For the second week in a row the most popular movie in the land is Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the latest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of superhero films. The film has been lauded in many places, and sneered at in others, for its presentation of an African utopia in the form of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation on Marvel Earth, and its larger questioning of the obligation of the rich and powerful to intervene against injustice outside their borders. The more I think of it, the less some aspects of the film make sense. To preserve its independence, Wakanda keeps its advanced culture, all dependent on the miracle element vibranium, secret from the outside world, and it refuses to intervene in world affairs. According to the film's backstory, this starts to change only in the 1990s, when a Wakandan spy stationed in Oakland CA is radicalized by police brutality against black Americans. In other words, since we're told that Wakanda has had spies everywhere for centuries, when Wakandan spies presumably saw plantation slavery develop in the American colonies centuries earlier, they were not radicalized. When European imperialists overran Africa during the 19th century, they were not radicalized. When they saw the strange fruit of lynch law in the Jim Crow south, Wakandans did nothing. But Rodney King, presumably, finally was more than one Wakandan could stand. That seems a bit like tunnel vision, according to which police brutality is the worst thing ever to happen to black people, to judge by Wakanda's still-slow response, because that's what's happening to black people today. It's unlikely that Coogler or his co-writer thought seriously about how this might looks to anyone with a sense of history, just as, while writing a comic book movie, they most likely didn't think of the implicit politics of their Afro-futurist utopia.
Wakanda, as most Americans know by now, is a monarchy, "Black Panther" being one of the ruler's titles. The ruler consults with the elders of the nation's constituent tribes, but the film gives no indication that ordinary Wakandans have any voice in their government. We see no legislature or prime minister, and for that matter we see no news media commenting on the recent transition of power, which involved a trial by combat at a sacred waterfall. One might answer that Wakanda is as much a fantasy land as Asgard, to restrict ourselves to the Marvel universe, and no one expects to see representative government in the latter place. Yet it is strange that at a time when the American media and the liberal culture in general appears hypersensitive to any manifestation of authoritarianism, there's little questioning of how relevant the monarchic principle is to the Wakandan utopia and pop culture's celebration of it. Is there a longing for Wakanda that is also a longing for kingship? Does the movie's uncritical attitude toward monarchy reflect a black (if not a wider) dissatisfaction with a democracy that succumbs too easily to majoritarian prejudice for the comfort of any minority? Something like that is there, I think, but we probably shouldn't overestimate it. To begin with, the superhero fantasy in general has a problematic relationship with the idea of the rule of law, which is why Christopher Nolan's Batman films were dubbed "fascist" by some who took them too seriously, so there's nothing necessarily essentially racial about Black Panther's inferred authoritarianism. Secondly, Wakanda's monarchy and its adherence to sometimes barbaric traditions can be seen simply as ways to establish its fantastical otherness. For the purposes of genre fiction, to be a Wakandan can't be the same as being the archetypal self-defining individual of liberal culture, or else what's the point of Wakanda? That's the ultimate question: is there a point to Wakanda apart from having a film full of black people that will be seen mostly by whites because to them it's a superhero movie first and foremost? The fact that pop culture has made such a big deal about it suggests that there are more points than that, and if our culture teaches us anything, it's that anyone today can find or make a point about anything. Time will tell how sharp any point becomes and whether any of us prick our thin and sensitive skins on it.