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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Black Panther review

(Note: mild spoilers in what follows. There is nothing that people who are interested in Black Panther won't already know.)

First, I completely enjoyed Black Panther. I thought it had almost the look and feel of a Star Wars movie - rather than a typical superhero movie - with its depiction of dynastic struggle, shaky and shifting alliances, and advanced weaponry and transportation, all set mainly in a series of vast, visually stunning landscapes and high-technology cityscapes.

The evident theme, as so often in science fiction movies and superhero movies, relates to the use of power - in this case technological power - whether to protect yourself, to help others, or to overcome and oppress others. The latter might be motivated by personal ambition or by political zealotry.

Science fiction and related genres return to this again and again. Indeed, the justifiable and unjustifiable uses of great power provide the key theme of these genres. That is so all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's as true of the work of H.G. Wells as the work of E.E. "Doc" Smith.

For X-Men fans, the main antagonists of Black Panther had something of a Xavier-versus-Magneto vibe in what they, respectively, sought to do with the extraordinary power available to them. At all times, they acted against a familiar background of ongoing injustice on a very large scale.

(All X-Men fans know that Xavier and Magneto are themselves often interpreted, with just a touch of revisionism, as analogues for someone like Martin Luther King vs someone more radical like Malcolm X ... or the Black Panthers if it comes to that. Note, however, that the Black Panther Party came into existence some three years after the creation of the X-Men, and a few months after the creation of the Black Panther as a Marvel character. Its founders were inspired by, among things, the writings of Malcolm X.)

T'Challa, the Black Panther, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in mid-1966, and there was some controversy at the time. It was a big deal, back then, for Marvel to create a black superhero. It made a strong political statement in the circumstances of the mid-60s, though some questioned why he had to be an African king, not a more grounded African American character, such as the later Luke Cage (who dates from the 1970s).

Similar questions will doubtless be raised this time, and they'll merit discussion. Meanwhile, Black Panther is an interesting and spectacular movie with large, perennial, themes about power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry, themes that inevitably speak of, and to - even as they are by no means confined to - American race relations.

What do I mean by that? In current circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, any production from Hollywood that deals with the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and political zealotry will be open to interpretation as at least allegorizing American race relations, and as addressing them in some way. Race need not be thematically explicit, as it is in Black Panther. Thus, the mutants of the X-Men mythos, including the current TV show The Gifted, are, in part, stand-ins for persecuted people of colour.

At the same time, the themes of power, large-scale injustice, and resulting political zealotry are not confined to racial issues. It follows that a movie such as Black Panther can reference specifically racial issues, yet have a resonance far beyond those issues. It thus connects with the rich legacy of narrative, especially SF narrative, that engages with questions about the responsible uses of power.

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