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This piece originally appeared in pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.
We need to talk about abolishing the superhero complex—and I'm talking about Black ones, too.
Ryan Coogler's 2018 Black Panther film could be considered a cultural reset for modern-day superhero films; it was monumental and transformative. The excitement many of us felt seeing a thriving, scientifically-advanced world unaffected by colonization on the big screen was unmatched. It was an enjoyable spectacle to watch and indulge in, especially given the state violence of that year. The messaging around the first Black Panther movie was reminiscent of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign: Hope. After watching the film, you left feeling hopeful that we could achieve a Wakanda or something similar if provided the same opportunities.
The connection between the prison and military-industrial complex is clearer for white, mainstream superheroes like Batman, who literally works with the police; or Captain America, a patriotic veteran whose origin and image glamorizes the U.S. Army and military. But the prison and military-industrial complex is just as interconnected in Black superhero origin stories.
The difference is that for the sake of finally seeing ourselves in the hero plot, we overlook violence. In Black Panther's case, we celebrate a monarchy, an all-Black female military, and a superhero who, just like the cops, is willing to collude with government agencies and extend carceral punishment for wrongdoings. A Black army is no more likely to actually keep Black folks safe than America's first Black president, who launched proxy wars, heightened racist immigration policies, and all but stood idly by during a rise in police violence. Antiblackness shapes fictional worlds and superheroes, such as Wakanda and Black Panther, all the way down to how we fictionalize (and sanitize) portrayals of real-life heroes like the one we commemorate each January, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Yes, Black Panther is a cop, too!
Before jumping into film critiques, we must first understand and acknowledge how entrenched superhero origin stories are with the prison and military-industrial complex. The best way to contextualize this is through the Comics Code Authority (CCA) of 1954. CCA is infamously known as a tactic publishers use to self-regulate and censor certain types of stories, images, and language in their comics. The CCA was stringent and had a list of rules both writers and illustrators had to follow.
The most memorable was rule number three:
"Policemen, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."
Many comic publications, including Marvel and DC, followed the CCA of 1954 until the early 2000s. Marvel's first Black Panther comic debut was in July 1966, meaning Marvel would've followed the CCA of 1954 rules and regulations for that particular comic. Detective Comics, also known as DC, relies heavily on the existence of police, jails, and prisons; it's literally in their name. (Side note: Batman is NOT beating those cop allegations.)
Although it's been over 20 years since comic publications abandoned the CCA of 1954, we still see its effects shaping how we envision superheroes today. It begs the question: Can superheroes exist without being in service to the state, including but not limited to police, military, and government officials? Unfortunately, Black Panther hasn't disproved this theory yet; the titular character has always maintained some positive relationship with the state. If you think about it, the Black Panther is not that much different from the average cop. Notwithstanding his supernatural abilities, he still relies heavily on carceral solutions like jails and prisons to deliver justice.
Additionally, MCU films and comics constantly showcase the alliance between Black Panther and The Avengers, another superhero team that works closely with police and government agencies. The 2018 Black Panther film made it clear that Black Panther was willing to partner and join forces with American CIA Agent Everett Ross, one of the few white people in the film. Agent Ross's relationship with Wakanda only strengthens in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever when Ross "helps" Queen Ramonda and Shuri in their time of need. His support is noticed and appreciated by Shuri, too. Toward the film's end, Shuri and Okoye save him and jokingly dub him her favorite colonizer.
These types of scenes are very frustrating to watch. The film is constantly trying to reinforce the idea that "good cops" can exist, something we've already debunked in other pop justice discussions. This type of subtle copaganda is constantly in Black Panther and other superhero comics, movies, and even games. We must continue interrogating the role and importance of the Black superhero and how they, too, are written as cops with capes or supernatural powers.
Only Murders in the Building exemplifies the lies in 'true' crime
If anything, Black Panther teaches us that having an all-Black female military in service to an all-Black country and a superhero doesn't stop Black people from experiencing antiblack violence. Unfortunately, police tendencies and habits don't stop because the cast and characters are all Black.
As abolitionists, we must unequivocally denounce all forms of copaganda—including Black Panther.
Here are some other examples of Black superheroes intertwined with the police state:
- Miles Morales (Black Spider-Man) has a father who's a cop.
- Falcon from Disney+'s Falcon and the Winter Soldier carries Captain America's mantel.
- John Ridley's Black Batman (comic book) continues working with the cops + has a working relationship with a "good/noble" Black female detective.
- Black Lightning (The CW + Netflix show) delivers the "bad guys" to the police.
- Luke Cage (Netflix show) has a romantic relationship with a detective.
'Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen'
The Dora Milaje, Wakanda's Military Task Force
The Dora Milaje, also known as The Adorned Ones, serve as the bodyguard and protector of the Black Panther and Wakanda. The Dora Milaje consists of an elite group of Black women warriors who have mastered many martial arts and fighting styles. Their combat suits and armor have ceremonial elements that make them both combat and formal-ready. It's easy to be wooed by their super strength and dedication to protect their leader and country. However, what's even more vital is that we recognize The Dora Milaje for what it is at its core: a military.
Positive media portrayals of militaries as heroes help normalize the idea that inflicting harm and terror on people under the guise of "protecting" sovereign land is okay. This fact remains true in both fictional and nonfictional worlds, including Wakanda. For example, members of the Dora Milaje in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever used intimidation tactics to threaten and remove characters like Riri Williams from her dorm room against her will. The Dora Milaje took Williams captive because she threatened the "safety" of Wakanda and the Black Panther lineage.
This type of antiblack violence isn't new for Black folk. Black folk in America and globally experience this violence daily under a police state regime. There are many instances, past and present, when leadership implores police and military personnel to hurt and remove Black folks from their homes forcefully. Especially when they feel like their land, property, and assets are under attack.
We must actively resist and unlearn bad habits; policing each other (in all ways) is very harmful, skin tone aside. Maybe then we can begin to see and reconsider if the military, like The Dora Milaje, should be something to cheer for and emulate.
Other examples of how the military-industrial complex shows up in Black superhero narratives include:
- Monica Rambeau: a recurring character in the Disney+ hit show, WandaVision. Rambeau is an ex-police officer turned SWORD agent
- The infamous Nick Fury, who is seen many times in the MCU franchise: Captain America Civil War, The Avengers… etc. Fury is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.—a fictional government agency
- John Stewart. Stewart is an ex-Marine turned green lantern for the space force—basically, space police. Stewart makes his appearance in the HBO Max movie, Green Lantern: Beware My Power
Wakanda: Land of the Free?
Many viewers love and adore Wakanda because of its ability to escape the clutches of white colonization and build a prosperous, independent, technology-driven country. Based on both Black Panther films, Wakandaians seem to, for the most part, always be in good spirits. However, what's considered the land of freedom and opportunity for some can be the complete opposite for others. Unfortunately, that was Riri Williams's reality. Commitments to sovereignty also didn't prevent or stop antiblack violence from happening to her, because Wakanda lacks the radical imagination that lays the foundation for an abolitionist world—and true freedom. Williams didn't go to Wakanda on her terms. Instead, she was uprooted from her "home" and forced to go to Wakanda as a prisoner. For Williams, Wakanda wasn't freedom dreams re-imagined. Once I was aware of this observation, grief immediately fell over me. It was upsetting to see that this was Williams' experience in a Black space that claimed to be making better efforts at diaspora solidarity.
Nevertheless, the initial treatment Williams experienced in Wakanda is a painful reminder of how some Black folks, particularly those marginalized in more ways than one, experience Black spaces. For instance, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are well known for creating a culture that promotes Black excellence and success. HBCUs are supposed to be safe spaces where Black students can build community and receive a quality education. Yet, people hardly ever talk about how HBCUs, like Wakanda, function as an arm of the state. These institutions are also complicit in state-sanctioned violence and employ cops against Black students. This same critique applies to cities with high Black populations like Atlanta and Baltimore, and New Orleans, which just elected a Black woman as sheriff. No amount of "Black excellence" can successfully uproot antiblackness if we don't seriously consider the commitments that prioritize the freedom and safety of every Black person.
The Prisoner: Riri Williams, aka IronHeart
"To be young, gifted, and Black." — Riri Williams, Wakanda Forever
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever introduces us to a new MCU star Riri Williams (Domonique Thorne), later known as IronHeart. Williams is a Black teenage supergenius from Chicago and an undergraduate student at MIT. Williams is also the inventor of the infamous vibranium detector that CIA agents unethically used to detect the presence of the rare, magical metal. Because of the U.S. government's greed to obtain vibranium, Williams was made a prisoner in all three sovereign countries (America, Wakanda, and Talokan.)
Last year, for pop justice, I wrote an article about why advocating for Black representation in tech spaces was only half the battle. I wanted to emphasize the importance of Black STEM students prioritizing political education, rooted in the liberation of all Black people, alongside their technical education. Black STEM students must engage in Critical Black Studies and join movement groups, because this idea of "Black Excellence" is and will always be limiting in an antiblack world. Williams' experiences at MIT show the audience the actual realities of how technology can negatively impact Black and other POC. In the film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the CIA used surveillance technology to spy on Williams while a student at MIT. As a result, Williams has to flee her "home" and find "safety" elsewhere.
The Dropout dramatizes Elizabeth Holmes' fraudulent rise. Endless military funding is also a scam.
Additionally, military and police departments constantly use technology to surveil and criminalize Black people. We can thank Spider-Man for helping pioneer the invention of prison ankle monitors. Lastly, in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the CIA does something many tech and government companies (including the CIA themselves) already do in real life: They profit from people's data via surveillance, and they recruit vulnerable students into their organizations and have them intentionally and unintentionally create products that harm their communities.
The film shows us how the CIA stole and used William's intellectual property, without her permission, to advance their efforts to obtain vibranium and destabilize Wakanda. We must continue being vigilant and understand how closely government agencies and institutions of higher education form partnerships and relationships to advance the police and military-industrial complex. Ironically, the thing that was supposed to liberate and give Williams a better life (education and technology) was the same thing that put her in harm's way, ultimately making her a prisoner. We must remember tech alone will not save us.
A Dream Unfulfilled: Wakanda-Talokan Solidarity
"Vengeance has consumed us. We cannot let it consume our people." — Shuri, Wakanda Forever
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the world's greatest real-life heroes. Every January, we pause to commemorate King's life, legacy, and unwavering commitment to the civil rights movement. We celebrate King's life similarly to how Wakanda celebrates and grieves T'Challa's death. Tribes across Wakanda unite in a mourning ritual that consists of celebratory dances, songs, outfits, and accessories to memorialize T'Challa. Nowadays, people of different races, nationalities, and religions come together to serve and attend MLK Day parades. But, MLK Day itself is also a time when the radical leaders' thoughts and words are sanitized, stripped from context, and weaponized against the very people he fought for. A similar dynamic showed up at the end of Wakanda Forever.
After an intense fight, Shuri practices an MLK-inspired nonviolent approach and chooses to spare Namor's life. But I wish she took a different approach, in part because the absence of physical violence between them doesn't mean they'd been freed from the kind the state exacts. No one had any real animosity for the U.S., even though they were the true antagonists. What would it have looked like if Shuri and Namor sought solidarity with each other to defeat their common enemy, the U.S. government?
When you really read Dr. King, especially his teachings on nonviolence, his concept of it, from the time he began writing about it as a student at Morehouse, was anchored in resisting the state and more explicitly, "refusing to cooperate with an evil system." Near the end of his life, he advocated and organized for class solidarity and vehemently condemned—through radical teachings—the U.S. government and military for its violence and war crimes in Vietnam.
Today, people of all creeds deploy King's words to defend the very evils he fought to defeat. In January, Senator Raphael Warnock quoted King in a tweet about an investigation into the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a Defend the Forest activist (an environmental movement pushing back against the erection of the Cop City training facility) who was killed by police.
Warnock, a pastor at the same church King led, never explicitly names which violence saddened him. Was it the pillaging of 300 acres in a Black neighborhood to "train" police to be better? The fact that a state trooper killed a 26-year-old? Or was the senator concerned about violence against property when the "riots turned violent," as the media described ensuing protests?
This is where we witness the shortcoming of the Black superhero complex in real-time. Warnock himself has been heralded as a pillar of "Black excellence," as one of the first Black Southern Senators since Reconstruction. He's a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and a Morehouse graduate, achievements that don't necessarily root out antiblackness. Many would not consider Warnock as part of the state machinations in the same way we were trained to divert our attention away from Kamala's legacy as a cop because we'd finally gotten some representation—we could change things from the inside, as the vice president likes to say.
I had some anxiety about writing this piece, stemming from not wanting to take away "Black joy" during a time when we so desperately need it. "Black joy," or the idea of it, is the thing that keeps us "living," but never the thing that keeps us "alive." But I also want to stress that wherever antiblackness takes root, where we pacify state violence to bask in an equally violent all-Black universe, there is no freedom—there cannot be true joy.
Whether it's a fictional superhero or real-life Black folks who've persisted against the odds, here comes real danger when we sanitize cop behavior and brand it as heroism. We risk a lot when we refuse to acknowledge or critique how Black Panther, and other superheroes, play the cop role and uphold white supremacy. It's important to remember that the goal is not to rebuild worlds, fictional or otherwise, that look and perform the same way our current world does—this won't upend antiblackness, which is a world we deserve. Instead, the goal is to create a world where we don't need a Black Panther or cops alike because ALL needs are met. Far too often, whiteness and white supremacy destabilize this dream/goal and try to whitewash how we envision our future.
In the spirit of MLK, it's time we dream bigger… and not for the white gaze.