T’Challa may be the king of Wakanda, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also be a villain.
“Black Panther” has proven to be one of the biggest movies of the year, and may go on to be one of the most influential cinematic experiences of the decade, as audiences finally get a glamorous comic book movie that embraces African culture in a way that we’ve never seen before.
The film has been praised for the character of Erik Killmonger, who is a rare treat for Marvel fans; a well-rounded, nuanced villain with complex goals and motivations beyond simply beating the good guys and twirling a moustache.
According to Chadwick Boseman, who plays the titular Black Panther, audiences have been reading this movie all wrong. Killmonger is not the villain, and the movie’s new king T’Challa is not actually a hero – apparently, he’s the villain of the entire story.
“I actually am the enemy. It’s the enemy I’ve always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege.
“Killmonger is trying to achieve greatness…but there’s an expectation of greatness for me. I don’t know if we as African Americans would accept T’Challa as our hero if he didn’t go through Killmonger. Because Killmonger has been through our struggle, and I [as T’Challa] haven’t.”
The complexities of race relations are difficult to untangle at best, but Boseman makes an intriguing point. If the “Black Panther” movie is a commentary on the role of African culture in modern global society, then is the hero of the piece really the man in a position of power who is hesitant to share his privilege with others in need?
This is a question that, in some form or other, can be seen in every aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark is held up as a hero for using his genius intellect and vast personal wealth to fight crime, but more often than not his attempts to hoard all the good technology for himself end up hurting people around him.
It’ very poignant that this universe’s version of Spider-Man isn’t motivated by the mantra of Great Power and Great Responsibility, as the heroes of the MCU are all big, bombastic superstars with lots of privilege, but little interest in sharing that power with others.
Boseman is exposing a fundamental flaw in many modern movie blockbusters, and, of course, these things aren’t ever supposed to be taken seriously, because nobody wants to see a movie in which Tony Stark sets up a child education fund in order to reduce crime and give underprivileged kids more to aspire to.
That said, it’s worth noting that many people are getting increasingly tired of stories about rich people who are held up as heroes despite often doing more harm than good.
One has to wonder if Chadwick Boseman has found the thematic issue that will ultimately make the MCU feel like a less appealing world for audiences as society continues to shift away from this kind of narrative.
When that happens, “Black Panther” might feel like a very dated film from an ideological perspective, despite currently feeling so wonderfully refreshing.