African/American Aspiration: On “Black Panther” and the Political Philosophy of the MCU

For the first time ever, I watched a movie on preview-screening night. Indeed, only once or twice before have I seen a movie on its opening weekend at all. I prefer to wait until the crowds thin out.

But I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, and Avengers: Infinity War had promised to provide the supreme cinematic spectacle. So, my oldest kids and I have just come back from that. [It was excellent, with a serious moral and socio-political outlook—anti-utilitarian and anti-Malthusian. Tonally, it is a tragicomic marvel.]

On the eve of the full premiere of the latest Avengers, this is the last opportune moment to provide a review of Black Panther, which I should have done weeks ago. It is now the third-highest-grossing movie in domestic box office, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar (in unadjusted dollars). Why has Black Panther done so well?

First, it belongs to the first-rank of the Marvel movies, along with the first and third Thor movies, the first (and now the third) Avengers, the first Guardians of the Galaxy (here I should also mention the last ten minutes of the GotG sequel, the most affecting moments in the 19 movies so far), and the second and third Captain America movies (The Winter Soldier and Civil War). Those last are my favorites, the most dramatically artful, which explains why Infinity War is so good, as the Russo brothers also directed those two.

Among these movies, Black Panther provides the most food for thought, especially with regard to living our common life, so its success makes me hopeful for the possibility of a revival of democratic deliberation. But this would require receiving movies more actively. The passive consumption of movies, even so thoughtful a one as Black Panther, negates the possibility of such drama fostering moral and social good. We should talk about the movies we watch, thinking the issues through, because no one and nothing else can do our thinking for us. And there is no moral or social progress without thoughtfulness.

I will frame this as a response to the always-interesting philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s review of the movie. In “Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of Black Panther” (it is typically arch of Žižek to fly the banner of Strauss here), he begins by noting that people all across the political spectrum like the movie. This, for him, is evidence of the corruption of the work, let’s say it’s status as a culture-industry commodity: “When all sides recognize themselves in the same product, we can be sure that the product in question is ideology at its purest—a kind of empty vessel containing antagonistic elements.”

This is incorrect. Ideology is the obscuring of reality to serve the interests of power. It seems to me a social-realist delusion to want to eliminate hermeneutical ambiguity and amplitude from a work of art. A Lacanian, even a Leninist Lacanian, should know better. (Or not: how much ambiguity do the master narratives of psychotherapy allow?)

Now, one could possibly attribute the wide and contradictory range of favorable political response to intellectual vacuity, but a political film cannot be gainsaid by citing its opening a door to the reconciliation of antagonisms. Rather, it’s a prima facie indication of a film’s political authenticity. If one will represent the political truly, non-ideologically, two things must always be safeguarded: the insuperability of political conflict and an urgent orientation towards universal reconciliation.

What must be in question, rather, is our, the viewers’, ideological commitments. Are we open enough to reality to let whatever is honestly presented of reality in a film to come at us? So, there are two things with regard to the reception of a movie: we must actively think, and we must do so intentionally trying to allow the movie to dislocate our own ideological commitments.

Žižek takes offense that this movie coopts the “Black Panther” brand from the black power organization founded in the late sixties. There can be no question that the movie is doing this, most clearly evidenced in situating crucial scenes in Oakland, California. I think this a good thing.

The point of the film is not to promote black quiescence or salve the guilt of white insouciance. Rather, it would kindle aspiration in the souls of black folk, as well as in each American soul as such. And it is this remarkable balance that most particularly makes me respect this film. Without pretending a homogenous American soul, it cultivates universal aspiration. There is a preferential concern for the black community, as there ought to be, but it makes this concern American as such.

The movie rejects the nihilism of civil and race war as a solution to the real problems of black social existence. Not having any Leninist hankerings, and not sympathetic to contemporary militia delusions of the right to revolt, I think this exactly the opposite of ideology.

Erik Killmonger is the best MCU villain (with the half-exception of Loki). The danger of superhero movies is to feed into a viewer’s egoistic fantasy of being the hero against indistinct enemies who have uncomplicated malice as their motive. The promise of superhero movies is to make us want to be more, to be great for the sake of the defense of the weaker. Essential to making the promise blossom is to have enemies who are complex, who have accessible motives, motives that we can judge to be wrong while being worth thinking through.

Killmonger is very well motivated—in his childhood trauma, in his sense of responsibility for his race. But, in the end, his solution is the solution of a traumatized person trapped in his trauma, the solution of a victim who remains a victim: to negate. It is telling that Žižek characterizes Killmonger’s goal in the following way: “Erik advocates a militant global solidarity.” That’s an ideological misrepresentation of what Killmonger explicitly details: he wants to employ the War Dogs and advanced technology of Wakanda to foment a global race war and secure black supremacy. That’s the opposite of solidarity. It’s simply the internalization and inversion of the master’s narrative. And it is, ironically, a typically narcissistic, indeed imperialist, pseudo-American project.

But Killmonger is Žižek’s hero, and here Žižek’s mysticism of the act, of the silver bullet, does not serve him well. It favors nihilism. Killmonger orders the destruction of the source of charismatic leadership, the plant that enables the Black Panther to protect his people (“Burn it all!”), then leads that people into civil war: his pain has led him to nihilism. He’s not building for a future. Everything culminates and ends with him. He is Hegel’s Absolute in full cunning.

Žižek isn’t moved by the alternative pursued by the true hero: “Meanwhile T’Challa is slowly moving away from the traditional isolationism of ‘Wakanda first!’ to a gradual and peaceful globalism that would act within the coordinates of the existing world order and its institutions, spreading education and technological help—and simultaneously maintain the unique Wakandan culture and way of life.”

(Of course, this is why those who would somehow see the movie as justification for Trump’s odious immigration policies are precisely refuted by the movie. That said, T’Challa IS a patriot. And that’s just right: a patriot who wants to serve the global common good as well. And here it’s worth observing the value of our hero's being a king—and I am the opposite of a monarchist. If we identify with this hero, we have to identify with his responsibility for his people. We have to feel the common good as the impulse at the heart of heroism.)

This is the right vision to have: a patriotic and universalist humanism that makes a preferential option for the weakest. It’s what the Black Panther Party could have been before indulging its militia pretensions. (This is, by the way, what the pro-life movement is meant to be in its truth.)

Žižek thinks that our hero is playing footsie with malign forces of globalization. He makes much that CIA Agent Ross is a good guy in the movie (he doesn’t seem to relish the fun of Bilbo and Gollum doing an interrogation scene together!): “That T’Challa opens up to ‘good’ globalization but is also supported by its repressive embodiment, the CIA, demonstrates that there is no real tension between the two...”

Here I will grant that Žižek has something, but it’s confused. The fact is that we are not led to trust the CIA or America’s spy power or bureacracies in the MCU. The narrative arc in The Winter Soldier and Civil War settles that.

The tragedy of Captain America: Civil War is that there is no good solution. [I am not the only one for whom Captain America is the favorite MCU character. He embodies the best of the American soul: a common man’s desire to do right, and revulsion at basic injustice (truth, justice, and the American way, and all that), who takes the dignity of each individual in full earnestness—against all utilitarianism: a Kantian warrior.] On the one hand, it is essential to order power (including the superpowers of heroes) under processes of democratic deliberation. There must be accountability. On the other hand, based on the events of The Winter Soldier, Captain America correctly understands that no elite organization can be trusted—not the spy agencies or bureaucrats of the United States, and not the United Nations. (Indeed, one could see an enactment of American liberalism—epitomized in the Madisonian machinery of the Constitution— in leaving the Avengers free to counterbalance crony capitalist and elitist mega-organizations.)

T’Challa is introduced in Civil War, and he is on the side of bringing the Avengers to heel under UN power. And this is indeed a mistake. Why would any African leader trust international organizations to this extent? But the MCU movies have given us the tools to demystify the organizations of the global elite. T’Challa still has to learn more about the global power dynamics he is leading his people into. (Though perhaps Thanos renders all of this jejune...)

In misunderstanding the final, tragic, tableau featuring Killmonger and T’Challa, Žižek gathers his misconceptions together: “…[Killmonger] prefers to die free than to be healed and survive in the false abundance of Wakanda.” Killmonger faces imprisonment for fomenting civil war, though also within the ambit of a real, and gratuitous, offer of reconciliation. In refusing a future, he evokes his ancestors in the floating concentration camps of the Middle Passage: “Bury me in the ocean where my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” Of course, most of them couldn’t jump—chained, anti-suicide measures in place to protect the “investment.” (And the ones who were successful in escaping from the sheer terror were not making a grand ideological statement: they were trying to return home, somehow, even if death had to be traversed.) What most of the great American race of black folk did was endure, under unimaginable horror, within a night of immeasurable intensity and extent. And in their rising, and in our earnest common pursuit of the preferential option for the victims (joined to a passion for universal reconciliation), we might all rise: Africa, America, the world.