Wakanda’s isolationism doesn’t separate Black Panther from the Marvel Cinematic Universe—it reinforces its connection.
Contains Spoilers for Black Panther (2018)
2018 is a big year for Marvel Studios. This year, the once-independent ‘new studio on the Hollywood block’—turned juggernaut conglomerate subsidiary—celebrates its 10th year anniversary with a record release of three new installments: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Each of these movies is significant in its own way, but all share the sentiment fittingly expressed by Hope van Dyne in the post-credits scene of Ant-Man (2015): “It’s about damn time.”
The trailer for Ant-Man and the Wasp (scheduled for release in July, 2018) promises that Hope (played by Evangeline Lilly), will take on the superhero identity of The Wasp. A superhero identity originally held by her mother Janet van Dyne in Marvel Comics, Janet was written out from Ant-Man—much to the disappointment of many fans. This means that Hope as The Wasp will be Marvel’s first female superhero with movie-title recognition, preceding next year’s release of Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson).
Before Hope takes on the superhero identity and suit, however, Marvel Studios will achieve something creatively and industrially unprecedented with Avengers: Infinity War: the climatic culmination of three phases (and eighteen movie installments) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel Studios has been working towards this point since Iron Man (2008) and Nick Fury’s post-credit tease of “a much bigger universe” to come. This set up an ambitious creative strategy: to build an extensive interconnected continuity with an expanding roster of characters across multiple movie installments.
With the MCU, Marvel Studios not only launched a new age for the superhero movie genre in the late 2000s, it played a major role in the emergence of franchise moviemaking. But despite its commercial success and ambitious creative strategy, the MCU’s ten-year journey is often correlated with increasing sentiments of “superhero fatigue” in the current entertainment landscape. This context is important for realizing the creative and commercial impact of its latest release, Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler), which continues to achieve commercial and cultural milestones and break historical box-office records.
Black Panther is the story of T’Challa: the newly anointed protector and King of Wakanda (played by Chadwick Boseman). As a superhero movie, the focus of Black Panther is indeed on the titular character himself and his journey to fulfilling his role as leader and hero. But more than this, Black Panther is about the world of Wakanda—its culture, history, people, technology, and politics. A fictional nation located in the heart of the African continent, Wakanda is a technologically-advanced monarchical regime with an isolationist approach to geopolitics.
In one sense this premise serves the complex sociopolitical themes underpinning its narrative; in another sense, Wakanda’s isolationism is a well-crafted creative device for validating and negotiating Black Panther’s unique role in the development of world-building across the MCU. King T’Challa’s superhero role is not merely constituted by his identity as the Black Panther, but also by his leadership responsibility to self-negotiate Wakanda’s emergence within the MCU.
“My son, it is your time” — Queen Ramonda to King T’Challa
Among its many achievements, many notable responses and commentary on Black Panther have highlighted its cultural diversity, positive representation of race, and complex political themes. This is not the first time a black superhero has featured in (and headlined) a mainstream movie release, with the Blade franchise (1998, 2002, and 2004) being most significant; but this is the first black superhero to headline a movie in the MCU, which is—to recall Hope van Dyne—“about damn time”.
Hope’s expression in Ant-Man is similarly reprised in Black Panther: as T’Challa prepares to ascend to the throne of Wakanda, and officially take on the identity of the Black Panther, his mother Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) declares, “my son, it is your time.” Indeed, that Black Panther might be the first superhero blockbuster to so positively reach out, acknowledge, and represent racially diverse audiences is definitely overdue.
There is a multitude of great online commentary that discusses Black Panther’s representation of race, by those much more informed on such topics than myself. What I want to comment on here is the importance of realizing the role of Black Panther and Wakanda in the MCU. In particular, I want to address a recurrent theme underpinning many responses to Black Panther: that its creative and cultural significance and success can be attributed to the “self-contained” divorcement of its story-world from the rest of the MCU.
This is a response I have heard repeated in conversations, podcasts, and have read in various reviews that have touted Black Panther as “a self-contained marvel,” “the most satisfying, self-contained [Marvel] installment yet,” “one of the most self-contained films…ignoring the crowded world of the Avengers,” and “so self-contained” that the plot of the MCU doesn’t matter.
In my view, Black Panther’s significance and success is enhanced and extended by its intricate role within the MCU. Rather than identifying the cultural, creative, and commercial strength in Black Panther and Wakanda as a result of its “self-containment,” what is more compelling to me is that, despite (or even because of) its contained scope, it blows open the possibilities of where the MCU can go in Avengers: Infinity War and beyond. When Thanos finally wages war on the MCU, it will be a universe shared with a cinematically realized and franchised Wakanda. This can only have a significant and limitless impact on the creative development of the entire franchise.
“More Connections, Not Separations” — King T’Challa to the United Nations
The most interesting description of Black Panther that has recently attracted my attention is the notion that it is a “non-sequel”. This obviously refers to it being the first installment of its own “intra-franchise” within the MCU—that is, it is the first installment devoted to introducing one superhero, much like Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Ant-Man (2015), Doctor Strange (2016), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) introduced those specific characters into the MCU. However, after ten years, eighteen movies, and countless transmedia contributions to the story-world across three phases of creative development, the notion that Black Panther not be considered a sequel within the MCU is not only striking to me, but seems to undervalue its bigger creative function and cultural impact.
In many ways, Black Panther is even more connected to the MCU than most of the previous first “intra-franchise” installments, since its plot almost directly follows on from Captain America: Civil War (2016). Unlike with other “first” installments, this is not the first time audiences have met T’Challa, or seen him in action as the Black Panther—he fights alongside “Team Iron Man” in Civil War to seek retribution for the killing of his father, T’Chaka, the former Black Panther and King of Wakanda. When we see T’Challa at the beginning of Black Panther, he is grieving his father’s death and preparing for his own ascension to the throne. Therefore, there is clear sequential causation from Civil War to Black Panther, which is reinforced by the inclusion of flash-back sequences, which are set moments before T’Chaka’s death in Civil War.
The connection between Civil War and Black Panther firmly places T’Challa in the causal structure of the MCU and this is a connection that Marvel Studios have also explicitly worked to reinforce in its paratextual publicity. In one example, Chadwick Boseman (who plays T’Challa) hosts an “explainer” video about “the important role Wakanda and the Black Panther play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe”.
Wakanda is “connected to the Avengers universe in ways you never knew. In fact, it might be the most talked about out of any other Marvel movie” — Chadwick Boseman
Find out more about the important role Wakanda and the Black Panther play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. #WakandaForever
In this video, Boseman explains that Wakanda is “connected to the Avengers universe in ways you never knew. In fact, it might be the most talked about out of any other Marvel movie.” Boseman proceeds to list all the previous MCU movies that Black Panther connects with, from Iron Man 2 (2010), to Captain America: The First Avenger, to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). As Boseman ends with the message that Black Panther has “been around and now I’m not going anywhere,” this paratextual explainer works in interesting dialogue with the mid-credits scene in Black Panther, in which King T’Challa tells a full room at the United Nations that Wakanda is ready to share its resources because “we need more connections, not separations.”
“What happens now, determines what happens to the rest of the world” —T’Challa to M’Baku
Indeed, Black Panther stands alone on its own terms; moreover, it reveals an unexplored dimension to the MCU. The seeming incongruity of these functions is driven by Wakanda’s isolationist geopolitics, which facilitates the movie’s “self-containment” at the same time that it productively accounts for its delayed emergence within the MCU.
Wakanda is first mentioned in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as the third-world African nation with a limited supply of Vibranium, which is an indestructible metal that landed on Earth via a meteorite many years ago. However, Black Panther reveals Wakanda to be “technological marvel” that thrives on its copious amounts of Vibranium, which has enriched and empowered the entire Wakandan ecosystem and provided its people with a highly-advanced substance for technological innovation.
While Wakanda exists as a historically rich and complex Afrofuturistic culture, the rest of the world is duped by the illusion that Wakanda is a third-world country with a minor textile trade that simply refuses any foreign aid. Wakanda uses its Vibranium resources to “hide in plain sight” behind a technological veil. This convincingly positions Wakanda within the world-building history of the MCU and implies that it has existed just below the threshold of awareness during every major MCU event.
Wakanda’s isolationism, therefore, doesn’t separate Black Panther from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it strategically reinforces its connection with a world beyond its borders—its “impenetrable rainforest.” Across its first three phases, the MCU has gradually expanded its world-building boundaries to encompass a multiverse of dimensions: earthly (Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Spider-Man), cosmic (Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy), quantum (Ant-Man), and mystical (Dr. Strange). The arrival of Wakanda into this universe complicates and enriches these dimensions because it is an earthly territory that has always existed below the surface of MCU events, but has “hidden in plain sight”.
Similarly, while Black Panther introduces the history and importance of Vibranium in Wakanda, Vibranium is not new to the MCU: Captain America’s shield is made of Vibranium; Vibranium was used to create the synthetic being, Vision, in Age of Ultron; and Ultron combined Vibranium with Chitauri technology in Sokovia to create a weapon of mass destruction. Therefore, the geological and ecological foundation of Wakanda—that is Vibranium—has already played an important and recurring role in the MCU.
The realization of Wakanda and its vast supply of Vibranium now puts past references and uses of the metal in the story-world into a new perspective. While before Vibranium was a scarce resource associated merely with Captain America’s shield, in Black Panther Vibranium shields Wakanda from the world. Its Vibranium resources have enabled Wakanda to be self-sufficient, autonomous, and geopolitically isolated, but it also what most-connects it with the MCU history thus far. As such, Vibranium both isolates and connects Wakanda from the world, thus constituting a border around its physical geography and it’s story-world. The complexity of Black Panther’s political theme is that it depicts Wakanda’s own struggle with its self-contained borders.
Wakanda’s realization in the MCU is potentially a universe-changing tipping-point leading up to Thanos’s Infinity War. As T’Challa realizes, what happens in Black Panther “determines what happens to the rest of the world.” Wakanda’s technology, its resources, its highly-skilled people, and its rich cultural history have the potential to greatly impact the MCU; similarly, Black Panther’s commercial, creative, and cultural success also enables it realize and fulfil a deeper dimension to the superhero genre that has always been there, but hidden in plain sight.
“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved” — Shuri to T’Challa
Despite expressions of superhero fatigue, the MCU holds the mantle of highest-grossing franchise. Even so, recent releases like Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther demonstrate a willingness to improve and refine its strategy. As Shuri, T’Challa’s technologically-genius sister (played by Letitia Wright), tells her brother in Black Panther, “just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” As it continues to shatter box-office records—boasting highest total-grossing MCU installment—Black Panther’s commercial success indicates how much unrealized and unrepresented potential for improvement there is left to explore in the superhero genre and the MCU.
This suggests that expressions of superhero fatigue are not so much about the superhero genre itself, but about the all-too-familiar way that audiences have been addressed by the genre and the strategy. Therefore, sentiments of “superhero fatigue” need not necessarily be a derision towards the genre—although it is most often intended that way—but more productively reflects a demand for further variation and exploration of the genre, as well as more positive and diverse representation. This is exactly what Marvel Studios delivers with Black Panther.
However, I do not think that the commercial and cultural significance of Black Panther can or should be contained by notions of its “self-containment” and removal from the rest of the MCU. Quite the contrary: its cultural significance is strengthened and extended through its long-term impact on the entire MCU, since the realization of Wakanda will surely have a rippling effect on the future creative development of the franchise. Until then, we will undoubtedly experience the immediate impact of Black Panther and Wakanda’s revelation in the MCU later this month with the release of Avengers: Infinity War.