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Black Panther: Marvel’s Latest Movie Shows Why Institutions Matter

Black Panther: Marvel’s Latest Movie Shows Why Institutions Matter

by Cliff Dunn

First and foremost, this comes with a heavy spoiler alert: Reviewing the messaging in Black Panther is almost impossible to do without revealing plot elements.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I HIGHLY recommend doing so first.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I saw Black Panther on opening night.  Buried in the solid film-making that is by now expected was some of the most artfully-executed messaging I have seen in a long time.  I will say that the messaging was ‘conservative’, but not the ideological sense. It was in the sense from which the term originated, railing against all forms of extremism in general.  The movie offered one of the rare shots I have seen against upstart revolutionaries (the main antagonist very arguably espouses a Maoist outlook) and in favor of stable governance and civil society, with many of the more level-headed characters opposing radical changes to their country’s policies.

Wakanda is, as the trailers have indicated (and as anyone who is familiar with the comics will know), a highly technologically advanced society in Africa which has survived by maintaining a guise of pre-industrial simplicity, with the help of both isolationist policies bordering on autarky and (this being Marvel) projected images of mountains obscuring their main cities.  Beneath this facade is a kingdom which has managed to ‘go its own way’ in a manner not unlike Tokugawa-era Japan – if it had the ability to run maglev trains at the time.

Unfortunately for Wakanda, while their technology is highly advanced, their civil society and system of checks and balances leaves much to be desired, something which becomes fundamental to the movie’s plot: Under Wakandan law and custom, any member of a royal bloodline of any of the five tribes can challenge for the throne by way of a deathmatch, with the winner being rendered an absolute monarch in the vein of Louis XIV.

This system works well enough, presuming that those who might challenge for the throne are of a stable temperament, but, somewhat unsurprisingly, a legal-but-not-stable claimant for the throne turns up in the form of N’Jdaka/Killmonger, born of the royal bloodline but having been raised (and radicalized) in Oakland in the 1990s.  Ideologically he is arguably Maoist (though that term might be lost on most modern moviegoers): his initiative to arm urban guerilla groups is not out of line with the policies of Red China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Neither is his disregard for tradition as soon as he takes power.

The fact that Killmonger is able to both take power and, more importantly, wield it recklessly without serious opposition at first is the starkest bit of messaging in the film: The Wakanda in the film is rich in its own traditions and culture, but lacking any sort of social checks and balances the removal of one king by a legal challenger [1] with no mandate beyond his own brute strength and skill in hand-to-hand combat is met with virtually no resistance while the lack of institutional checks and balances allows him to threaten to turn the country’s foreign policy on its head almost literally overnight.  Those who would object are either removed from power, assaulted, forced to flee, overruled, or are simply ignored, while nobody has the power to tell him “no”.

It would be easy to dismiss such a critique as a shot at Trumpism, but the decision of the writers to make the antagonist an entirely different sort of radical redirects the blow in a broader direction.  By the end of the film, hundreds (if not thousands) are dead as a result of a civil war started not because of an insidious fifth column (such as Hydra in Winter Soldier) or institutions clumsily adapting to a series of crises and failing to sufficiently acquire stakeholder buy-in (such as in Civil War) but because of a complete lack of resilient institutions to begin with.  Those who object to the decisions taken by “the throne” have no venues of appeal against his actions and the only grounds on which any of them ultimately can to take a stand is T’Challa’s improbable survival, resulting in the claim that N’Jdaka’s failure to kill him rendered the challenge for the throne “incomplete” – rather than any claim regarding N’Jdaka’s obvious unfitness for the throne. [2]

An article I once read noted that a Hollywood movie never directly shows the effort it takes to actually build a functioning civil society.  Stepping back from just Black Panther, Marvel may not show what it takes to do so, but in three separate movies the dangers of failed state institutions have manifested on screen in three separate ways.

I have to give Marvel credit: In two of the three cases, they have ensured that their antagonists are reasonably well-represented on the screen (the conflict in Civil War is arguably less cut-and-dried…and less well-executed), which is more than you can usually say for Hollywood.  Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce gave a vision for Hydra that manages to be seductive, alluring, and sincerely presented.  N’Jdaka/Killmonger also shows a sincere desire to help those he sees as oppressed.  In both cases it is clear who the ‘good guys’ are, but efforts are consistently taken to ensure that we aren’t simply being shown cardboard cut-outs to cheer, or to jeer.

Black Panther is a solid action flick, but the subtle parables that Marvel hints at buried within both it and several of the other MCU movies make them stand out from your generic superhero fare and give them a relevance to reality which makes them all the more impressive.


[1] The “royal blood” issue is another interesting question: N’Jdaka was the (apparently illegitimate) son of the brother of the previous king (and thus the grandson of a prior monarch), so the question of degrees of connection to the family did not come up.  How long does such qualification for the throne persist?  For example, in theory could a sixth-degree relative of royal descent with only a tangential connection to Wakanda mount such a challenge?  Such matters are presumably dealt with somewhere in law, but the fact that the throne might be subjected to seizure by an individual invoking no more qualification than physical prowess and one drop of royal blood is, from almost any perspective, disturbing.

[2] In this context, one has to wonder how such a claim would have been received had T’Challa returned weeks or months later due to a delayed recovery (rather than after just a day or two).  The prospect of a Wakandan version of sedevacantism playing out presents all sorts of room for parody or farce.

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