justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
[personal profile] justira posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Hello friends I have a quiz for you! A quiz full of spoilers! And more spoilers after that! So if you haven't seen Black Panther yet, fix your life and go do that.

Now then! Which Marvel movie does this describe:

Advanced technology is available to the Protagonist. There is debate over whether that technology should be shared or not. Due to events/policies having to do with Protagonist's father, that technology did get in the hands of people who should not have it. The Protagonist undertakes a vigilante mission to ameliorate this situation. An Antagonist with a connection to Protagonist's father reveals that he has his own plan for that technology, to be distributed under his terms. Antagonist takes away Protagonist's tech and leaves him for dead, claiming the tech for himself. Antagonist gets his own power suit based on that tech. Protagonist, not dead after all, is saved by a male ally he's had a rocky but respectful relationship with who could have claimed that technology himself. Protagonist and female ally/allies confront Antagonist, and Protagonist and Antagonist have a fight, both in suits based on that tech. Protagonist wins, and later holds a press conference at the end of which is a big reveal about... wait, is it that the protagonist is the one inside the suit or that the protagonist's country has possessed this technology all along?

Yeah. I love it.

So the thing is, structurally, in terms of story beats, Iron Man and Black Panther are built very similarly: in the broadest strokes they are concerned about some of the same themes, and their stories are built to support exploring things like paternal legacy and the distribution of resources and of responsibility.

But they are very, very different movies, and the ways in which Black Panther excels shine the brightest when put alongside this predecessor. This is a far superior movie, and it is superior because it is so different.

One such difference is in the villains; superheroes are often judged and defined by their rogues' gallery, and Black Panther delivers the most compelling, well-rounded, and sympathetic villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and I'll circle back later to how Black Panther is still very much a superhero movie). While both movies concern themselves with sons' relationships with their fathers and tie the antagonists to that theme, Killmonger and Iron Monger could not be more different in motivation and character build. Obadiah Stane, the Iron Monger, is both a product of American militarization and white aggression in general, and a perpetrator and enabler of the same. Meanwhile, having been shaped by whites' ethnic violence, Erik Lehnsherr— err, Erik Killmonger is also both a victim and participant in American militarization. Dang, it's almost like Black Panther is in conversation with the entire genre of superhero media or something? What was I saying? Oh yes. American militarization— but in diametrically opposing ways. Obadiah profits off the United States' aggressive military actions outside its borders, while Erik has been shaped by the way America has turned its militarization inwards, against its own citizens. While they both want to arm people who destabilize governments, Obadiah's goal is profit, while Erik's is bloody revolution. Obadiah starts sharing Stark tech outside the US illicitly, then wants to gather that power to himself. Erik starts by claiming Wakanda's technology — and T'Challa's abilities in particular — for himself, and then attempts to share it illicitly — or at least without buy-in from the agents and political leaders — outside Wakanda's borders. While Killmonger and Iron Monger share many characteristics, down to their very similar names (come on, look at this nonsense), they are ultimately very different villains in how their respective flms treat their past, their ideology, and their place in the emotional mindmap that connects them to their protagonists and to the audience's hearts.

But while Erik Killmonger's rhetoric and motivations are infinitely more sympathetic, there are two things that define him as firmly a villain after all: his intent to flip the script of imperialism rather than dismantling it, and how he treats women; what place he sees for Black women in his new world order (hat tip: this fantastic twitter thread). This is a difference that separates not just the two films' villains, but their heroes as well. Tony Stark, in the first part of his film, treats women as disposable sex objects; not even Pepper is treated as a whole person. And while Tony does experience some consequences for how poorly he treats the women around him, in his first film he is never shown experiencing a true moment of reckoning for his misogyny. In Black Panther, however, women shape and define the movie and its moral message, and it is, in the end, how Killmonger and T'Challa treat women — the Black women around them — that truly distinguishes them. T'Challa is always shown respecting the women around him: mother, sister, love interest, warriors, political leaders; all are treated as whole people by both the movie and its protagonist. And however compelling Erik Killmonger's rhetoric is, what sets him apart, and one part of his philosophy that T'Challa does not adopt at the end of the film, is how he treats the women around him. In fact, it can be argued that Killmonger's true adversary is not T'Challa, but a woman: Nakia.

Or, an argument I find even more compelling (but do check out that tumblr post): Killmonger's problem is that he wants to be all things; he seeks not to share but to control.

But sharing — sharing resources, sharing responsibilities, sharing blame — lies at the heart of both movies, and Black Panther handles this theme more deftly, more fully, and in more depth. How everything is distributed matters very much in both films, but while there are the obvious parallels between Stark tech and vibranium, what I want to look at more closely for a moment is the distribution of character resources. In Iron Man, Tony Stark is all things: he is the scientist and the inventor, the CEO and the soldier; all the characters in the movie orient themselves around him and he is the source of the McGuffin technology that provides the story's material conflict. In Black Panther, T'Challa may be the king, but the chief scientist is his sister Shuri, the chief strategist is Nakia, the chief fighter is Okoye, and even the rule of the country is shown to incorporate leaders from all the tribes. When Obadiah Stane deposes Tony from his own company, it happens offscreen; we don't even see it, because those people are not important or relevant. They aren't Tony. But when Killmonger takes over Wakanda, we see the tribal leaders and their reactions, because they matter; because they share in the power and the resources. It's their movie, too.

This emphasis not just on sharing the spotlight, on communal responsibility and communal action, is one of the ways Black Panther departs from the modern superhero narrative and has led some to call it not truly a superhero film. But I think this comparison with Iron Man is instructive: Black Panther is a master class in using the superhero-narrative template and using it to both subvert and explore. Classically, the superhero is a single (white, male) person with extraordinary abilities (natural or supernatural) who eschews the established systems of governance, law, and punishment because they perceive those as corrupt, ineffective, or both, generally in the service of addressing a social anxiety of the time and embodying a social ideal of the time. They take the law into their own hands either because they feel an obligation born from extraordinary ability and/or an emotionally charged frustration with the established system. T'Challa is both and neither; Killmonger is both, and all, and none. It is easy to see these themes writ in the very bones of both of these characters. T'Challa is the system and the authority and is also gifted with extraordinary abilities; he is confined by the very power he wields. (Hat tip to my partner for the previous several sentences' points and phrasing.) This movie is in deep, deep conversation with superhero narratives as a genre, going back to the roots superhero stories: examining the role of power and its distribution on the world stage, both political and personal, and the relationship between the superhero and the state. Again, Iron Man is relevant, as Tony Stark's relationship with the state remains a focus throughout his narrative arcs in all his films.

So what do we say about superheroes? One thing is: "With great power comes great responsibility." But what shape does that responsibility take? Black Panther's biggest departure from the modern superhero narrative is how it eschews the white saviour trope and even the idea of a single superpowerful person — man,we all know it's a white man — being able to fix the world's problems. Black Panther shows that not only is the world better served by communal interest, by sharing power and sharing resources, but that responsibility is shared, also. Killmonger rightly points out that Wakanda’s isolationist policies have hurt Black people throughout history. T’Challa says at one point that he cannot speak for past kings — and he cannot, but he does actively try to fix what previous kings broke.

T'Challa cannot take the blame, but he can shoulder the responsibility. The inability to make this distinction is a driving force behind white guilt, and it is a distinction that Tony Stark is particularly bad at making. This, to me, is the biggest difference between the protagonists of Iron Man and Black Panther. In two movies that examine the effects of technology and power, of parental legacies and national policies, Black Panther does what Iron Man does not: it engages in not only a dialogue but a dialectic with its antagonist — because only Black Panther's villain can support that weight. As T'Challa inherits T'Chaka's isolationist policies, is presented by Nakia with a different path and eventually confronted by Killmonger and his ideals, and eventually emerges with a new direction for himself and for Wakanda, we see the dialectic process play out. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. Killmonger and T'Challa both learn from their enemies: Killmonger from the colonialist forces that shaped him, and T'Challa, in turn, from Killmonger himself. But Killmonger didn't want to change the rules; he just wanted to change who was on top. T'Challa incorporates all the good he can take from Killmonger into a new way forward, accepting responsibility for past wrongs without remaining bogged down by blame and guilt as Tony Stark does.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has never shied away from being political, but Iron Man played it safe. Black Panther does not. This movie takes the risks that Iron Man didn't — risks that should not even be called risks but instead sensible choices, sensibilities. Black Panther stands where it belongs: head and shoulders above movies that are similar in structure and topic. Iron Man defined the modern Marvel approach to movies; Black Panther redefines the genre and its place in political discourse.

Iron Man changed the modern media landscape. Black Panther should, too. I hope Hollywood is paying attention.

Okay that's enough from this particular white person. Let's have some links and recs! (Including linking the ones used in my post.) Note: When linking to tumblr I will reblog posts and link to them on my own blog to prevent link rot, but my tumblr theme credits the original poster and the place I reblogged from.

On Black Panther's stunning box office numbers:
Linkspam posts from which I drew some of the resources for this one:
Let's talk about Killmonger some more!
Miscellaneous stuff I loved!

Share your thoughts! Link to recs! Thanks for reading! =D

Date: 2018-04-14 07:55 am (UTC)
peoriapeoriawhereart: blond and brunet men peer intently (Napoleon & Illya peer)
From: [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart
Black Panther was treated with the seriousness that certainly the Iron Man movies did not get. For me it was alongside Captain America:The Winter Soldier but with more glee and hope. It delivered serious questions and I look forward to T'Challa wrestling with the questions of how to both uplift people outside Wakanda and yet protect vibranium from getting into hands that would use it as weapons not tools.

In addition to T'Challa respecting women, the movie does too. The love interest angles to Nakia and Okoye expand on their personalities and convictions, not diminish them. Seeing that on the screen was powerful.

I mentioned serious, and that includes the way humor is used as humanity. Whether that's Shuri and T'Challa laying down being siblings, Shuri establishing her memecred or a certain rhino pointing out the history this particular animal has with someone never meant to be an enemy, it lets us feel this displayed world is real, that it is wider and deeper than the camera can show.


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