Spoilers for Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, if you care about that sort of thing.
It’s been about a week now since I watched Black Panther. The movie was great, possibly my favorite MCU film second only to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which, as you might recall, I liked quite a bit). In the time since I watched it, I’ve been keeping an eye out for interesting articles and tweets. I’ve read up on the costuming, the cast… I’ve even researched some apparent plot holes, all of which confirm to me that Black Panther really is that good.
I also found this:
Now, it turns out that the original Amazon review was some sort of gag, but the tweet did get me thinking again about Thor: Ragnarok. The more I thought about the two films together, the more I saw a pretty strong connection between them. I mean, most superhero movies have quite a bit in common, but let me describe the plot of one of these films. You guess which one I mean:
“After the death of his father, a young prince must defend his home (an isolated technological wonderland) from an invading usurper to the throne, a mysterious and terrifying individual with an uncanny knack for warfare, a blood-relationship with our protagonist, and a serious grudge against the dead king stemming from the king’s dark and secret past.”
Yeah. More than a couple similarities.
Truthfully, though, I’m less interested in the similarities between the films than I am in the differences. To begin, I’ll attempt to summarize the twists of the two movies as best I can. Bear in mind that I’ve only seen these films once apiece, so there may be some minor details I get wrong.
In Thor: Ragnarok, we learn that, before he became the benevolent ruler of the Nine Realms, Odin employed the violent skills of his oldest child, Hela, to ruthlessly wage war and accumulate wealth and power. Because he feared her (and possibly because he was ashamed?), Odin had Hela sealed away. She returns and seeks to conquer Asgard almost immediately after Odin’s death.
In Black Panther, T’Challa’s father T’Chaka visited the United States on a mission to find his own brother. Upon learning that his brother planned to violate Wakanda’s isolationist policy by selling their futuristic weaponry, T’Chaka killed his brother and left a child (T’Chaka’s nephew and T’Challa’s cousin) to be raised an orphan. This child grew up to become the villainous Killmonger, who attacks Wakanda in order to secure weapons for a worldwide race war.
One of the first things that struck me about these stories is how they manage to explain, to some extent, the racial makeup of both our fantastical settings. The Asgard of the Thor movies was a colonizing empire, a fact that would almost certainly create more genetic diversity. Conversely, Wakanda adopted a strict isolationist policy early in its existence, likely well before European nations came in contact with Africa.
Thus, it is entirely plausible and, in fact, expected that Asgard in the MCU would have black people, while Wakanda wouldn’t have any white people. Racists can now shut up forever.
As fun as it is to find handwavy continuity excuses, I wanna go deeper. I think there’s something a lot more interesting going on with the histories of these two fictional countries. In addition to being wild, colorful technological pseudo-paradises, both countries have some pretty awful secrets lurking in their histories. Both movies use their respective villains (Hela and Killmonger) to embody these dark histories, but, beyond that, these movies explore how a country copes with its troubled past in very different ways.
By the end of Thor: Ragnarok – the same movie in which we learn about Asgard’s history of horrifying warfare – the entire nation is destroyed, and its citizens are cast to the stars in search of a new place to call home. The message here appears to be that a country with a history as violent as Asgard’s does not deserve to exist. While there’s a part of me that appreciates the idea that karma functions on such a global scale, I consider the somewhat shameful past of my own country and find myself hoping that there’s a better way than utter annihilation.
Ultimately, I don’t think Ragnarok is interested in dealing with the repercussions of Asgard’s history. It is, after all, a Thor movie, and it’s therefore more concerned with getting Thor from point A to point B along his hero’s journey. But this is the first major difference between Ragnarok and Black Panther. The main character of Thor: Ragnarok is, unsurprisingly, Thor. The protagonist of Black Panther, on the other hand, is the nation of Wakanda itself.
True, the Black Panther performs most of the significant actions, but while Thor is very much the comedic action hero, T’Challa is, in all things, the king of Wakanda. Although T’Challa grows and changes, as most good film characters do, his journey is nothing next to the seismic paradigm shift that the country of Wakanda goes through. Wakanda starts as a reclusive (dare I say selfish?) utopia, but it ends a neighbor and citizen-state of the world.
Early on in the film, T’Challa visits some sort of ghost world to commune with his father and the other past kings of Wakanda. During this meeting, T’Chaka tells T’Challa that “it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” Indeed, by the end of the film, we learn that King T’Chaka likely no longer considered himself a “good man” by the end of his reign. He sacrificed much – his integrity, his honesty, even his own brother – in the name of preserving Wakanda’s much-treasured secrecy. T’Chaka represents the nation’s history, and his violent crime represents the very real pain inflicted by an individual (or, indeed, a nation) that can help but chooses not to. As the new king, T’Challa commits himself to protecting Wakanda by continuing the isolationist tradition, although he does not yet recognize how destructive this tradition has been.
When set against a young king committed to keeping the secrets of his country safe from outsiders, Killmonger becomes a far more interesting villain. His main goal is to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to arm struggling communities so that they can conquer in the name of Wakanda. It’s tempting to dismiss Killmonger as just another megalomaniacal cartoon-book supervillain. The trouble is, though, the narrative refuses to portray Killmonger as entirely villainous. In fact, the narrative appears to side with Killmonger, allowing him to repeatedly chastise the leaders of Wakanda for keeping to itself while so many fellow Africans suffered.
Killmonger’s radical philosophy of “helping those less fortunate” has another ally: Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Rather than adhere to Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies, Nakia chose to work covertly, rendering aid and comfort in war-torn, struggling areas. This decision drives a wedge between her and T’Challa – as long as he chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps, they cannot be together. The audience sympathizes with Nakia… which means, to some extent, we sympathize with Killmonger, too.
At the end of the movie, T’Challa abandons his father’s path, and it is implied that Killmonger is part of what persuaded him. Wakanda ends its isolationism and opens a series of outreach centers throughout the world, including one in the same neighborhood where Killmonger was born and raised. The new Wakandan way resembles Killmonger’s scheme, except with fewer laser guns. Although the villain dies… he also kinda wins? And it’s a happy ending?
Moral ambiguity is delicious to us former English majors.
Wakanda is still a beautiful, vibrant country, but it is far from perfect. In fact, it has some flaws that run deep and go back, possibly centuries. Wakanda’s past does not invalidate the culture’s right to exist, as did Asgard’s; rather, Wakanda recognizes its obligation to atone for the past. Wakanda atones by doing what all of us with means should do, and what it should have been doing all along. Wakanda chooses to help its neighbors.
The story of Ragnarok seems to be one of national comeuppance – cathartic, maybe, but ultimately a bit limited. Black Panther, on the other hand, is about national repentance. And that’s something that every country could stand to consider more seriously.