Marvel and Morality
by Tess Adair
A Black Panther review. Spoilers within.
Here’s the very brief, spoiler-free version of this review: Black Panther was tons of fun, with good food for thought as well. Dora Milaje forever! Princess Shuri is FREAKING BOMB and I can’t WAIT for the generation of women of color who will be inspired to join STEM and who will, undoubtedly, save this poor pitiful planet from old white men and their fossil fuels.
(Feel free to @ me, old white dudes.)
The rest of this review is meant for people who have already seen the film. For an overview of the plot, please check out Wikipedia.
Now HERE BE SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.
As I left the theater with my partner, still flush with the excitement of seeing a good action movie with awesome female characters that didn’t kill off all its black characters, there was one scene that clawed its way back to me.
It’s a scene in the latter half of the film, where Erik Killmonger faces off with Klaue, and Klaue grabs Killmonger’s girlfriend (dubbed #ThiefBae by the internet) as an attempt at leverage. To be honest, it was over so quickly that I wasn’t 100% sure what happened, but either Klaue kills her or Killmonger himself does. Either way, Killmonger appears completely unphased, barely batting an eye before continuing on towards his goal of getting to Klaue.
I’m pretty much always sensitive to how violence against women is portrayed on film, how women’s lives in film are seen as worthless, or only worth the fodder they can provide for the male protagonist’s growth. Sure, this particular female character was certainly far from heroic, but even so, I had to ask--was that necessary?
Surprising even myself, ultimately I decided...yes, actually, that was necessary.
#ThiefBae’s death serves two primary purposes. The first is that it sets Killmonger up to be even more diametrically opposed to T’Challa. Where Killmonger apparently has only one woman in his life and he throws her aside with startling ease, T’Challa’s entire life is women, and in the climax, it is the threat to his beloved sister Shuri that propels him into his final fight. One cannot imagine T’Challa facing down Klaue with anywhere near the same level of cold-bloodedness if one of his beloved circle was hanging in the balance.
But it’s the second purpose that this scene serves that, to me, is far more important. THIS is the scene that establishes Killmonger as the villain. It may, in fact, be the only one that really does.
Obviously, at this point in the film, we understand from the formula that Killmonger is supposed to be “the bad guy.” But how much do we really believe that? After all, Killmonger’s story is far more pitiable than T’Challa’s story. Abandoned by his father’s country, Killmonger grew up orphaned and poor in an underprivileged neighborhood, and somehow he got himself into MIT and then into Special Forces. He experienced some of the worst that the world has to offer any of us, and still he managed to excel.
Doesn’t that sound more like a classic American hero than a villain?
And what about his plan? He wants to ascend the throne, yes, but not for his own sake--he wants to take over Wakanda because he knows how powerful Wakanda really is, and because he is disgusted by Wakanda’s silence in world affairs and, in his view, their complicity. His goal is not to help himself--it’s to help all his brethren in the entire black diaspora. As an American, I find myself hard-pressed to cast that intention as anything but noble. The injustice he wants to fight is REAL. It’s real, it’s everywhere, and it’s SO DAMN HARD to figure out how to fix it.
So what, exactly, makes him a villain?
Some might point to the fact that he has covered his body in scars to mark every person he’s ever killed, and his body is COMPLETELY covered in those marks. Yes, true, on the face of it, that looks pretty bad--but we didn’t see him kill any of those people. We have no idea what the circumstances of those kills are, and in fact, we have every reason to believe that he made them as a highly decorated member of the American military. Is this not, after all, the country that gave several Academy Award nominations to the film American Sniper?
So what makes him a villain?
Others might point to an earlier scene--as a matter of fact, the first scene with #ThiefBae. Killmonger enters the British Museum and asks to speak to an expert on a particular collection of artifacts from various African cultures. After a back and forth with her, he reveals that he has poisoned her coffee, and then he and Klaue proceed to murder everyone in the room. The docent was innocent, wasn’t she? The security guards were innocent, too, weren’t they?
Were they innocent of murder? Yes. None of them deserved to be killed simply for working there. But anyone with an HBO login and a love of John Oliver knows that the British Museum itself is not innocent. Killmonger certainly knows this: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
That doesn’t exactly make the docent and the guards guilty, but it does make them complicit. And Killmonger wouldn’t be the first American hero we’ve forgiven for conflating the two.
Kill them all, and let God sort them out. I’ve heard that somewhere before. Actually...I’ve heard that a lot of times before.
So what makes him a villain in our eyes?
#ThiefBae, of course. If I’ve learned anything from studying the ways in which we make women’s lives disposable in our favorite media, it’s this: the hero is meant to cry when his girlfriend is murdered.
The gladiator wipes away his snot over his wife’s corpse and imagines her waiting for him in heaven. The Punisher dons a skull and a machine gun to find out who killed his family. Batman questions his life choices while Harvey Dent falls off the deep end.
But Killmonger? He doesn’t shed a tear. He’s got a mission to complete.
There appears to be a rash of Twitter users who left the movie firmly planted on Killmonger’s side, and to be honest, I kind of understand that. In my book, it’s primarily this act--the cold-blooded non-reaction to the death of the only person we’ve been led to believe he has any investment in--that marks Killmonger, unmistakably, as a villain.
(The second thing that marks him as a villain is the fact that he tries to kill the film’s OBVIOUSLY best character, Shuri, of course. But, hey, she was trying to kill him right back.)
Killmonger is relatable. He’s deeply American, and he’s reminiscent of a number of American heroes, both from pop culture and real life. He’s the most downtrodden of underdogs, and his ascent feels like a true American victory of excellence over adversity. In another story, in another skin tone, he might be the hero.
Shouldn’t that tell us something about our heroes?
I’m reminded, suddenly, of a scene from another great action film: Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant. You probably know it: a nameless opponent pulls out his sword and shows off some fancy swordplay moves in preparation for battle with Indiana. Indiana, in response, shoots him. I’ve always loved that scene. It’s always felt so American to me.
Let’s return, for a moment, to Killmonger’s plan: he wants to arm the black diaspora with Wakanda’s impressive weapons technology and encourage them to rise up against their oppressors. It’s a tempting idea, and it, too, feels very American. Because it is.
See, the trouble with Killmonger’s ideas are that he wasn’t the first person to have them. Anybody remember Iran-Contra? Or, hell, the United States’ entire history in the Middle East? We just love the thought that all we need to do is arm the right group, and it’ll fix everything. (The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, right?)
Except it has never, ever worked. Again, see the Middle East. See what we’ve done there.
Arming the rebels doesn’t work. Violence only breeds more violence.
This point, interestingly enough, brings us all the way around to another Marvel movie--Iron Man. As it so happens, my partner and I decided to watch Iron Man again right after Black Panther. The parallels were compelling: both protagonists control a legacy left to them by potentially problematic fathers; both are initially blinded to the reality of said legacy by the love they have for their fathers, as well as the beliefs they nurture about themselves; both are forced to confront those realities, in one way or another, by their villains.
In case you’re not familiar, in Iron Man, Tony Stark is a weapons manufacturer who believes he only sells weapons to the US government and their allies--his idea of the “good guys.” In Act One, a vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist group kidnaps him and wastes no time revealing that, in fact, his company has been selling to them all along, too.
Of course, the film shies away from implicating the US government too clearly, but this could easily serve as a direct indictment of the United States’ role in the Middle East. We think we’re working on the “right” side, but at the end of the day, killing is killing. Every invisible drone terrorizing another child on a sunny day gives the other side another reason to believe that they’re the ones who are right. Violence is a circle.
So, what was Killmonger’s plan again? Oh, that’s right. His plan was to arm the good guys with the biggest, baddest weapons around. It’s a seductive plan, an American plan. And if the real goal is to end violence and oppression, it’s a plan that is, without a doubt, doomed to failure.
Like some of our best villains, Killmonger is likable, understandable, charismatic, and even glamorous. Sometimes, you want him to win. Wouldn’t it be nice if all you had to do to end oppression was to send the right weapons to the right people?
Too bad every “righteous” war always has innocent casualties. Too bad innocent casualties lead to more “righteous” revenges. Too bad there’s always an Obadiah Stane, ready to sell to both sides, because as long as the wheel keeps turning, the profits keep rolling.
Killmonger is likeable, yes. He’s also the very embodiment of American toxic masculinity, which makes him a perfect example of just how seductive toxic masculinity can be. Isn’t it so easy, so fun, to think that a well-landed punch, or missile, will solve all your problems and leave us with a happy ending?
I enjoyed Black Panther quite a lot, and I want to give Marvel credit for that. I also enjoyed Iron Man, both when it first came out and when I re-watched it a few days ago. I’d like to give Marvel credit for the moral complexities of both films, but the thought gives me some pause. Iron Man is complex, yes, and a tightly plotted film that has held up well over time. But the moral message? Ultimately, I think it’s a little confused. It takes a step back from its own implications, and chooses instead to focus on a dazzling fight scene between Stark and Stane, full of property destruction and Pepper Pots running a damn marathon in stilettos.
The rest of the Marvel canon has continued to flirt with the question of whether or not these heroes with their larger-than-life displays of grand, hyper-glamorous violence are a net positive or a net negative to the world they inhabit, let alone the one we do. Of course, they’ve got tickets to sell, so how negative are they really gonna get?
In my view, Black Panther is their strongest offering in terms of theme and moral argument, daring to push a little farther into the gray zones of moral uncertainty than either Iron Man or Civil War. But then, they didn’t quite answer the question, either: if Killmonger’s way is wrong, then what way is right? The film ends before we get an answer. We know T’Challa goes to the UN to bring Wakanda’s secrets out into the open, but we don’t actually know what he says, or what he plans to do with those secrets. And we definitely don’t know what the world’s reaction will be.
It seems all but certain that Black Panther will have a sequel, and I’m looking forward to it. Maybe they’ll surprise me. Maybe they won’t end with yet another return to the high-octane third act where moral implications are thrown out the window in favor of a big budget climax.
I, for one, wouldn’t mind breaking the cycle. But that might mean it’s time to find a whole new kind of American hero to emulate and worship. So the question is, are we ready for that?
And what does it say about us if the answer is no?
Of course, I hope that answer is yes, in part because I think Black Panther has already shown us a few potential models for new heroes: women like Shuri and Nakia. A scientist and a humanitarian, respectively.
So I’ll be here, waiting for the Marvel movie where black women save the world, one non-violent invention and hard-forged interpersonal connection at a time.
I am 100% ready for that.
Tess Adair is the blogger of the this blog. If you like her work and you think you'd like to read more, her first novel is currently available for pre-order right here.