Marvel wants to tell stories about American hegemony but can’t quite bring itself to do so.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” the city of Omelas is perfect for 99.99999999999999 percent of its citizens. There is ample leisure time and an abundance of everything anyone could need. Life is comfortable and good for everyone, not just a privileged few.
But there is one citizen for whom Omelas is a hell: a small child, kept in a basement and endlessly tortured. Le Guin never explains how this arrangement came to be, because her story is intended not as a world-building exercise but as a mirror. Even in the best, most just societies in human history, whole swaths of human beings have been treated horribly in order to create a better society. Every utopia is also a dystopia if you look at it from the right angle, and vice versa.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” stuck in my head as I watched Marvel’s Black Panther, the superhero super-studio’s latest film, which premiered to monster box office and wild critical acclaim. The world of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that is the world’s most technologically advanced but also quite possibly the world’s most secretive, is a bright, gleaming utopia for its citizens, who live in a society where easy access to the metal vibranium means the kind of post-scarcity society that science fiction writers have been dreaming about for decades.
But Black Panther keys in on the darker underbelly of Wakanda in ways that might not be immediately obvious from the gleaming edifices of its capital city. In order to have such lavish prosperity, Wakandans have had to ignore the suffering of black people all over the world, particularly in the United States. They’ve had to sit by and allow the slave trade and colonialism to happen when they might have stopped either via a show of military might or even a more active diplomatic role. And that’s to say nothing of how the country remains a monarchy, where citizens’ happiness is directly dependent on the benevolence of the king.
This skepticism about Wakanda is both Black Panther’s greatest strength and, ultimately, the reason its climactic battle lets down the rest of the movie just a little bit. But it’s also part and parcel of Marvel’s recent slate of movies, which has been interested, more than ever, in the idea that American hegemony and military power maybe isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be — even as every movie seems to conclude with a big shrug. “Well?” the films seem to ask. “What else are you gonna do?”
Marvel’s complicated history with power
In 2015, I wrote about how the first two “phases” (the term Marvel uses for what are effectively “seasons” of its movies, with each new Avengers film serving roughly as a finale to the given phase) of Marvel’s movies were obsessed with rewriting the events of September 11, even as they increasingly seemed skeptical of the response to that attack:
Superhero films are the dominant cinematic force right now. They make money hand over fist, and their releases turn into genuine pop culture events. But we miss their point — we miss the why of them. These films are pop culture’s most sustained response to tragedy. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America turned to superpowered heroes to rewrite that day so that it ended as one where nobody had to die.
Superhero movies, in some ways, aim to turn that day into something out of myth, like the ancients might have recast a real tragedy as an epic tale of heroism. This is one of the ways we process grief — in our tales. And the further we get into the cinematic superhero era — now almost 15 years long — the more explicit these films get about both their real-world impetus and about the way America responded to that tragedy.
They began, as with America’s actual reaction to 9/11, as films about vulnerable individuals finding the strength in themselves to overcome tragedy. Then they became stories about beings and organizations with nearly infinite power that would do whatever necessary to keep the homeland safe. And now, increasingly, they are grappling with the costs of the retribution they’ve doled out, and the security systems they’ve built.
It’s that last sentence that’s key. The deeper Marvel gets into “phase three” — which consists of Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, with four more movies to come in 2018 and 2019 — the more complicated its relationship to power becomes, but only up to a point.
Civil War questions the utility of superheroes when the damage they cause can be so much worse than a villain’s initial attack, while both Ragnarok and Black Panther are interested in the legacy of Western colonialism. Guardians 2 is about how abusive family dynamics play out in larger arenas, and Homecoming is kinda, sorta interested in economic inequality. I would argue every single one of these movies loses its nerve when it comes to truly exploring these thematic questions, but that they’re even interested in asking those questions is a big step up from a lot of superhero cinema.
The very idea of a superhero, someone whose very being is just better than everybody else, carries certain fascistic overtones. After all, in a world with superpowered humans and other creatures, might literally could make right. The best superhero stories, consequently, are aware of this troubling undertone and either examine it or deconstruct it in interesting ways.
Spider-Man, famously, learns that with great power comes great responsibility, that just because you can use your power to do whatever you want, you probably shouldn’t, and the best stories about Wonder Woman are often about how she uses her powers to attempt to inspire humanity to be its best self. (The 2017 film Wonder Woman mostly adheres to this structure, which is why it works even when it shouldn’t.)
In the deconstructionist corner are works like the comic Watchmen or even the Pixar film The Incredibles. The former asks what kind of psychological trauma you’d have to experience to think putting on a costume and beating people up is the way to live your life; the latter flirts with objectivism in its insistence that everybody is special but some people are more special than others. (The Incredibles remains the best superhero movie, but it’s constantly about two adaptation choices away from becoming a straightforward rendition of Atlas Shrugged — for kids!)
Probably the most famous deconstructionist superhero movie is 2008’s The Dark Knight, which earnestly considers all of the above questions and more in a mostly “realistic” Gotham City, where Batman and the Joker duel, in a way that feels eerily prescient in 2018. (The Joker’s “some people just want to watch the world burn” philosophy increasingly feels like one that far too many adhere to.) But Warner Bros., the studio that made that movie, conflated its darkness with its thematic complexity, leading it down a path that culminated in 2017’s bombastically terrible Justice League.
But another superhero movie was a smash hit in 2008: Iron Man, the beginning of Marvel’s entire cinematic universe and a movie about a man who realizes that his power has been used toward evil ends, so he decides to start using it toward good ones. It’s a slightly more morally complex story than that, but only slightly, and it established a template for Marvel going forward: nod toward moral complexity but understand that at the end of the day, the good guys are the protagonists. And if you’re an American, well, you’re one of the good guys. Lucky you.
How Age of Ultron pointed the way forward
The most common criticism of Marvel’s movies is that they have bad villains. And for the most part, they do. The main exception from the first two Marvel phases was Loki, brother of Thor, whose dark-hearted tomfoolery was at least rooted in a believable motivation (sibling rivalry) and was boosted by Tom Hiddleston’s winking, terrific performance. But beyond Loki, it’s a long cycle of crushing, bland figures with vague designs on world domination.
Believe it or not, this is a relatively recent problem for the superhero genre. The long string of Batman movies from 1989 to 2012 were frequently criticized for having villains who outshone the movie’s hero, and for as good as Christopher Reeve’s Superman was, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor was having a lot more fun.
These earlier villains were smartly used to act as foils to particular weak points in their heroes’ constitutions. The Joker is Batman’s chaotic soul, turned toward destructive ends. Lex is what happens when the “American way” Superman claims to stand for (i.e., capitalism) isn’t constrained in some fashion. Even Spider-Man villain Doctor Octopus is mad science run amok — arguably just a mirror image of Peter Parker himself.
The Marvel movies couldn’t really do this, however, because they seemed constantly uncomfortable with dissecting how their heroes, save maybe Captain America, were ultimately a little lacking in terms of moral clarity. They’d feint toward talking about Tony Stark’s role in destabilizing the geopolitical order in every Iron Man movie, but he would also save the day by movie’s end. And in a movie as good as The Avengers — still my favorite Marvel movie — the villains are literally a faceless, invading horde from outer space.
The heroes are the good guys precisely because the villains want only to destroy. It’s not that the villains don’t have a moral ethos; they barely have believable character motivations.
But the further Marvel has gotten from its Iron Man roots, the more comfortable it’s become with the idea that maybe superheroes themselves — and the chaos they cause — are the real villains. Of course, that comfort only extends to a point. Something like the 2014 phase two movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier is interested in the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. has caused more problems globally than it has solved, but it then contorts itself to suggest that this is because the organization has been infiltrated by literal Nazis. (Come to think of it, maybe this was more prophetic than I’m giving it credit for.)
This slowly starts to change with 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the least loved Marvel movies but one of my favorites for its weird, sad grandeur. There, the robotic Ultron, who is literally created by Tony Stark, looks at humanity (and particularly the Avengers) and realizes how badly we’ve messed up the planet. Could anyone argue he has a point? The film’s best scene involves Ultron and the Avenger-aligned but no less alien Vision discussing the fact that humanity will probably just screw everything up, but we’ve gotta let them keep trying anyway.
Ultron ultimately let audiences down because it forgot to let them have their popcorn thrills. But it also pointed the way forward for Marvel, which was going to start seriously questioning its heroes’ plans and power — at least until the third act, when everything would turn into yet another battle between good and evil.
Captain America and Iron Man argued over a superhero registry in Civil War, which Iron Man saw as a worthwhile restraint on power and Captain America saw as the opening move in superhero subordination. The movie mostly forgot it was about this by its midpoint, but the effort still suggested Marvel was at least interested in what it would mean to live in a world with godlike beings who had no real checks on their power. And the movie’s true villain was simply a puppet master, pulling strings to get Captain America and Iron Man to fight, because his life had been destroyed by the Avengers. He was at once a vague metaphor for the victims of American imperialism and for Marvel fanboys who just want to see their favorite heroes beat each other up.
The other movies in Marvel’s third phase have all engaged with the idea of how disquieting unchecked power can be (some more than others), and consequently, the villains have also gotten far better, because you can increasingly see their points. Guardians 2 involves a fight against a villain named Ego (subtle), while it’s easy to side with the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, who wonders why the Avengers get to hoard all of that power while the little guys scrounge for bits and pieces on the ground.
But it’s Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther that are most daring in this regard. Ragnarok is not one of my favorite Marvel movies, and its chief villain, Hela (Cate Blanchett), is ultimately a bit of a letdown. But the movie spends most of its running time questioning whether Asgard itself, Thor’s home and the primary setting of much of the first two Thor movies, is worth preserving. After all, it’s littered with artifacts it took from other realms, and it keeps at least one toe on all of those realms’ necks. We like Thor because we know him, but if we were somebody kept in subjugation by his actions, we might feel very differently.
The movie ends with a bold climax, in which Thor realizes that the only way to save Asgard is to destroy it. The people of Asgard can be good. The ideals of it can still be good, even. But Asgard itself has come to stand for too many horrible things to let it live. As Thor and Loki watch their home burn to the ground, director Taika Waititi successfully retrofits all three Thor films into a story of colonialists learning to live with their own legacies.
Black Panther lets itself down — but only a little bit
Yet all of Marvel’s phase three films and their tentative questioning of the underlying political ethos of the franchise feel like buildup for Black Panther, which in its second act comes very close to completely tearing down the Marvel Cinematic Universe en totale — and making viewers long for such a thing to happen.
The reason once again stems from the villain, Erik Killmonger, played with mesmerizing bravado by Michael B. Jordan. Where the titular character, Wakandan King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is hesitant and uncertain of how to proceed, Killmonger is brash and certain. He’s confident that his plan — to overthrow the existing world order by arming oppressed peoples around the world and bringing every nation to its knees before Wakanda’s might — isn’t just the right one but the sensible one. No matter what horrors Killmonger commits in the process of building his new world order, it’s hard to disagree with him that the current one is hopelessly broken.
On a purely structural level, screenwriters Ryan Coogler (also the film’s director) and Joe Robert Cole have balanced these two characters by giving each what the other most wants. T’Challa lacks certainty and purpose, which Killmonger has by the boatload. But T’Challa has his people’s loyalty, a loving family, and the throne, all of which Killmonger desperately craves. If nothing else, it’s smart screenwriting.
But it’s also key to the movie’s knotty, complicated politics, in which Wakanda is the US, but also isn’t the US, but kind of is, but only in certain ways, while Killmonger stands in for both black revolutionary movements and American imperialism. A CIA agent explicitly says, “He’s one of ours,” of the American-bred and raised Killmonger (who nevertheless has Wakandan heritage), and his plan to arm potential insurgents the world over to destabilize regimes he doesn’t like and then wash his hands of the chaos is vintage American dirty tricks. But it’s not hard to note that his plan is meant to free oppressed black people the world over, to rebuild something centuries of history didn’t just break but actively shattered.
T’Challa’s Wakanda, meanwhile, is taking its first steps onto the world stage, but only tentatively. It has the money and the technology to really make a difference, but it’s also scared into isolationism by its belief that letting others know what it has would only bring them to its borders. If refugees come to Wakanda, one character warns darkly, then all of their problems will come with them. It’s ultimately a misguided comparison, but when Breitbart’s film reviewer compared T’Challa to Donald Trump, you could sort of see where the comparison came from.
This is why the film’s third act rings a bit hollow. Where the second act takes its time unpacking all these messy realities of power and oppression, the third act has to find a way to shove them all into the standard “big battle” ending of many a Marvel movie. It doesn’t help that Coogler, one of the most promising directors of his generation, is still learning the ropes of CGI-enhanced special effects, and it turns many of the battle’s most important beats into a confusing mishmash.
But beyond even that, it’s not wrong to think that these questions can’t be resolved by a battle or a debate or an argument. They are questions so fundamental to the way the world is built that shoving them back into a familiar box is the only way some people can process them.
The movie doesn’t fall apart because Coogler and Cole finally decide that the proper answer to this question is synthesis: Killmonger’s aims but T’Challa’s methods. The movie’s final scene, with T’Challa opening the first Wakandan outreach center in Killmonger’s hometown of Oakland, is a lovely one, but its change is incremental. Wakanda will open its borders, but only a little bit. It will still be the world’s wealthiest, most advanced nation, but it will primarily use those qualities to promote its own sovereignty and greatness.
As a fictional construct, that’s more than wonderful. Wakanda is a fantastical kingdom unlike any other fantastical kingdom, built atop cultural, philosophical, and mythological traditions very far from the Western European ones we’re more familiar with from our fiction. It’s a place American stories have long needed, and one that I hope future films (and maybe even a TV series, please?) explore in much deeper detail.
But as an expression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s politics, it feels like phase three has come so far but also stopped short of truly upending its own status quo. Superhero movies, after all, are rarely about heroes who learn not to exercise their own power, or who use their power to tear down the existing world order. Heroes are always the ones who live within Omelas, comfortable with its contradictions, not those who leave in search of a better life elsewhere.
Perhaps that is inevitable. These are, after all, big-budget movies, created within the American studio system, designed to make as much money as possible. People don’t like to be told their way of life is unsustainable. But Marvel’s movies stand in for the United States in one other, deeply uncomfortable way: They’re interested in questioning themselves and what they stand for, but only to a certain point. Actually doing anything might mean having to change radically, might mean finally understanding all of the things broken inside the bright and shining city.