James Bond is a power fantasy born out of a shattered empire. Bond reimagines the UK as a silent protector, tending to and protecting a world it had to reluctantly let go of in the wake of two World Wars and the resulting change. Only the age-old wisdom, superior knowledge, and ahead-of-its-time technology of this noble country, and only its gentlemen warriors, can save the world from shadowy organizations and madmen bent on domination and destruction. It leads to some legitimately awesome stories, stunts, and other cool things, most of which I absolutely love, but it’s also impossible to escape from the fact that it’s also the egotistical death throes of a nation unwilling to let go of its imperialistic past. If they can’t rule directly, then God and Queen will maintain the order and propriety only they understands.
Black Panther is exactly that, except on its flip side. Wakanda is the empire that never existed, either in reality or its own fictional universe. The nation has the means to spread out and impose its will upon the world, and said will may make Earth a better place, but its leadership opts to stay in the shadows and protect its own people from colonialist threats. Wakanda is a country with all the cool toys– be they hyper-technology or nigh-mystical plants born out of the Vibranium that lies beneath the land. The nation even does Bond one better, in that its cloak and dagger savior doesn’t merely serve royalty– Black Panther is king. T’Challa and his predecessors use all of their country’s advancements to ensure that what they consider to be their rightful place in the world– that of seclusion and internal peace rather than expansion and protection– is maintained. Spies lurk in every corner of the world, reporting back on potential threats, and when need be, Black Panther and his elite cadre of warriors quickly strike and return to the shadows, never allowing their existence to be felt beyond solving a problem no one ever knows existed in the first place.
It’s the same sort of power fantasy as 007, except rather than grasping at straws that never should have been owned in the first place, it’s looking to a possibility where such power could have been used for far more noble and humane interests. That’s awesome.
At the same time, Black Panther grapples with the inherent problems of this fantasy. In seeking to only protect its own people, the leadership of Wakanda has neglected the rest of Africa. While we see Black Panther assist in rescuing kidnapped women from a Boko Haram-like group, Wakanda has neglected to do much in the preceding centuries as slavery and colonialism tore apart their neighbors. While it’s noble to protect one’s own people, what sort of people are you if you intentionally ignore the plight of the others around you, especially when you have the means to solve those problems?
It’s that very issue that births the movie’s “villain,” Killmonger. His father was one of those Wakandan spies sent to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. In the wake of the racial tensions of that era, he looked to take a more active role in helping the black community in America, and in the process he betrayed his country to the very colonial forces he was sworn to work against. In the process, the boy who would become Killmonger is left without a father and abandoned by his people, since his being the son of the king’s brother would mess up the royal lineage if he were brought back to Wakanda. That boy’s young life was essentially sacrificed for what was seen as the betterment of the country as a whole, exactly like the well-being of Africa as a whole was cast aside in centuries past. This leads him to become the very sort of monster Wakanda fears– a military force bent on dragging the country into the greater world community, whether it likes it or not.
The thing is, Killmonger is right. His means to achieve his goal are gross and villainous, since he’s not above killing those in his way and he seeks to start an outright violent revolution that feels more like a terrorist plot at times, but he’s right in that Wakanda can no longer exist behind its cloaked shield and pretend it isn’t a part of the world. Relative inaction only allows for those forces that do choose to act to impose their will on the world, and in knowing you could have made a difference, standing by makes you complicit in those crimes.
James Bond rarely questions his place in the world, but in his first outing, Black Panther does just that. This sort of thing can still be an awesome fantasy with armored rhino mounts, super car chase sequences, and pulpy mano-a-mano fights while still calling into question that fantasy’s place in the world. Why can’t the fantastical also seek to make the world better, not just for the fantasy, but for everything else around it? Bond just serves Queen and Country, but despite being king of Wakanda, in the end Black Panther chooses to serve the world.
That’s rad. But it would have been even more rad had they gone all out and have dinosaurs in Wakanda. The rhinos are cool, but dinosaurs would be cooler.
It isn’t as cool as the African dinosaurs that totally need to be in Black Panther 2, but it’d still be pretty awesome if you checked out my Patreon. If you dig all this, bribing me makes me do even more.