“But it’s just a comic book movie,” is the often heard defense when one is critical of such films, ”therefore the rules of realism, dramatic integrity, and the laws of physics do not apply.”
And who would be a fool to begrudge another man his fantasy?
But if it is true that filmed entertainment is a delivery system of ideology; and if it is also true that movies based on comic books can be called fantasy films that are made to entertain; then one can conclude that such films are part and parcel of that which we call filmed entertainment. This being the case, I will gladly play the fool and explore the most noxious elements of the ideology that is being delivered by these colorful characters of greatly enhanced abilities in this genre of film.
And why is it necessary to be critical of the movies based on comic books?
Because you as a person of color cannot defeat the regime of the White imaginary if you lie asleep in the same bed next to it. That is to say, that if you should ever wake up and catch your strange bedfellow in the act, you would realize that all the comforts that he or she has given you is but a ruse of domination over you and a slow asphyxiation of your dreams and ambitions of artistic freedom like a degenerative sleep apnea kills its victim at their most vulnerable point: as they sleep.
The most recent “comic book movie”, Captain America: Civil War (2016), features not only three Black male characters of enhanced abilities (Falcon, War Machine, and Black Panther), but also two brief scenes featuring strong Black female characters. One scene is with Alfre Woodard playing the long grieving mother of a victim of superhero collateral damage. Another scene is with a female African security officer (Florence Kasumba) who dares to confront a White female superhero, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) but is told to “stand down” before what could have been a catfight for the ages would ensue.
While many apologists for comic book, fantasy, and science fiction films are quick to point out that such films are not about “race”, this particular film, Captain America: Civil War is actually about race and doubly so: 1) It presents us with a race of enhanced individuals (otherwise known as superheroes) in conflict with the governments of various countries of regular individuals who want to hold these superheroes accountable for the violent and deadly collateral damage their actions create by controlling who, when and where they fight; 2) The recent collateral damage of their actions in Lagos, Nigeria subsequently results in the murder of the King of the fictional African country of Wakanda and thus brings the arrival of a Black enhanced individual called,” Black Panther” (Chadwick Boseman) who wants to avenge the murder of the king who was his father. So without a doubt “race” is central to CA:CW; any arguments to the contrary would be built on the flimsy conceit that if one doesn’t talk about race, then there is only one race to see: the human race, which is often, if not solely, represented by Whites.
Yet curiously, the film does ignore the issue of race by showing it but not mentioning it, as the story within the film concerns itself with the problems created, maintained and managed by Whites in positions of power and authority who “stand in” for the human race that within the White imaginary represents us all. Concomitant with this near exclusive White representation of power and authority within a fantasy, comic book or science fiction film is the fact that the White characters wield the most effective, consistent and visible forms of dramatic agency within the narrative as minority characters are strategically placed as their support (i.e., sidekick) to increase box office and ancillary market potential.
But CA:CW has at least five Black characters with speaking parts within it and it would appear that racial inclusiveness is finally happening within the comic book/fantasy genre. Not to mention the fact that up and coming Black filmmaker Ryan Coogler has signed on to co-write and direct the Black Panther film for Disney/Marvel studios that is scheduled for release in 2018.
It seems that like the theme song for the television show, The Jeffersons: “ We’ve finally got a piece of the pie.”
But not so fast, we actually haven’t got it yet- and whether or not we will actually get a piece of the superhero/fantasy pie is a question I will explore here, no matter how certain the release date is for the Black Panther film, or how exciting the announcements are that Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan have joined the cast for the film.
As I have said before, the question of race, White supremacy and Black tokenism in a White film or film franchise is not one of quantity (i.e. How many Black characters –or- How much screen time), but one of quality (i.e. How much dramatic agency are the Black characters allowed to wield in a White film vis-à-vis the White characters). Ironically, although there are three Black characters of enhanced ability and two strong Black female characters in CA:CW; taken together these characters actually wield less dramatic agency than the White characters in the film. One could even observe that the more Black characters in a White film the less dramatic agency these characters are allowed to wield throughout the course of the narrative for the film to remain a White film. The damning conclusion here as it concerns Black dramatic agency in a White film is that more Black characters actually means less Black agency.
Specifically, dramatic agency in the superhero/fantasy film can be measured by the combination of both the degree of spectacle (in destruction and/or strength) of a particular enhanced character and the ability of that character to change, influence, control and/or survive the circumstances within a story. White supremacy is often maintained within the superhero/fantasy film by the higher degree of spectacle reserved for White superhero characters vis-à-vis their Black sidekicks that is commensurate with the Black sidekick character’s diminished ability to change, influence, control and/or survive the circumstances within a story. The seduction of the Black spectator into not questioning the unequal distribution of super powers, intelligence, and variable modifications to a White superhero’s abilities within a film or series of films is primarily performed by adding more Black supporting and/or sidekick characters, and the skillful deployment of various promises of a standalone film of a Black superhero, new Black sidekicks or other inclusions of characters from other comic books that are cast with Black actors.
The problem at hand is not whether these superhero characters are Black, but will these Black superhero characters wield dramatic agency to an equal or greater degree than their White counterparts?
To get to an answer to that question let us briefly compare the degree of spectacle and dramatic agency between the White male superheroes and the Black male superheroes as we have them in CA:CW, starting with Ironman/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine/James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). In this particular film, it is clear that Ironman/Tony Stark has both a superior command of his weaponry and the other spectacular capabilities of his suit, coupled with the additional dramatic agency in his ability to recruit Spiderman/Peter Parker (Tom Holland), negotiate with the Secretary of State and bestow generous grants to MIT students. Tony Stark’s superhero abilities are internal to his being via the power source that was embedded in his chest, and the vast sums of money at his disposal. By comparison, War Machine/Rhodey has ineffective weaponry (e.g. a Plasma Baton which is all but useless against Captain America), doesn’t use his weaponry or suit transformations to as spectacular effect as Ironman, has little political clout and is of considerably less financial means as Tony Stark. Moreover, in a circumstance strangely similar to the Black character of Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), War Machine is severely damaged at the end of the climatic civil war battle scene and the character is physically disabled during the final act of the film.
The second White/Black superhero pairing within the film is between Captain America/Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). While Falcon does have the spectacular ability to fly (alternately using his wings as bullet proof shields and launch pads for projectiles) and has a drone called Redwing to assist him, this degree of spectacle regarding his enhanced abilities are, like War Machine, exterior to his being. Captain America has enhanced abilities that are internal to his being that can be traced back to a secret serum that he was given decades ago which gives him super strength. When this strength is coupled with his lethal and near indestructible shield, there is a powerful degree of spectacle caused by the throwing, rebounding and catching of the shield as offensive weapon and defensive device. Captain America’s direct dramatic agency which allows him to defy government orders and recruit other superheroes to his cause and beliefs, puts Falcon squarely in a supporting role to the White patriot, patriarchal, and supremacist figure that is Captain America. (1)
And finally we must consider Black Panther/T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) as seen within the film CA:CW. He has the ability to run at superhuman speed and has lethal fighting capabilities in a suit that is resistant to bullets and explosives, that is also equipped with short razor sharp retractable claws. Black Panther as seen in this film has abilities that in comparison with the other White male and even White female superheroes are lesser in their combined degree of spectacle. Recall that even Black Widow was able to slow him down enough to allow Captain America to achieve his goal of escaping with his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan). Black Panther is an enhanced individual but to a limited physical capacity. As it concerns his ability to wield dramatic agency within this film, his aristocratic background as Prince of a wealthy African country, the jet we see him piloting briefly, and his decisions to avenge his Father’s death without the approval of other White superheroes or governments, are conspicuous amounts of dramatic agency given to a Black character that would inspire admiration in all but the most cynical of Black spectators.
But because we are measuring dramatic agency in the superhero/fantasy film by the combination of two elements, the diminished degree of spectacle and the increase in active dramatic influence, does not bring the character of Black Panther into full dramatic parity and equality with the White superheroes in the film. Such a stunning lack of equal or greater dramatic agency for a Black superhero character makes me inclined to agree with critic Paul Louise-Julie’s assertion that, ”The dark reality behind Black Panther is he’s a patsy- a false promise. His real purpose is to be wheeled out when Marvel [Disney] wants to avoid being accused of whitewashing or racism.” (2)
These two pairings and the Black Panther character taken together reveal that White writers, directors and studio execs, no matter how liberal and earnest in their attempts to be racially inclusive, cannot and will not share dramatic agency equally among White, Black or minority characters in a White film. At every turn, whether through a contrived sense of dramatic necessity, excuses of marketing and budgetary considerations, these Whites in control of the means of production will undermine in both subtle and direct ways any attempt at sharing dramatic agency equally between White, Black or minority characters. The undermining of dramatic agency can be as subtle as not giving the Black characters an equally detailed or completely conceptualized back story, family or love interest, to as blatant as “Asian Swapping” where a character who was originally Asian in the source material is swapped out for a White actor in the film adaptation, as we see with the controversy surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in the upcoming Marvel/Disney release Dr. Strange.
Black audience loyalty to the Marvel/Disney studios combined film and television comic book/fantasy franchises is predicated upon the fact that the Black Panther stand alone film will not only be co-written and directed by a Black man, but will also feature no less than three recognizable stars and a potential cast of hundreds of Black actors to be seen as the inhabitants of the self sufficient fictional African country of Wakanda. Here I must reiterate that more Blacks in a White film or White film franchise does not in any way guarantee more Black dramatic agency- in fact, it actually limits the ability of these Black characters to fully wield dramatic agency if the film is to remain a White film or franchise. (3)
Before concluding, I would like to point out a major stylistic feature of the comic book superhero fantasy film that secures White dramatic agency in both spectacle and dramatic influence, that has heretofore never been given to a Black superhero character, and it is a feature that I will call, “The White Power Shot” or “Sequence.”
The White Power Shot in a comic book/fantasy film is similar in potency and importance as the Money Shot is in a porn film. It is a shot or sequence which, in its extended moment on screen, exemplifies either the physical, technical or moral superiority of a White male superhero over the dramatic obstacle that would otherwise have obstructed the story or event for minority or even White female superhero characters. The most dominate White Power Shot in CA:CW is the isolated sequence of shots of Captain America keeping a helicopter from taking flight by holding on to its landing gear with one hand and anchoring himself to the roof of a building with the other. These images of Captain America with his biceps and tendons flaring in a CGI assisted feat of phenomenal and impossible strength, lingers on the screen like something out of the Nazi propaganda film, OLYMPIA (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl. That is to say, that this impossible feat of physical power is held on the screen as both a symbol of White superiority and the very embodiment of all that is White dramatic agency: the ability to overcome and prevail against any obstacle man, machine, alien or programmed enemy.
The White Power Shot in the superhero fantasy film is an instant White supremacist mythology writ large for every eye to behold in awe. Look closely at any superhero fantasy film and you will see The White Power Shot or sequence, but the question that remains is, will we ever see a comparable Black Power Shot or sequence in the stand alone Black Panther film to which so many of us have pledged our loyalty in expectation? Moreover, will the Black Panther film be just another White film with a few prominent Black faces to seduce the Black audience into paying to see themselves as only supporting characters in the White imaginary, with no imagination of their own?
We’ll have to wait and see – we always have to wait and see – but I surely wouldn’t bet that 40 acres and mule we never got, nor the justice we never receive when a White cop shoots an unarmed Black man either, on the hope that Whites in power will ever share what keeps them in power, with those of whom they oppress to sustain it.
To the most ardent apologist whose final defense against all that I have written is to say that a comic book movie is based on a vast and rich amount of comic book lore, history and volumes and that no single film or series of films can ever fully capture all the details and intricacies of the superheroes, the villains and the worlds they inhabit; and furthermore that any criticism of a comic book movie has to wait until the series is finished before approaching so great a subject; to that I say: It’s just a comic book and not some sort of irreproachable literature written, studied and canonized centuries ago.
But it is just so innocent and juvenile a thing as a comic book where the most noxious ideology of White supremacy can be hidden in plain sight.
Because ideology should never be presented seriously, it must be entertaining to be at its most effective so that it doesn’t wake up the mind, but instead keeps it asleep.
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
(1) Actually, in attempts to avoid race based criticism like the kind I am making here clever White filmmakers often vary the degree of Dramatic Agency of the Black sidekick characters in each installment of a franchise –giving a little more when it is needed to secure the Black audience in the early installments of the series and then tapering it off when the Black audience can be safely distracted by the supremacy of the White superhero characters in later installments of the series. But never do these Black sidekicks ever have equal or greater dramatic agency than the White characters in any single installment.
(2) One can and must read the thorough and insightful article,” Why I Wasn’t Excited for Black Panther’s MCU Debut,” by Paul Louise-Julie. https://saywordtothenerd.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/why-i-wasnt-excited-for-black-panthers-mcu-debut-guest-contribution-by-paul-louise-julie/
(3) The catch-22 definition of a White film renders void full Black dramatic agency in that the White film is narrowly defined here as a film with at least one White in the lead role or co-lead role and Blacks or other ethnicities in supporting or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).