Marvel’s Fear of a Black Panther and Superheroes as Critiques

Marvel announced its slate of movies and their release dates at San Diego Comic Con. But it’s remarks by Marvel co-president Louis D’Esposito that are making waves in some circles. He told MTV of Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther that:

“That would be Marvel in space,” he said. “That’s a great concept and a great idea, and potentially one of our films in the future.” Another possible candidate is “Black Panther,” a superhero story that centers on T’Challa, the defender of a fictional African nation called Wakanda.

“He has a lot of the same characteristics of a Captain America: great character, good values,” said the Marvel exec. “But it’s a little more difficult, maybe, creating [a world like Wakanda]. It’s always easier basing it here. For instance, Iron Man 3 is rooted right here in Los Angeles and New York. When you bring in other worlds, you’re always faced with those difficulties.”

It’s silly to say that it’s easier to build a visual and conceptual Wakanda—especially given BET did it in the Black Panther animated series—than Asgard, or a Skrull warship. But D’Esposito, in a sort of clumsy way, seems to be talking around some beliefs embedded in Hollywood conventional wisdom: that it’s easier to sell white men as brawling gods than black men as hugely technologically advanced leaders of foreign nations.

One of the things that’s bracing about BET’s cartoon adaptation is that it’s so directly about the racism of that disbelief. You’ve got white American officials who say things like “Where do a bunch of savages get off telling us they have a no-fly zone? What are they going to do, throw spears at our jets?” and a World War II-era Black Panther who brushes off Captain America’s offer of help with invading Nazis by telling him “You can go home now. I’ve already taken out the garbage.” In this interpretation, T’Challa’s the rare kind of superhero who can call out systemic ills in Western society, rather than relying on their continued existence to give him purpose. “The fact that every conversation here is framed in terms of profit and power says everything,” he says in the cartoon. “Why cure a disease when people pay for medicine?”

As thrilling as it would be to see those contradictions and assumptions challenged in a big-screen movie with all the power of Marvel’s brand and marketing department behind it, I’m not really surprised that Marvel’s finding excuses to demur. American audiences like seeing American superheroes and American presidents beat back alien invasions, to see America as the sophisticated country that stands as a bulwark between humanity and everyone else. We can put up with Asgardians because they’re on our side, Thor’s promise to protect the earth mediated by his partnership with Captain America, and representations of American superiority in industry, military might, and science, Tony Stark, Captain Fury, and Bruce Banner and Jane Foster. Blade can protect humans from the decadence of vampire torturers, ravers, raisers of evil Gods and breeders of abominations, but he’s an affirmation of our goodness rather than a critique of our society. That’s not to say that there isn’t evil out there that needs taking care of, and I appreciate the Blade franchise’s attention to the vulnerability of homeless people. But it’s easier to sell superheroes of any color who emphasize our common humanity than those who point our failures, whether it’s T’Challa in Africa or Luke Cage in Harlem.