Who is your favorite superhero? There are so many to choose from that it can be tough to pick just one, but for millions of people, the answer is undoubtedly Black Panther. Portrayed on the big screen by the beloved Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther was an instant global phenomenon. Millions of moviegoers the world over flooded into theaters, some more than once, to escape into the colorful, Afrofuturist nation of Wakanda and watch the daring exploits of King T’Challa.
It was, at the time, the most successful solo superhero movie to ever be released, beating out classics like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Today, it remains one of the most celebrated cinematic achievements in the entire Marvel franchise. It’s undeniable. We love the King of Wakanda. So much so that I’m sure many of us have found ourselves wishing that both he and the nation of Wakanda were real.
How exciting would it be to live in a world where superheroes actually existed? Where a rich and powerful African nation possessed technology light-years ahead of anything currently available? Sorry to burst your bubble, but the reality would likely be much different than anything depicted in the MCU. We love T’Challa because we see his journey. We go with him from his lowest point when he loses his father, to him becoming king, tracking down a group of international arms dealers and battling his long-lost cousin Erik Killmonger for the heart of his nation.
But how would you feel if a foreign king you’d never heard of suddenly revealed that he had superhuman abilities? And more than that, that his country controlled greater technology and more wealth than any other nation on the planet? Would you still love Black Panther then? This question is more complicated than a simple yes or no, especially given the complex issues of race, colonialism and cultural identity surrounding Wakanda.
Black Panther tackled these issues head-on, offering audiences a candid examination of some of history’s greatest injustices. The central conflict of the narrative itself deals with the tensions created by the specters of racism and colonization. At the start of the film, the Wakandans are adamant about maintaining their isolationist politics, believing it to be the best way of protecting their nation from the chaos of the outside world.
However, this view is challenged by the arrival of Killmonger, who seeks to upend the status quo. After defeating T’Challa in ritual combat and assuming control of the throne, Killmonger delivers a speech to the Tribal Council in which he recounts the struggles of black Americans and asks, pointedly, “Where was Wakanda?” According to Marvel lore, while the rest of the African continent was swallowed whole by Europe during the Age of Imperialism, Wakanda stood idly by.
It watched as neighbor after neighbor fell to foreign invaders and did nothing as entire populations were enslaved and their land plundered for its resources. Wakanda continued to hide in the shadows as further injustices were committed against Black communities in the form of policies like segregation and apartheid, and offered no assistance when it came to overthrowing these repressive systems.
While it’s likely that many Black people around the world would welcome the sudden entrance of a hyper-advanced African nation onto the world stage, others might share in Killmonger’s sentiments and harbor varying degrees of resentment. This could make for some awkward political situations, especially regionally. Wakanda’s vast fortune and technological supremacy would immediately position itself as the head of the African Union, dramatically reorienting the continent’s balance of power, to say nothing of the rest of the planet.
African leaders might demand that Wakanda share its advanced technology, or even its wealth, to make up for historic failures. Those not of African descent would probably be suspicious and maybe even fearful of the sudden change to the existing geopolitical order. Even more so after learning that the country in question is led by a king with superhuman abilities, the nature of which would likely remain a highly guarded secret.
A massive PR campaign would have to be launched to try and portray T’Challa as a magnanimous and peaceful ruler, but undoubtedly the idea of a literal god-king leading the world’s most technologically sophisticated military would be too much for many people to accept. Critics would be quick to point out the lack of democratic representation in Wakanda, as well as the obvious problems of having a hereditary monarchy.
Sure, T’Challa may be a benevolent leader, but what about the next guy? What would happen if, for example, a long-lost relative who didn’t share in T’Challa’s humanitarian worldview somehow took control of the country? It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a scenario where a conquest-driven warrior-king sought to expand Wakanda’s borders. T’Challa, and in fact the entire nation of Wakanda, would become a highly divisive topic both among world leaders and individual citizens in a similar way to nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia today.
This could lead not just to anti-Wakandan protests, but possible assassination attempts as both disgruntled governments and fearful citizens aim to remove this new threat. This exact scenario serves as the premise for the Amazon series The Boys, a superhero parody in which a band of vigilantes attempts to take down an Avengers-style group called the Seven.
The Seven are a tyrannical and corrupt team of superhumans who use their powers to serve their own selfish desires while enriching their corporate benefactor, Vought International. Their exploits consistently lead to the injury and death of innocent bystanders, but this “collateral damage” is covered up by Vought, which markets the group as saviors of humanity. The Seven’s recklessness fuels public resentment and a ragtag assembly of superpowerless vigilantes known as the Boys form to try and assassinate them.
The Boys is representative of a very real fear ordinary citizens have of the ultra-powerful. It’s safe to assume that most people would be suspicious of an elite group of individuals with genuine superhuman abilities. It’s important to remember that T’Challa isn’t alone in the Marvel Universe. There is a whole ensemble of characters ranging from certified good guy Captain America to the genocidal Thanos. So if Black Panther exists, then so should the others.
With this comes a whole slew of new problems. By their very nature, superhumans create an imbalance in society. There is them – people capable of flying faster than fighter jets or chucking cars like they were Wiffle balls – and then there is the rest of us, barely able to make it through our morning commute. This inequality of ability would lead to widespread feelings of fear and resentment. Chief among people’s worries would be the belief that these individuals might use their powers to establish a new social and political order.
To help prevent this, we would most likely see the formation of anti-superhuman organizations. These factions would push for legislation that might help level the playing field, or at least establish a legal framework to protect ordinary citizens. Marvel’s 2016 film Captain America: Civil War uses this idea as the central conflict of its plot. Following the disastrous fallout from Avengers: The Age of UItron, the United Nations attempt to reign in Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the crew in the form of the Sokovia Accords.
This legislation places the Avengers firmly under the control of the UN and effectively ends any form of independent autonomy. This leads to a rift in the group as half support the independent oversight while the rest believe it to be a potentially dangerous obstruction. The film concludes with the Sokovia Accords still in place and half of the team being forced into hiding. Civil War explores the anxiety felt by many people regarding the recent rise of powerful extra-governmental organizations.
What do we do when entities like the Avengers impose their will on a country and its citizens? Who is responsible for the repercussions when the Hulk accidentally takes down an entire skyscraper? It’s not a question with easy answers, but the Sokovia Accords are an example of how real-life governments might attempt to create safeguards against potential catastrophes caused by superhumans.
It also clearly displays the impulse of international leaders to try and control this power as they would with biological weapons or nuclear technology which, of course, would not stop merely at legislation. In a world with superheroes, militaries, governments and even private entities would attempt to either recruit or manufacture armies of their own superpowered soldiers. Entire industries could develop in the rush to create the next Hulk or Captain America.
Sadly, the sudden rush for superhuman superiority would trigger a new global arms race as geopolitical rivals seek to fill their ranks with the strongest, smartest and deadliest individuals that science can create. It would be the Cold War all over again, but this time with superpowers instead of nuclear power. It’s honestly a terrifying notion and one that we may soon be forced to contend with.
Advances in gene therapy, robotics and other cutting-edge fields have begun to open the door to a new world of human enhancement. In the next few decades, we may become capable of giving individuals abilities previously reserved for the realm of fiction. Superhero stories may one day be viewed not as far-out fantasies, but instead foretellings of our own very real future. The problem with these kinds of technologies is that they rewrite the rules of what is possible.
Societies operate based on the assumption that human beings have certain limitations. If these limitations are surpassed, it will force us to reevaluate how our civilization functions on a fundamental level. Our political and legal institutions are in no way prepared to handle this. It might benefit us then to try and understand why exactly we are so obsessed with superheroes in the first place.
While modern incarnations stem largely from the realm of 20th century science fiction, the idea of powerful champions battling monsters and saving innocents dates back to the very beginning of human history. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving pieces of recorded literature, and it’s basically a superhero story. It tells of a legendary king with super strength, prophetic abilities and unparalleled fighting skills who goes on a series of quests that culminate in the search for immortality.
Over the course of his adventures, Gilgamesh slays demons, travels to the underworld and undergoes a series of trials, but ultimately fails in his goal of learning the secrets of eternal life. Though initially despondent, his defeat leads him to accept his human limitations and instead learn what it means to live a good life. This story is a template for the epics that filled ancient literature.
Gilgamesh’s character provided direct inspiration for the demi-god Hercules and heavily influenced the Greek poet Homer, whose work is filled with seemingly superhuman protagonists. These early heroes were created to serve as models of their societies’ virtues, instilling the values of bravery, fortitude and honor into citizens. And just like the superheroes of today, these characters were not perfect. Rather, each had tragic flaws that routinely led to disaster for themselves and those around them.
Their strength was not in being able to perform astounding feats or slay countless enemies, but in their ability to face their flaws and learn from them. In fact, the archetypal plot structure of these stories known as the hero’s journey provides a clear formula for personal growth. By leaving a place of comfort, encountering obstacles and confronting our weaknesses, we are able to change for the better and hopefully return as a more complete version of ourselves.
At the end of Black Panther, T’Challa is able to reconcile his political beliefs with that of his cousin. Although he rejects Killmonger’s call to wage war against former colonial oppressors, he realizes that Wakanda’s period of isolationism must come to an end. Heroes like Black Panther and Gilgamesh serve as role models we are meant to look to for inspiration. They represent the best in us and provide examples of how we might overcome difficulties in our own lives.
We love superhero stories because they give us hope that we too are capable of great deeds and because they serve as a reminder that every single one of us has the ability to change the world. So what if Black Panther was real? We may never know. But what I do know is that you don’t need superpowers to be a superhero. Dozens of people throughout history have proven that time and time again.