernible in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, where both an aging Batman and Superman, following a Wagnerian score, die and in New Testament-like fashion return from the grave. But in both cases one has to ask – return for what? What are they actually defending? One couldn’t live, let alone start a family, in Bruce Wayne’s Gotham. To wit, what certain fans tend to ignore is that Miller was quite self-consciously depicting a doomed Gotham that is beyond saving. The poignancy of the last scenes of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is derived – not from the fact that Batman is forming an underground army to, once and for all, drive out the baddies of the world – but from the fact that Batman is forming an army to fight a war that has already been lost long ago. The same sentiment can be applied to Superman’s broader United States; if Miller’s Superman is just another lap dog for Reagan and an all-encompassing neocorporate neoconservative ideology – why resurrect at all? Indeed, if the Temple Mount is rebuilt – why not stay dead?
What will be telling going forward is how Kevin Feige decides to resurrect the fundamental political characteristics of the Wakandan superhero. How will Feige see the Black Panther fitting into the overall Marvel landscape: big Other or irrelevantly small? Similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther is an unknown property to the vast majority of the movie going public. As such the bulk of the initial marketing budget will have to be reserved for simply educating the public on who Black Panther is. There will undoubtedly be some temptation to present him as the black Batman: Their costumes – cape and cowl – appear identical from a distance; they’re both 100% human with no alien or mutant powers; they’re both masters of martial arts; they both lost their father at a young age; and they both rely on advanced technology to do what they do.
Consequently, part of the Marvel/Disney strategy will have to be on highlighting and introducing Black Panther’s homeland Wakanda; unlike Gotham, Wakanda is actually a place where you’d want to live. It will undoubtedly be a monumental task to communicate the breadth and depth of the fictional African nation’s cultural singularity, but a necessary task since it is at the core of what makes the character tick. And what complicates the live-action task even further is that it will not simply be a matter of staying faithful to the source material. Because even in the comics and the BET animated series, Wakanda has always appeared visually underwhelming and two-dimensional; picture an anachronistic cityscape of chrome apartment buildings and thatched roofed huts with mud walls. Feige’s team will have to bring in someone, like District 9 & Elysium director Neill Blomkamp, to start from scratch and visually reimagine the rich physical representation of Wakanda.
And then there is the matter of casting. The casting temptation will be of course to over-hyphenate Black Panther: decaffeinate his core African identity and emphasize a Black Panther that is more African-hyphen-American – as they did with Marvel Comic’s Volume 4 incarnation of the hero. Personally I hope that Feige does not go down this route; one of the more nourishing aspects of the BET animated series was the non-American voice acting and Bantu-based score. In the fan community’s shortlist to play Black Panther, not surprisingly, are names like Michael Jai White, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jamie Foxx. If Marvel however decides to go younger, let’s hope that they don’t do to the emerging franchise what Fox has done to Fantastic Four by going overly prepubescent. However, one tidbit of consequence casting-wise is that Storm will most probably not appear in the Marvel movie as Black Panther’s wife and partner; Fox currently owns the rights to most of the X-Men characters. Of course, there is the possibility that both Fox and Marvel will be able to share the character in the way that both studios “share” Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Here’s hoping that there may, in fact, be a loophole for Marvel given that Storm often goes by the title of Queen Ororo in the Black Panther universe.
Wherever the chips may fall, I’m certainly crossing my fingers and looking forward to the potential franchise making it onto the big screens. I say “potential” franchise because even with Stan Lee and Kevin Feige’s enthusiastic assurances, it is still in the early days and nothing has been officially green lit. And with the recent news of Marvel Studios considering giving Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow a solo film, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the studio execs at Marvel and Disney ultimately decided to play it safe and postpone Black Panther indefinitely. There is a reason why UC’s African American Studies Department has described the character as perhaps the most “politically dangerous” example of Marxian Aufhebung in mainstream comics. Alas, Black Panther can redeem for certain of us the core of the superhero proper, for Wakanda is undoubtedly what is lacking in today’s continental Africa: a Robespierre-inspired nation-state worth defending against universal acts of hegemony and imperial dominance, a “becoming utopia” that captures all of the emancipatory hopes and desires of a continent that is the youngest among all the continents (a comic book hero as a catalytic imaginary is fitting given that 50% of Africans are 19 years of age or younger). The gap here for Marvel’s Kevin Feige is irreducible: either Hollywood maintains the secularized religious form (that admittedly works quite well for them in the first world), or one advances the integrity of the superhero proper of the third world. Speaking for myself, the latter is the more intriguing gesture that awaits the big screens: one need not annihilate the treasure to save it – like Christ. Doesn’t the world have too many superhero martyrs as it is?