Caution — Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War
It was during a Mother's Day visit to my aunt's house that I got confirmation that more black people other than myself were upset by Black Panther's death in Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War. My aunt had just seen it the day before with my cousins, and she was still shook.
“It's just wrong," she said. "He just got here. It's just wrong."
What was it about T'Challa's death that made my aunt so shocked? What about it made me leave the theater angry and slightly nauseous? I think it's because, as my aunt stated in so many words, we just got our first black superhero. And now he's being taken away from us, almost as if he never meant anything at all.
At the time of Infinity War's filming, Marvel didn't know the type of hit they had on their hands with Black Panther. They'd essentially filmed the two movies back-to-back, and while both films had a lot to prove to audiences, the latter was created to be the crown jewel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)'s 10-year film history, an ending to a successful decade of world-building.
But I'd argue that Black Panther is the more important film because it says so much more than Infinity War could ever say. It doesn't just push plot points along; it opens viewers up to a world that not only affects how they view superheroes and heroism, but it also alters how they view the world around them. Incredibly, Black Panther was able to give simultaneous treaties on the view of Africa in the Western mind, the generational effects of slavery, racism and discrimination on the continent and among the diaspora and how colonization has warped life on earth for the colonized and the colonizers. It taught an African-American studies lecture while giving us Shakespearean drama and a standard Marvel coming-of-age superhero tale. It said so much and made it look easy.
The film's hero, T'Challa, is also different than your standard Marvel superhero. In T'Challa, there is a superhero who could admit when he was wrong. Even though he had to fight his cousin Killmonger to the death, he realized the point Killmonger was trying to make and understood the hurt Killmonger has experienced over his life. Compare that to Captain America in recent films, particularly Captain America: Civil War. Even though Captain America stands for good, it seems like he should admit some wrongdoing when it comes to withholding the true story of how Iron Man's parents died, or how he's basically absolved himself from any role he might have had in innocent people getting killed in Sokovia and points elsewhere on Earth. As much as I love Steve Rogers, it's time to admit that Captain America is being an ugly American to the extreme.
T'Challa is a superhero who welcomes the natural force women possess. Women surround him in every facet of his life, and never does he exhibit toxic masculinity or somehow feel emasculated by women like the Dora Milaje saving his life. Compare to Infinity War, in which nearly every woman, save for the Wakandan women, play second fiddle to the men in their lives. They are portrayed as “The Girlfriend" or “The Fiancée," always mothering immature men, men they have no commonality with. Have you noticed how much Gamora is irritated by Star-Lord? Where's the relationship? And yet, she's inexplicably his love interest.
On top of all of T'Challa's great qualities, he's also historic for a visible reason; he's the first black Marvel superhero within the MCU to headline his own film. To take a line from Star Wars' Finn, he's a pretty big deal. He's a character the resonates with black viewers on a deeper level than Iron Man or Captain America ever could. While there are other black superheroes in the MCU, like War Machine and the Falcon, they are both in the “black male sidekick" role, a role Marvel likes to employ to show that their superheroes, indeed, do have black friends.
But this is also a role that's been used in films ad nauseum. It's an insidious position for black characters to be put in; it's a role that at once tells the viewer that while the black character--and by extension black people in the real world--isn't relegated to the proverbial back of the bus anymore, they still aren't welcomed in the leading role, so they must therefore act as a character who supports the main guy's goals and happily backs him up, providing a little comic relief along the way. The MCU has become an expert at developing this type of role.
To be honest, I was so conditioned at seeing the black guy be the best friend to the white male lead that it was actually jarring for me to see T'Challa on screen by himself for the first 10 minutes of Black Panther. Even though I've always resented those second-string type roles, I now realized I was finally getting what I've always wanted, and I was stunned as I gazed upon the screen. Here is a hero, standing on his own, running the show. Some might not understand how monumental it can be to see someone of your background be the lead. But it's a huge psychological shift; it can tell viewers who have long seen themselves in the background that they, too, are worthy enough to take charge, that they can be seen by others as being self-possessed, assured and meaningful.
If there's one thing that can be said, it does seem like Marvel is more aware of the problem they've created than they're willing to let on. When asked about Black Panther's death by Buzzfeed, Infinity War co-screenwriter Stephen McFeely gave an interesting answer.
“First of all, we would do it all over again. But remember when we're writing [Infinity War], and even shooting, there is no Black Panther movie. We don't know it's going to be so good, so effective, so resonant."
To be fair, the remainder of his point to Buzzfeed, that all of the characters had to be treated the same regardless of if they led their own films, makes sense. As co-screenwriter Christopher Markus added, “If you're very carefully getting rid of your supporting cast, then it does seem like you're pulling your punch." Even with that, though, T'Challa's death feels cheap.
We can assume the superheroes who turned into dust will be back in some form; there's too much money left on the table with them dead for good (besides, Spider-Man's supposed to be a junior in high school in the Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel; he can't be a junior if he's still dust). So if everyone's coming back, why even do this big stunt? To paraphrase Killmonger, is this your 10-year celebration?
But on the other hand, it feels like poor planning. I don't know the inner workings of how the MCU coordinates scripts, if they do at all, but if there was a time to coordinate and allow the screenwriters for Black Panther and Infinity War to peek over each other's shoulders, this would have been it. Does it make sense for T'Challa to die and be resurrected in Black Panther only for him to die meaninglessly in Infinity War? If we're speaking simply about story techniques, a move to kill a character that had been brought back to life is redundant and angering. Think back to how mad folks got when Glenn from The Walking Dead died at the hands of Negan since fans felt like they'd already lived through his death episodes before and were relieved when he actually survived the unsurvivable. Using Glenn as a tease turned a lot of fans off.
Overall, though, it just feels like Marvel truly didn't understand the type of void Black Panther was filling, and T'Challa's death is like salt in a wound that was just beginning to heal. Some of the lack of foresight is evident in McFeely's Buzzfeed response, and it's also evident in how scarce Black Panther products are on the market. Disney had come out with a statement in April saying their stock has been depleted due to the overwhelming response to the film.
“We are thrilled that fans around the world are celebrating this incredible story through merchandise," a spokesperson for Disney told Atlanta Black Star. “We anticipated demand would be strong, but it is exceeding even our highest expectations." The spokesperson also told the SFGate that they were intently working on rolling out more products for the summer back-to-school season and Halloween (and most assuredly, one can assume Christmas is on the roster as well). But usually, Marvel has tons of film-related products out for a film's release. Go to shopdisney.com and compare the Infinity War page to the Black Panther page. For Infinity War, you'll see rows and rows of toys, collectible figures, jewelry, backpacks, makeup, books, caps and other accessories. Even though the Black Panther page has clothes and toys for kids, the amount of merchandise pales in comparison.
Toy analyst Richard Gottlieb said to The New York Post the toy industry underestimated the popularity of the film because it was a film geared toward black audiences.
“The African-American community was very excited about this movie," he said, "but the toy industry was unsure whether it would generate broad public demand."
BMO Capital's Gerrick Johnson felt differently, telling Fox Business that the lack of toys is because of overall uncertainty retailers have about toy sales, and it made sense for Hasbro “to keep it tight now, as scarcity is good to keep interest and demand going into the back half."
But to me, that doesn't make sense when there's a plethora of Infinity War items to choose from right now. Where's the "scarcity is good for business" talk with these toys?
The fact that merchandise has been scarce proves something about the prejudices that underline the marketplace, including the film marketplace; black audiences are still not trusted by the powers that be. It's always seen as a “risk" to make something geared toward black audiences (or any audience of people of color) because the project is immediately seen as“niche." However, Black Panther's success has smashed those stereotypes. Films with black casts can be lucrative, and they can also be accepted and appreciated by a wide range of audience members, not just black ones. Most importantly, films like Black Panther give today's audience more of what they want, which are stories that relate the experiences of all Americans, not just white ones.
Audiences are yearning to see stories they haven't been allowed to see on screen. Of course, feeding that yearning can translate into dollars, but it also translates into feeding higher self-esteem, particularly among black children who haven't grown up with tons of fictional superheroes who look like them. Seeing T'Challa has given a lot of children (and kids at heart) comfort and reassurance. He's made them feel seen. When my aunt lamented T'Challa's death by saying, “It's just wrong," it feels like this sentiment is what she was getting at. Why take T'Challa away from us when we just got him?
The commercials for the Black Panther home release make a point of showing the clip of Okoye saying, “The Black Panther lives." I feel like this clip is being driven home for a reason. Not only is it because it's a triumphant moment in the film, but it's also a moment that gives hope to many viewers who, like my aunt and myself, came out of Infinity War shaken by T'Challa's death. The Black Panther does indeed live, and if Marvel knows what's good for them, we'll get to see him alive again soon.