by R. Anthony Arnold
Art by Jeremy Williams
I’m a nerd. I love comics, superhero movies, and all manner of video games. I get excited about the latest episode of Andor, and I spend an uncomfortable amount of time talking about all of this stuff.
I also love politics. I get a rush out of discussing political theory, and love diving into the weeds of policy proposals. I read pieces of political writing that are entirely too long, just for the heck of it.
So, you’d think my two favorite worlds colliding would thrill me! And yet, as real world politics continues showing up in nerdy projects, I find myself increasingly unhappy with the result. Instead of making these stories richer, I think squeezing our real politics into these worlds is making them more cynical, and harming the storytelling.
Quick question: Who’s the President of the United States in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? Kudos to you if you answered that without Google. But, the fact that such a basic question can’t be answered, by most viewers, highlights one of my main concerns.
We don’t know very basic political information about the MCU.
Since the places and names are the same as ours, most people assume that the world of Marvel is also the same as ours. So, Joe Biden is President now; and Donald Trump was President before. Their world has the same political problems, and the same political rules, that ours does.
Except, it’s not our world. The world of the MCU is one where almost limitless clean energy is not only possible, but has already been built. It's the arc reactor technology that Tony Stark uses to power his building. It’s a world where people fly, and a world where literal Gods, like Thor, walk among us – a world where aliens have invaded not once, but twice.
All of these things should lead to very big differences in both culture and politics. However, in the MCU, none of these things matter when it comes to storytelling. Instead, creators have chosen to ground their worlds in the same rules as ours, unfortunately robbing them of the uniqueness that makes fictional worlds beautiful.
Fiction can depict truly strange things, unusual and unexpected things. Through fiction, we can imagine what may be possible, thinking about the consequences of our own real world actions, in a way that feels safe.
But, doing this requires creators to take their created worlds seriously. That is not to say that there is no room for levity in comics. After all, these are stories about grownups, who run around in costumes, punching people. There’s always something inherently funny about that.
By serious, I mean that creators must be faithful to their own stories.
Take the first Black Panther. Killmonger is awful. His arguments through the movie are flawed, though the movie never illustrates why. And in the end, he’s given a mercy killing, escaping the jail sentence that was waiting for him.
By his own admission, Killmonger has tyrannized Black and Brown people throughout the Middle East and Africa, in areas where we see our heroes protecting those same people, in the beginning of the film. His body is a literal shrine to his kills, a fact of which he is quite proud. He relishes stepping on others, even if those others are people of color, themselves. In his introduction, he assaults not just White museum workers, but murders his own Black girlfriend to further his goals.
His arrival in Wakanda reinforces his character, as he proceeds, after seemingly winning the throne, to burn Wakanda’s sacred plant and desecrate their most holy place. He’s intolerant, and is hellbent on starting a global race war. He’s a tyrant, one who tried to topple a nation, in order to have his way.
And yet, the movie doesn’t deliver him justice, opting instead for mercy, when he compares his impending prison stint to the horrors of the Middle Passage. Under some circumstances, such an observation could work. The New Jim Crow, a decade old book by Michelle Alexander, draws out the connection between incarceration and older forms of racial discrimination, such as slavery and Jim Crow.
But for Killmonger, bondage wouldn’t be the same thing as slavery. Slaves didn’t do anything to earn the life they had. Killmonger deserved to be thrown in prison for his crimes, not allowed to position himself as a kind of martyr.
Still, the movie moves on, never giving a voice to this. Instead, Killmonger gets the final word, and it allows him to be propped up, to this day, as a villain who was “right.” Part of this is due to Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic performance, but much of it is because the creators simply never had the other characters challenge his philosophy. That’s a creative choice.
Killmonger was supposed to be nuanced and complex, and in some ways he was; but his eventual fate doesn't make sense, given his own words and actions throughout the movie. This makes the movie incohesive, and does a disservice to the other characters around him. Instead of a would-be tyrant being given justice for his many crimes, our heroes are seemingly swayed by his incoherent arguments, opting to ignore the pain and suffering he’s inflicted on others.
Black Panther isn’t alone here. Both its sequel, along with a number of MCU movies and TV shows suffer from the same problem in various ways. On numerous occasions creators have forced our politics into stories where the fit is, at best, messy. At worst, these intrusions disregard what the audience has already seen, undermining the basic framework of the stories.
Of course, it’s tempting to shrug your shoulders and ask, “...why does any of this matter?”
While comics are clearly having a moment, pop culture storytelling at large matters, because it wields such enormous influence. Superman has been iconic for nearly a century now. Star Wars has been immensely popular since its release; and books like The Lord of the Rings have been mainstays for millions of readers since its first publication. For many, myself included, these stories have provided guidance and stability by being aspirational, not simply confirming reader’s biases.
I want my two worlds to join together. I welcome attempts to continue fusing politics into pop culture, and believe the world can be improved, if it’s done well. I’m nothing if not a believer in the power of art. What I don’t want is to see fictional worlds destroyed by reality in the process.