Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th film in the highest-grossing film franchise in history — Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, currently at $15-billion — opens in cinemas next week and is being hailed as revolutionary.
But what’s been forgotten is that Avengers: Infinity War could have become the story of a revolution. To reveal why, cast your mind back a few weeks to the previous film in the series, Black Panther, itself grossing more than R100‑million in South Africa and $1.3‑billion worldwide. As major exports from the United States, these entertainments also function ideologically as the latest software updates of the American dream.
Black Panther’s fictional nation of Wakanda is itself a dream utopia. An American dream of an African dream; a technically advanced African country that avoided colonialism. It’s an interesting premise but any hope that an alternative social system developed is avoided by way of nostalgia, because Wakanda is ruled by a monarchy.
So Black Panther becomes the tale of a returning king, T’Challa, who learns to modernise his kingdom, with its magical resources, by integrating it with the global status quo. He does this in alliance with the CIA.
His antagonist, Killmonger — a former US soldier turned rogue — wants Wakanda and its resources to be used as a springboard for arming black and oppressed peoples around the world.
Publicity photos for the film depict the characters’ motivations. T’Challa’s is “his father’s legacy” and Killmonger’s is “his people’s rage”. Throughout the film, Killmonger’s rage is presented sympathetically before it is contained. The cause of the rage is settled by T’Challa, who sets an example by “advancing” his country into globalisation.
T’Challa’s tech-savvy sister has designed him a new Black Panther outfit. New clothes for a new type of king. She offers him a choice of neck chains to wear. The chain activates his suit of armour when he becomes Black Panther.
The first chain is gold with the bones of an animal’s claws; the second looks like platinum claws on a simple chain. They discuss how elegant the platinum one is, fit for a king. T’Challa wears it from then on. When Killmonger wins the throne, he wears the gold one.
The visual message is that T’Challa has aesthetic taste and that Killmonger is tacky — he even has gold teeth.
In street culture, platinum is today, gold is the past. This motif matches the ideological theme: Black Panther’s global view is current and Killmonger’s is one of the past.
I once attended a function at which a journalist who had been embedded with US troops in Libya related her experiences of accompanying soldiers storming a Muammar Gaddafi residence. Inside they found what she said was tasteless decor and treasures, including a jewel-encrusted gold map of Africa on a gold chain. The journalist joked about the outdated opulence of the jewellery and the mansion.
But what if she had found a mansion designed in a contemporary Western style of steel and glass, with minimalist decor and eco-vegetation covering the roof? She might not have joked about Gaddafi’s lack of sophistication but such a building would be more expensive, and therefore more opulent, today than an outdated 1980s-style mansion. Eco-vegetation makes a statement that the owner cares for the environment and is therefore socially responsible. This fits the image of being wealthy and civilised today.
It’s this “civilised” position that Black Panther arrives at in the film; his aid programme is that of the modern ethical capitalist.
There are two white characters in the film: a sensitive CIA agent who supports Black Panther and a grotesque South African mercenary who backs Killmonger. The dualism of the white characters — modern liberal versus the outdated working class — is a recent stereotype in Hollywood cinema. It’s the same character conflict found in films such as Avatar and District 9, in which a New Age hero defeats an old-style militaristic character.
The fantasy here offers redemption for the guilt of the Gulf War, or a colonial past, to a white audience adjusting to life in a liberal multicultural world. (Interestingly, like Black Panther, Avatar is set in a nostalgic utopia harbouring a magical precious metal.) The Gulf War and 9/11 paranoias in the American psyche account for many themes in superhero movies.
Back in Wakanda, Killmonger explains that his military past was him living a lie. He took the lives of his brothers and sisters in Africa to kill Black Panther — as if it were the journey of somebody deep undercover, forced to kill his own in Libya or Somalia in the service of a larger cause.
This personal sacrifice adds a complex dimension to Killmonger’s commitment. He is revealed as a militant revolutionary planning to take the crown of Wakanda from Black Panther to free the global oppressed.
A world revolution is in the making and Killmonger, with a philosophy of “exporting revolution”, explains he has spies all over the world and plans to send them arms, starting with those in London, New York and Hong Kong. It’s at this point that the filmmakers have no choice but to shut him down. The consequences of Killmonger’s success are just too great for the Disney/Marvel film franchise. This is why Killmonger starts to contradict himself.
First he is fighting for oppressed people, then suddenly his motive changes to one where he will be king and “the sun will never set on the Wakandan empire”. He is now building an empire as revenge for the European colonial empire. This reduces the potential of his emancipatory vision to the narrow view of an old-fashioned dictator.
It’s now easy for the audience to support Black Panther, who offers the only other available option for Wakanda in relation to the modern world: global capitalism.
Returning from near death, Black Panther defeats Killmonger just as his spaceships are leaving to arm the oppressed. Black Panther wins the fight with his knowledge of technology; the new defeats the old.
But what if Black Panther had died when Killmonger defeated him earlier, during ritual combat for the throne? Killmonger would have remained the Black Panther king and started his world revolution. But this radical option is blocked by the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe series.
Following the template of the original Marvel comics, each superhero has his own films that exist in the same world as others in the franchise — and sometimes they cross over. The most successful films are those where the series characters come together as the Avengers. This latest Avengers film features Black Panther and Wakanda. If Killmonger had triumphed and had become the official Black Panther, he would be marshalling a world revolution by now — a cause his fellow Avengers would have had to decide either to fight or join.
The liberal allegories found in Black Panther are consistent across the Marvel films, which prompts the question: If films like these constantly remind us that the revolutionary moment is over, why do they continue insisting on it?
The battle of ideas between Black Panther and Killmonger is analogous to the ideological battles in anticolonial movements during their transitions from liberation struggle to independence.
At the end of the cold war, liberal democracy presented itself as having defeated both Soviet-style state socialism and old Western colonial values. In the eyes of the victorious West, freedom fighters needed to catch up with progress because “utopian” ideas for the future were now a thing of the past — an ideological manoeuvre neatly equating fascism and socialism as the same thing.
With the Soviet Union no longer existing, the newly emerged world order arguably influenced South Africa’s outcome from the cold war endgame. We joined the global community and became equal in capitalism, a system with a logic of inequality. We took the Black Panther route and joined a defence team of Avengers called the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) states. We embraced brutal globalisation.
We haven’t saved the world yet. So now is the time for a sequel. But in this world democracy, in which we are constantly reminded of our infinite creativity and freedom to chase our dreams, it seems no one can write it.