If Superman were black, would the narrative be different? Like President Obama trying to get things done against a hostile senate, would Superman face resistance and conspiracy theories from Donald Trump, if he were from an inner-city African-American community? Would he still be seen as protector of the people, or threat? These were question I discussed with a friend following this movie, Black Panther, after watching how for over two hours a superhero movie with African/African-American characters tried awkwardly not to make white mainstream society feel uncomfortable about itself, where the only references to injustice and slavery come from the villain. In line with the film's inoffensive message, the film's revolutionary, militant nemesis comes to a bad end, while the liberal hero buys a community centre for inner-city teens. The teens themselves are impressed by the bling of his space ship.
Black Panther is a strange superhero movie, where the values the hero fights for, of monarchy and ignoring black oppression beyond his privileged borders, leave you ever so slightly underwhelmed. Given the treatment of black identities, I'm conscious of avoiding any more criticism of this superhero film than any other, but it needs to be said that since superheroes are essentially vigilantes, the dynamics of a vigilante from a disempowered, highly politicized ethnic minority in turn throws up startling, awkward issues that this mainstream movie lacks the courage to address. Perhaps a black Batman could never be, given his enemies wouldn't be aliens or robots but the systematic racism that a white-majority country pretends not to contain, including a violent police force and prejudicial justice system. To have a black Batman fighting back against police brutality would be to expose too much of what we don't want to acknowledge about the failings of our institutions and ourselves as enlightened Western white people. Or in the words of the Manic Street Preachers: If White America Told the Truth For One Day, Its World Would Fall Apart.
At first it felt like a coincidence that Black Panther isn't based in America but in Africa. Removed from problematic domestic issues concerning black oppression in the US, we're given a pan-African, space-age utopia, hidden magically in the heart of Africa. But this brings us to an awkward second whitewash; this super-advanced kingdom has been there for millennia, so evidently did nothing to stop the holocaust of slavery or the European powers from the rape of Africa, never mind the Western-supported military dictatorships and post-colonial exploitation by global corporations. It was not their fight, the Wakandans seem to claim, despite their city architecture reflecting pan-African identity. Wakanda is both an African ideal while looking after its own, and no other.
Other, more conventional tropes and premises don't help. Like the background to the Thor franchise, the hero of Wakanda is King, and therefore hero by privilege of his parents. The ceremony, involving hand-to-hand combat with any man who objects, is based on violence and raw physical power, the kind which never seems to make an impact. At one point the hero is head-butted repeatedly in the face. His nose becomes slightly bloodied. Like so many superhero movies, the final battle between two strong men is already tediously patriarchal, while frequently descending into a blur of CGI that's difficult to follow.This is not to say that Black Panther has no merits. There are strong secondary female characters who are sassy, confident and strong – though not strong enough to match the villain, who can only be bested in the final fight scene by the man. The soundtrack is an attractive mix of hip hop and African sounds, while the architectural vision of the fantasy State of Wakanda is uplifting, a gaze at a future Africa of prosperity and comfort. But what Black Panther underscores is how superhero movies only work as comfort food, of our enlightened Western citadels as something worth fighting for. If we were to have superheroes who question that, the whole edifice of superhero films would fall apart, or at the very least, turn into something far edgier and disturbing.