Still thinking about why Wonder Woman and Black Panther (and there’s a team up someone should do…) seem to evoke such a different response from moviegoers than, respectively, female and black moviegoers.
Let’s remove from the equation the qualities that are obvious. And here we’re going to compare a finished film with a trailer. Its hard to do, but still interesting. (For the sake of simplicity of speculation, we’re going to assume BP gets as positive a response in its completed form.)
What are the obvious things? Acting, directing, good writing, good effects. Stuff like that certainly. How about the fact that a woman or black person was promoted as the star and central character? That’s happened many, many times before. So while that is part of it…that’s not all.
What about the pre-existing popularity of the character? I think we’re getting closer here, but still begging the question. To straighten that out, people aren’t reacting to the characters because they were pre-existing popular titles, they were pre-existing popular titles BECAUSE PEOPLE REACT TO THEM.
In other words, whatever is happening here, the popularity of the characters and the success of the films come from the same root. They succeeded because they effective communicated the same emotional/mythical “juice” channeled by the comics.
So…let’s see what they have in common that might be useful.
- Ironically, they were both created by the “other” class: Wonder Woman by a man, Black Panther by two whites. So they were fantasies that appealed to women, or blacks, but were not alien to men, or whites. Of the thousands of female or black characters created by white males, these communicated something direct and powerful to BOTH men and women, BOTH black and white. EVERYBODY gets excited. Could a woman or a black person have done the same? Yes. But they’d have to have had as many opportunities to fail, which they haven’t. Countless female and black characters have risen and fallen, most forgotten.But that’s creativity: the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
- Both were created deliberately, by what I’d call Social Justice Warriors. William Moulton Marsten, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee deliberately set out to create heroes who hadn’t existed before, feeling a specific lack in the world. This usually ends badly: beginning art with political intent isn’t a very effective approach. But…it worked. Luck in Marsten’s case, and Stan and Jack were simply the Lennon-McCartney of comic books, at the height of their powers. I bet the Beatles could have deliberately created a hit if they’d wanted to, as well. Like Mozart or Shakespeare could create art on demand. That’s almost superhuman, but it happens. Thank goodness.
- Here’s what I think is different. Both exist ON THEIR OWN TERMS. Diana is an Amazon. She lives in a society without men. T’Challa is a prince of Wakanda, a nation isolated from the world, without Europeans. Wonder Woman can therefore play into a fantasy: “this is what women could be but for Patriarchy”. Black Panther plays into a fantasy: “this is what Africans could be, but for European Colonialism (or racism)”
If this is accurate, it explains why few of the female superheroes mentioned can come close. They ALL exist in contrast to, or relationship to, men. “Supergirl” is a REACTION to “Superboy” or “Superman” “Batgirl” or “Batwoman” in reaction to Batman. “Catwoman” is specifically “Batman’s love and nemesis.” She exists to orbit a pre-existing male character, not on her own terms.
The situation is even stronger with black superheroes. Iron Patriot, Falcon, Power Man, and so forth were ALL given their powers by white people (I understand that Falcon’s wings have been retconned to be Wakanda tech).
What about their names? Sam Wilson, Luke Cage, Rhodey, Hancock…excuse me, but do those names sound AFRICAN to you? Is there a white Superhero without a European name (maybe an alien name, like Kal’el. But then he came from a planet of white people, so it’s the same thing.)
We are so used to seeing European names attached to black people that most folks don’t even consider the implications. There is nothing natural about that. It is generally a sign of OWNERSHIP. Most of these character orbit, or live in reaction to, whites or Europe. How many of them would exist if Europe had been wiped out by a plague in 1300? None.
But T’Challa would. He doesn’t live “in reaction to”. Wakanda doesn’t need Europe. Doesn’t exist in reaction to Europe or Europeans. He’s his own man. Sure, he’s as smart as Reed Richards, can out-fight Captain America, and is as smart as Tony Stark…but he’d be those things even if none of them existed.
THAT is critical. We as human beings don’t just exist “in reaction to” our parents and our world…or our opponents. Sure, that’s where we begin. But the process of maturation includes asking “who am I?” and as long as your definition includes other people, you are still on the surface.
Men and women have the relationship they have because it served the production of grandchildren. That includes rigid roles. Due to the advancement of industrial, weapons and biological (birth control) technologies, sexual dimorphism simply doesn’t control us as it did our ancestors. Because this works to the direct advantage of women, I think they are waking up faster. The unfortunate thing about it is that they are no more perceptive than men, so they only see one side of the equation–their side–and from it, it looks like men control the world with “Patriarchy.” Fine. From that position, the re-imaging of their potential includes the question “what would we be if we’d not been oppressed?”
Why, we’d be Diana, Princess of the Amazons. The full expression of female potential. Free, brilliant, brave, strong, sensual…a complete human being. Existing on her own terms, beholden to no member of the oppressor class. A unique symbol, beautifully realized onscreen.
Blacks and whites have a different relationship. Remember: men and women cannot live without each other. Different tribes can and do and have EXTERMINATED each other. Very very different. Due to accidents of geography and history, Europeans technology was a fraction more advanced than African when the cultures collided, with the expected results of exploitation and domination. That’s how humans roll. And another thing humans do is blame the victims for what they do.
So in America, you have the descendants of the people hauled here in chains, stripped of names, religion, history, mythology, like hard drives wiped and programmed with “Slave 1.0”. Then after 250 years, after the descendants have forgotten 99% of what they were, you set them free and add-on “Emancipation 2.0” software, which of course is full of glitches, and incompatible with “Free American” software . Then of course, they were blamed for the inevitable crashes.
Every image of the long lost “homeland” is of ignorance and savagery, more likely to be based on Tarzan than actual anthropological data suggesting WHY the technological differential existed. Hell, the Encyclopedia Britannica straight-up stated that whites were just smarter. I distinctly remember reading that.
So…reinforce with “Gone With the Wind” being the dominating image of that deprivation. Why, slavery wasn’t so BAD. If we have problems, it must be us. Inferiority was the assumption, and battling against the fear that the culture might be right weighed heavily. If our very names were European…if the God-figure we’d been given looked more like our oppressors than us…I mean, what the hell?
“In the Heat of the Night” in 1967 had an utterly amazing scene where a black man slapped a rich old white man…and survived. I was fifteen years old, already “cooked” in terms of basic life attitudes, but the scene blew my mind. When “Shaft” and “Superfly” and so forth came along, they were revolutionary, amazing, devastating in impact. We’d never SEEN anything like that before: black men who were smart, savvy, sexual, strong. All the great “S” stuff. Might as well have had it on their chests. They were Superheroes, not because they did things which, on the surface, countless white heroes had not done, but because they did it carrying four hundred years of baggage.
When Marvel created “Black Panther”, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were just seeking to create a black superhero. They felt that lack. And I suggest that if they had created a Captain America (given his powers by the government) or a “Black Spiderman” or even a brilliant black “Tony Stark” type, it couldn’t have “hit” the same way, because no matter what they created, how wonderful, how well written, it would have been a garnish, a sprig of creative parsley atop the shit sandwich that is black history in America for our first 350 years.
No. Black Panther was Black Panther, and would have been if Europe had never existed at all.
Diana Prince was Diana Prince, her mother an Amazon, her father a god (I believe this has been retconned as well–in original form she was formed from clay by her mother). In other words, to the degree possible, she would have been what she was even if men had not existed at all.
That thematic unity, at the core of great storytelling, acting, and SFX, FEELS DIFFERENT. It is closer to the “I am.” It opens the door to asking new questions. It throws off invisible chains. “I never even knew I needed to see that” women have said of the “No Man’s Land” sequence.
“Move. Or be moved.” I watched black women with zero interest in comic books scream with joy at that line.
Watch the Youtube videos of black people watching shots of Wakanda. Sheer ECSTACY on their faces. Disbelief. They might not have even known how much they needed to see that.
How important are such images? ALL CULTURES, all over the world, tell their children (especially their boys) stories of heroes who can overcome all obstacles, and protect their countries, families, religions, whatever.
Women were told they were secondary to men: their heroes could exist, but only in reference to.
Black were told they were secondary to whites: their heroes could exist, but only in reference to.
And here is something important to grasp again, to remember: BOTH WERE CREATED BY WHITE MEN.
Yes, we as humans can touch something deeper within us. We can sense the missing piece. Create from a sense of shared humanity. Create empowering symbols that heal the damage created by a million years of separation to maximize reproductive potential. Or four hundred years of cultural domination.
And this should provide the perspective we need to BOTH celebrate these heroes, AND realize that we are all human, all capable of going deep and doing something special, and healing, and redemptive. It takes brilliance, and commitment, and the maniacal focus of intent that creates and liberates genius…and luck of course.
But damn, isn’t it worth it when it works?