With the Black Panther movie just around the corner, I think it’s time to revisit a peculiarity of the Marvel Universe: Its imagined places and spaces when it comes to Eastern European and African countries.
I am what would be considered a casual reader of comic books. I always have been. Of course, I never had more than a superficial understanding of the intricate comic book worlds and universes all of these characters came from. In short, I was and still am the ideal target audience for the extended cinematic universes, and like anyone and everyone.
Until sometime two years ago, when I engaged with Black Panther as a part of a university project focused on Black Lives Matter, the Black Panther and the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t know who the character was at all. Now, especially in view of the current socio-political climate in the real world and with the backdrop of how the Netflix series Luke Cage handled a former Blacksploitation superhero of the 70s, I am really psyched for the upcoming movie.
I can’t help but wonder, however, why the movie has to be set in a fictional African country instead of a real one. This practice already irked me when I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the climax of the movie takes place in fictional Eastern European country Sokovia. Of course, the MCU and the DCEU are fictional, and one might argue that in the case of Sokovia a fictional country was chosen because its main city was going to be jeopardized and almost completely destroyed, which would be more difficult to do with a U.S. American landmark.
But then, other cities and countries in the world do exist, albeit as fictional versions of themselves. South Korea for example is an important part of Avengers: Age of Ultron; some of the key events take place in Seoul.
In Captain America: Civil War Wakanda is filmed in a South African city. Black Panther’s main villain is white and has a Boer accent; in a way the film is drawing on what little an American audience might know about contemporary history anywhere in Africa (i.e. South Africa and apartheid). However, the film also quite clearly seems to be an allegory for post-slavery, and deals with being Black in America and the African-American experience, as evidenced by the use of hip hop in all of the trailers that have come out so far. This would allude to West African countries then. Of course, Black Panther is a prince turned king as well, which further underlines the notion of heritage and inheritance. All of this amounts to some troubling implications, the use of African-ness as a prop rather than a genuine experience. Being from Africa is not a marker of identity in Black Panther. Rather, the implication becomes what being from Africa means in U.S. American society.
The idea behind the symbolism of Wakanda becomes quite apparent, and commendably so, in World of Wakanda. The series was remarkable because it was the first comic series penned by women of colour, including acclaimed feminist Roxane Gay (even though World of Wakanda was unfortunately discontinued in June of last year). But it seems that in its effort to mark Wakanda as a utopian space of freedom, it provides Black American agency at the cost of real African agency in the Marvel Universe.
Again, if all of the countries in this fictional universe were completely fictionalized, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, but Eastern European countries outside of Russia, East Asian countries outside of China, Japan and Korea and African countries are the ones that are (predictably) fictionalized to the point of being unrecognizable as renamed fictional counterparts of real countries. They are the places where the exact origin or space their denizens are from doesn’t matter.
You might argue that this has always been the case in the Marvel Universe, there has always been a Wakanda. But seeing as other aspects of outdated ideas have been updated to be more relevant to today’s world, the fact that Marvel has decided to maintain this exoticising view of an independent, advanced African country – a country that is fictional and therefore cannot exist in reality – while simultaneously lumping all African experiences into a few fictionalized spaces speaks to an embodiment of colonial and colonizing aspects.
I say all this while still looking forward to the Black Panther movie. In fact, I’m sure I will enjoy it. And based on the trailer, there seems to be a Black American villain in addition to the white villain, which might allow for some interesting comments on society that run counter to the argument made in this article. But fictionalizing countries from certain areas while keeping spaces like the U.S.A., Western European countries and major economic forces like China, Japan and Korea defictionalized to a certain extent, speaks to the fact that it is still considered alright to use ideas of Others to further a Western perspective. And especially in superhero films, where the word superhero itself derives from problematic philosophical terminology, it is important to move beyond that underlying privileged attitude, even when that attitude is being used as an allegory for the emancipation of a marginalized part of society in another context.