TV + FILM
Why Christians Need to See Marvel’s Black Panther
Writer, Speaker, + Podcast Host
I kept thinking of the Netflix’s Marvel series Luke Cage while watching Black Panther last night, for a reason I suppose is obvious: they are both proudly, aggressively, intentionally black. Both Cage and Panther are superheroes fighting for a black community of people, both immersed in the black culture (Cage is set in New York City’s Harlem, while Panther is set in the fictional Wakanda, which is profoundly African), both have a killer soundtrack, and both have a lot on their mind about race, inequality, and the American experiment.
Just like Cage isn’t the best Netflix Marvel series, Black Panther isn’t the best Marvel movie, but in both cases, they may just be the most important. If any Marvel movie is still watched 50 years from now, I will put my bets on this one, and it’s essential that Christians, especially those who are vocal about cultural and political issues regarding race, engage with it.
Note: I’m going to talk about this movie mainly sans spoilers, but there will be some mild referencing of plot points.
The greatest strength of Black Panther is its villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, a.k.a. Creed, a.k.a. Wallace from The Wire), not solely because of the acting, though Jordan crushes the role with a single-minded, no B.S. ferocity that reminded me of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain in Mission: Impossible 3. Killmonger is a stand-in for a generation of forgotten black children, missing a father figure, raised in poverty and violence, and ultimately discarded by a country that decided the cost of helping him was too high.
Killmonger, as is a Marvel movie villain’s wont, is out to rule the world, but unlike almost every other villain we get why he’d want to. The one resource Killmonger has at his disposal in a world stacked against him is brute, destructive power. It’s easy for T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to tell Killmonger his methods are wrong, that there’s another way because he has been raised in a position of privilege, with education, resources, and a world of endless possibilities before him.
The movie only suggests Killmonger’s methods are understandable, never acceptable, and it does ultimately offer another way forward. But, in a time when unarmed black men are shot and killed – and the response from some is to nitpick the methods of the protests that follow, or to call the deceased a “thug” – it’s worth asking if, just maybe, there’s an understandable motivation behind misguided actions.
In Black Panther, Wakanda’s greatness is linked to their technological advances and financial prosperity. They are a truly great country – full stop – and are right to be proud. Furthermore, the country’s impulse is to protect their resources from the rest of the world – fearing it will destroy their people in the process – is also understandable. But T’Challa’s struggle is ultimately whether a desire to keep his people safe can every override a moral imperative to care for the orphaned, widowed, sick, and poor.
At the end of the film – it’s actually in a post-credits scene – T’Challa says his country must start building bridges instead of barriers. It’s not exactly a subtle moment, politically speaking, but considering what’s come prior it’s an earned one.
Black Panther is a radical film in that it looks at our country racially, culturally, politically, dares to find empathy in both sides, but ultimately insists you can’t ever truly be great if you’re not first good.
It’s a point Christians would do well to consider.