The production and knockout success of Black Panther are, in some ways, indications that movements like Black Lives Matter have achieved demonstrable success in combating racism in American culture. A major American production company spent $200 million to make a movie with an almost entirely black, all-star cast, which depicts a futuristic African society free of the ravages of colonialism and in possession of miraculous technology and wealth. It’s hard to imagine that a Hollywood production company would have considered committing such vast funds to a fantasy of a powerful and independent African nation, devoid of the usual stereotypes of dopey slaves, vicious gangsters, and tinpot dictators, without the influence of anti-racist movements. Black Panther is surely a revolutionary success for the struggle against racism.
But it’s not. Black Panther is, on its face, a good-faith attempt to address timely issues of race and oppression in the context of a universe comprised solely of feel-good superhero romps. What cripples this effort is the depiction of its villain, Killmonger, who seems designed to delegitimize any struggle against white supremacy that does not cater to the liberal/centrist desire for moderate, smooth, comfortable change. This is not merely a consequence of a lack of political imagination on the part of Black Panther‘s writers; Killmonger’s characterization is typical for the superhero genre. He is, in fact, one example among many of an archetype commonly deployed to demonize and discredit radical, emancipatory critiques of prevailing power structures, which harkens back (at least) to the character for whom I’ll name this trope: Magneto.
The most relevant and interesting part of Magneto’s canonical background involves his survival of the Holocaust. Apart from this early traumatic experience, an angry mob murdered his first child two decades later because of their fear and hatred of him as a mutant. His experiences under the Nazi regime, and his losses at the hands of a hateful lynch mob, motivate his later worldview and actions, determined as he is to prevent such atrocities from befalling mutant-kind in the future. This is not a fanciful concern, if the genocidal machinations of Bolivar Trask, the mutant slavery perpetrated in Genosha, and the Tuskegee-like Weapon X experimentation are any indication.
The reason this depiction is problematic is that Magneto’s worldview often veers into what may or may not explicitly be called mutant supremacy. He is, especially in the early Lee/Kirby series and during his bouts of villainy later in life, portrayed as bluntly murderous to the point of genocidal intent. By contrast, his major foil, Professor X, often deploys platitudes about humankind’s goodness that amount to a #NotAllHumans argument. Whatever radical critique Magneto presents of human society and anti-mutant prejudice is ultimately dismissed and discredited as too extreme, fundamentally misguided, or in bad faith. This is why depicting Magneto and Professor X as in an allegorical debate over mutant liberation akin to that between Malcolm X and MLK over black liberation is bizarre at best, and insulting at worst. Leaving aside the caricatured interpretation of Malcolm X’s activism that the comparison implies, the MLK/Professor X comparison is also extremely wrongheaded. As Noah Berlatsky writes in the linked piece, “…to say that Professor X is Martin Luther King is to suggest that pacifist resistance to injustice is equivalent to organizing a team of minority vigilantes to hunt down and police other minorities. … Martin Luther King was beaten by cops; he didn’t aspire to be one.”
Another hallmark of the allegorical debate between Magneto and Professor X is the latter’s insistent pacifism when it comes to the prejudicial violence of humans against mutants. Importantly–and infuriatingly–Professor X virtually never extends this principled pacifism to other mutants; the early X-Men comics are built almost exclusively around the titular superhero team fighting other mutants, and even Xavier’s interpersonal interactions with his students are marked by habitual, unchallenged abuse and violence. MLK himself never categorically disavowed violence by black people, nor did he leave himself defenseless against the violence of white mobs–King’s home was full of guns, and a close adviser once described his home as “an arsenal.” Another crucial civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, who engaged in plenty of nonviolent organization and frequently marched alongside King, once said, “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”
Using Xavier-as-King to discredit Magneto-as-Malcolm is insulting and ahistorical in a way that buttresses racist narratives that insist that marginalized people must fight for change and liberation in ways that are nonthreatening to contemporary power structures. In such a framework, the pain and terror suffered by marginalized peoples is never enough to justify genuine rage that might discomfit privileged identity groups and powerful institutions.
The Superhero Conventions on Demi-Human Rights
The 2016 Netflix original anime, Ajin: Demi-Human, rips off the basic conceit of the X-Men and makes its underlying message drastically more callous. The show depicts a world in which super-powered beings called Ajin, who possess a kind of regenerative immortality that “resets” them to perfect health when they die, are hunted by world governments. The Japanese government in particular finds them useful for all sorts of industrial and scientific experiments. Since the Ajin have no known limit on their ability to resurrect themselves, various companies and government agencies in Japan use the Ajin as test subjects for new pharmaceuticals, weapons, and sometimes just to see what happens when they are killed in various ways.
The results are predictably gruesome and horrific. One of the antagonists, Koji Tanaka, is radicalized against the government when he is held captive, straitjacketed, blindfolded, gagged, and heavily restrained continuously for months, all while a weapons manufacturer test their newest creations on him. The tests range from him being repeatedly shot in the head (with him “waking up” with memories of the experience every time), to him being cannon fodder for an experimental grenade launcher designed specifically to pulverize the target’s skull. The Japanese government does not acknowledge these experiments are happening, and an early scene in the show demonstrates that Japanese schools teach that Ajin are not human. When series protagonist Kei Nagai is discovered to be an Ajin, his classmates immediately attempt to turn him in for a bounty. He is eventually captured by the Japanese government. During the ten days that ensue he is held captive, strapped to an operating table while a buzzsaw is plunged into various parts of his body, just to see what will happen.
Given the horrific torture, violence, and abuse the Ajin clearly suffer at the hands of a cruel and indifferent Japanese society, you would think series antagonist Sato, an Ajin himself, would be the hero of the show. He cobbles together a tiny group of willing Ajin that wage a militant terrorist campaign specifically targeting institutions and powerful individuals directly involved in perpetrating torture and inhumane experimentation on Ajin in Japan. His first major attack aims to destroy the headquarters of a major pharmaceuticals corporation that tested its products on Ajin; painful, debilitating, or lethal side effects were deemed irrelevant because the Ajin would simply “reset” when killed. He follows this with a sustained assassination campaign in which he kills a doctor directly involved in the aforementioned buzzsaw experimentation on Kei Nagai, several ministers and government functionaries involved in running and funding the associated labs, and several heads of corporations that directly profited from inhumane experiments on Ajin. Sato announces, via online video uploads, who these people are in advance of targeting them, and says that he will cease and desist his campaign if the Japanese government does two things: release a complete audit of the ways in which corporations and the government have profited from inhumane experiments on Ajin, and enshrine legal protections to prevent such inhumane experiments on Ajin in the future. The government, in answer, repeatedly refuses to acknowledge that such experiments even happen. Rooting for a government task force to stop Sato so that he can be strapped to an operating table would be (read: is) like rooting for an SS task force to stop a militant resistance to the Holocaust from assassinating Mengele and Himmler.
And yet, the show is intent on getting us to root for exactly such a group. Kei Nagai ends up joining a government task force to stop Sato, and in the process becomes the central hero of the show. This taskforce, it should be noted, is headed by a functionary who was integral in capturing Kei and incarcerating him so that he could be tortured–a functionary, it is worth adding, who employs an Ajin as an assistant and bodyguard whom he routinely threatens with similar torture should she ever fail him.
Sato even launches a solo rescue mission for Kei Nagai, risking his own capture and brutal torture in order to free Kei from the lab where he is tortured. When Sato decides to kill some of the doctors involved in the torture and experiments, Kei (who is otherwise depicted as a coldly analytical psychopath) suddenly has pangs of mercy for the doctors; he takes one of Sato’s weapons from him and shoots him in the chest to prevent him from executing the torturers. When he promises to save the doctors from Sato in exchange for help in the last leg of his own escape, one of the doctors even swears, at that exact moment, to recapture Kei so the experiments and torture can continue. Kei betrays his rescuer–the only person immediately invested in helping him escape literally never-ending torture–on behalf of people who had, only hours earlier, been sawing his limbs off without anesthetic or sedatives out of curiosity.
And that is supposed to make him a hero, rather than an idiot and an asshole.
Besides betraying Sato and his aforementioned membership in an anti-Ajin task force, Kei is made out to be a hero in one other instance. Ajin are also depicted as having the ability to summon a “black ghost,” a powerful minion that is invisible to most humans other than Ajin, and that can fight and perform other physical tasks on its master’s behalf. While he is strapped to the operating table, a whirring buzzsaw inches from his chest, he instinctively summons his ghost and mentally commands it to kill the doctor about to dismember him alive. However, rather than so much as getting the ghost to push over the doctor, or do anything to stop his torturer from cutting him open, he dismisses the ghost at the last second. He justifies this decision to himself by saying that hurting the doctor would somehow be a spiritual betrayal of a non-Ajin friend of his, who initially helped him escape the police when he was discovered as an Ajin. Unless this friend of his approves of brutally torturing teenagers, it’s hard to follow Kei’s logic.
This is all supposed to make Kei a foil for Sato, whom the show discredits in several ways. First, he was actually the one who betrayed Kei and delivered him to the lab where he was tortured, apparently hoping his suffering at the hands of the government would radicalize him in the way it did Tanaka. Second, Sato is portrayed as relishing the bloodshed his militant campaign incurs, often laughing maniacally when locked in firefights with the police or the “Anti-Ajin Special Forces.” His attack on Grant Pharma involved collapsing a recently completed high-rise building on top of the Grant Pharma HQ, certainly killing hundreds or thousands of people outside the scope of his original threat. Third, it is revealed halfway through season two that Sato thinks of his life-and-death struggle with the Japanese government as a game in which he tries to overcome his adversaries in various orchestrated scenarios. In other words, his entire militant crusade for the basic human rights of Ajin is undertaken in childish bad faith; he’s just having fun. Fourth, the season two finale shows that after Sato has finally been captured, the Japanese government inexplicably passes an “Ajin civil rights bill” that ends the torture and experiments. It is as if to suggest that the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment would have been generously terminated by its institutional funders if only its victims had become police officers and hunted down other victims of the experiments who escaped and sought revenge.
The X-Men ripoff trifecta is complete! We have a protagonist who belongs to a brutally marginalized group that joins a state-subservient vigilante/paramilitary organization dedicated to combating other members of the same marginalized group. We have a society so brutally oppressive to this minority as to render anything other than a permanent state of rage over the oppression either logically incoherent or a sign of miraculous emotional restraint. Most importantly, we have a villain who, in spite of his truly super-heroic competence and eminently sympathetic goals, is written with arbitrary damning qualities that discredit his praxis. The show tells us that Ajin are not only despised and routinely tortured, they are also so few and far between that no mainstream political or economic engagement is really possible (there are, liberally estimated, maybe a couple hundred Ajin in Japan, a country of 127 million people). Sato’s militant resistance is, literally, the only viable hope the Ajin have of ending their horrific torment, and he is written with incoherent character flaws for the purpose of rendering him villainous.
No Justice, No Pax Wakandana
This brings us back to Black Panther, the most egregiously insulting exemplar of the tendency being discussed here. Both Magneto and Sato are primarily concerned (such as they are depicted) with the oppression of fictional minorities of super-powered beings; their oppression bears on reality through inference and allusion, rather than direct depiction. Not so with Killmonger, whose goal in the film is to liberate black people the world over from white supremacy. He inherits this mission from his father, N’Jobu, who appropriated Wakandan technology to launch a militant, anti-racist resistance in the United States. However, N’Jobu’s brother, the Wakandan king T’Chaka, discovers these efforts and ultimately ends up killing his brother for refusing to stand down in his efforts to fight on the behalf of black people outside of Wakanda. T’Chaka, knowing that N’Jobu had a son while living incognito in Oakland, decides to leave the child there, thus condemning the child to the various ills of poverty and violence that are part and parcel of American racism.
This child, N’Dajaka, grows up to be Killmonger/Erik Stevens, having honed his combat skills and strategic acumen for years with the sole goal of returning to Wakanda, seizing the throne, and leveraging the country’s wealth and miraculous technology to revolutionary effect, launching a global militant campaign to liberate black people from white supremacy and imperialism. The major obstacle in his way is T’Chaka’s son–Killmonger’s cousin–T’Challa. You would think the nature of N’Dajaka’s goals would make him an obvious and sympathetic hero. After all, in America alone, black people are often kidnapped and tortured by state actors. At scale, over a third of all black men ultimately disappear from their communities into a demonstrably racist prison system. When they are not kidnapped, they are often arbitrarily assaulted, even murdered while their killers walk free to repeat the process elsewhere.
In contrast to N’Dajaka, T’Challa is a royal heir whose country has implemented an isolationist policy that rejects the notion of even allowing non-Wakandan Africans to seek refuge from poverty and war within their borders. As Leslie Lee puts it at Alternet, “When one of the nation’s leaders suggests that accepting refugees would threaten the Wakandan way of life, it’s not treated as a racist declaration from a Trumpian villain but an argument genuinely worthy of consideration.” N’Dajaka’s rebuttal to this isolationist sentiment is compelling, “You are all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There’s about two billion people around the world who look like us and their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.”
N’Dajaka is right, of course, but the movie decides to elevate T’Challa, who works to thwart N’Dajaka’s revolutionary intent, in part by allying himself with Everett Ross, an American CIA agent. When N’Dajaka starts using insurgent tactics to undermine the possibility that T’Challa or his sympathizers can thwart him, Ross is in the room to explain – evidently without any sense of irony or self-awareness – that N’Dajaka learned how to destabilize a country from the American military and the CIA. Neither T’Challa nor his sister, Shuri, call him on the callousness of calmly explicating to two Africans how to destabilize an African regime, in spite of a prior moment where Shuri refers to Ross as “colonizer.” When T’Challa and his allies confront N’Dajaka, there is a protracted battle between Wakandans where Ross, with Shuri’s aid, gets an opportunity to help “save” Wakanda and the world by shooting down a ship of radical Wakandans carrying weapons to anti-racist revolutionaries the world over. Even a cursory examination of the US military/intelligence establishment’s history on the African continent betrays this scene for the white supremacist, anti-revolutionary fever dream that it is.
Just like Sato, sympathy for N’Dajaka’s cause and admiration for his super-heroic competence and conviction are mendaciously undermined. He seizes the throne by defeating T’Challa in ritualized single combat, in strict accordance with Wakanda’s every legal and spiritual tradition. Yet, he is portrayed as a usurper and a bloodthirsty outsider who kills for killing’s sake. The movie privileges the reactions of T’Challa’s family and lover, who see N’Dajaka as an outsider and illegitimate ruler, despite not being willing or able to dispute that N’Dajaka’s ascension was legal and fair. In preparation for his rule, N’Dajaka goes on a “spirit walk” of sorts, in a heartfelt scene where he convenes with the spirit of his dead father, professes his grief at being orphaned and abandoned, and reiterates his commitment to liberating black people globally. But, when he takes the throne, he utters a complete non sequitur, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” evoking a parallel to the profoundly racist British empire. The line is a throwaway; there is no substantiation or characterization given that explains it, unless you believe the absurd statement that fighting racism is morally and politically equivalent to imperialism.
N’Dajaka is, despite his hyper-competence, sympathetic aims, and personal loss, ultimately rendered little more than a bloodthirsty thug, both too extreme and subtly disingenuous in his revolution. The film’s conclusion sees N’Dajaka dead and T’Challa adopting the much softer measures of opening educational centers, cultural outreach, and charity for black people. In the words of Christopher Lebron, “As the movie uplifts the African noble at the expense of the black American man, every crass principle of modern black respectability politics is upheld.” And again, we see the X-Men formula repeated; an individual from a marginalized (in this case, African) identity participates in the statist, militarized repression of a morally impure revolutionary of the same background, in spite of their obvious common cause.
The Revolution Will Never Be Televised
The result is a narrative in which liberation is abated in favor of the kinds of institutionally approved solutions to inequality that are desired by the state and its partisans. That is, desired by exactly the kind of political moderates that Martin Luther King described as, “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom.” This poisonous tendency to favor “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” permeates the superhero genre. All one has to do is look to see Magnetos everywhere: the “feminazi” Amazon Fury, the Aquaman villain Black Manta, the Inhuman Jiaying, the Static Shock villain Holocaust, the Black Lightning villain Regulator, and even Platinum Man from the goofy Metal Men comics.
The ubiquity of the archetype demonstrates endemic bad faith in the superhero genre with regards to discussing oppression and resistance, and it is this characteristic of the genre that is Magneto Syndrome. Where putative “villains” are naturally sympathetic, writers go out of their way to make them unsympathetic as a way to legitimize the deferral of liberation. Where readers might instinctively empathize with those fighting white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism, superhero stories ventriloquize straw man arguments into the mouths of characters for whom they make no sense. King’s “positive peace” is repressed by “heroes” who leverage their powers and talents not towards their own liberation, but towards the sustenance of an authoritarian status quo, while we celebrate the “excellence” of a monarch who kills his own flesh and blood to defer liberation for the oppressed of the world.
I remember feeling a knot of apprehension in my gut when I saw the trailer for Black Panther. After recovering from the effects of a heady brew of Afrofuturist imagery, it struck me that a trailer for a movie about a fantastically wealthy hereditary monarch was an odd place to be sampling Gil Scott Heron. Returning to the trailer after having seen the whole movie, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is horrifically, torturously metamorphosed from a call to arms into a sort of taunt. Heron wasn’t singing about educational programming and charity foundations with funding from African nobility. He was singing about an uprising. He was singing about N’Dajaka’s revolution. And yet, the trailer is priming us for a movie that culminates in the refutation of N’Dajaka’s vision at the point of a spear. The revolution will not be televised… the king will put a stop to it.