Erasing Black Panther to Render Him Safe

The Captain America: Civil War trailer has caused a lot of excitement with fans. And certain images have gone onto become instant memes and gifs. Newspapers, reviewers, as well as comic book related journals, have all written editorials and opinion pieces on what we learn in the trailer, what it means, and what we can expect.

Now, as Ian Dawe recently wrote here about the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer, this can be a slippery slope analyzing trailers and promotional materials as they are rarely created by the director, and often have a different vision from what the movie, director, or actors want. And Dawe is right. While we all do it, you can’t really judge a movie by its trailer. We’ve all had the experience of an odd trailer that turned into a great film, or a film ruined by all the good bits being in the trailer.

But while we can’t necessarily judge a trailer as a reflection of the movie to come, or the production’s artistic vision, it’s still a cultural artifact, and in that light, we can certainly make arguments about the statements it is making, and identify problematic representations.

Ever since the Civil War trailer, and associated promotional materials started being released, I was really bothered by the fact that Black Panther is only shown in costume, and that the actor Chadwick Boseman and his character of T’Challa is never shown. If you look at all the other promotional materials for Marvel films, the superheroes faces are almost always shown. While some posters show Iron Man, Captain America, Falcon, and others in costume with their faces obscured, the majority of the promotional materials show their faces. So it struck me as odd.

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To me it read like erasure. And was deeply troubling. So as I do with all things when troubled, I asked my best friend. And not just because he’s my go-to for all things but because he’s specifically my go-to for all things Black Panther. Not just because he’s a comic dork like me, but because his name actually is T’Challa. I asked him if he was reading it the same way I was, and his response was much like Dawe’s, a bit of hedging about differences between promotional materials and the movie. He said he was going to wait and see. I continued to be bothered (and he’ll be amused that I’m pointing out he was the calmer, cooler head in this).

But Entertainment Weekly‘s recent 11 December 2015 cover for Civil War changed the argument and not in a good way. As Comic Book Resources pointed out, the cover is incredibly insulting. The cover and the accompanying story gives us a great opportunity to talk about what is wrong with the presentation of Black Panther and what it represents. Whether or not this representation is intended I would argue is secondary. The point is we can easily read it this way.

First, let’s actually look at the cover.

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It shows Steve Rogers/Captain America on one side and Tony Stark/Iron Man on the other. In between them, what should be a key visual position, is T’Challa/Black Panther. Our eye naturally goes to the center, so this would seem to indicate that Black Panther is the emphasis. The text would seem to support that, while “First Look! Captain America Civil War” is the main, bold text in the center, the fact that Black Panther is on larger, bolder texts on the right ties it to the title, and grants it importance. But the portrayal becomes more complicated than that.

For one, Black Panther is almost completely obscured by the bodies of Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man. All you see of him is his head and the top of his torso, and as I noted above, we see the character, not the actor. Which is odd, because both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. are in character costume, but we clearly see their faces. This is problematic because it attempts to erase the parts of the character that are perceived as potentially dangerous, mainly his role as a black man. It also reads as an odd revision of anthropomorphism; that somehow Black Panther is “safer” as an animal than he is as a black man. And that has dangerous echoes of racist theories that debated blacks were animals, not men, therefore justifying their treatment.

But it’s not just the fact that the Black Panther is obscured, literally, on this cover. He’s also further rendered powerless, as seen by the dialogue, “Meow.” Black Panther isn’t even a powerful animal, he’s a kitty cat. I’m sure it was meant to be cute. And funny. And yet, neither of the two white actors/characters have dialogue. So the fact that this infantilizing, emasculating dialogue is only attributed to the black figure is a serious problem. It’s more of a problem if Entertainment Weekly didn’t see the issue.

This narrative continues in the magazine article itself.

Black Panther is given a two page spread within this issue, which is a lot of space. But how is that space used?

One side is dominated by an image of Black Panther in costume, and it’s his animal nature that’s emphasized with the claws prominently displayed. And again, we don’t see the face of the actor. If you look very closely on the left hand side, in a very tiny circle we see a picture of Chadwick Boseman, the actor playing Black Panther.

The focus of the page is on the design, the construction, of the character through costume. This further emphasizes the construction of the character, not the man behind the superhero. His suit has a “sheen that seems to replicate the glistening fur of the jungle cat that gives him his name.” His armor is meant to defend against attack. He has “Kitty Vision,” another awful example of taking a powerful, black character and removing his power or at the very least rendering it “safe.” The last element of the costume discussed is his claws, again emphasizing his animal nature. While I love reading background on how sets and costumes are created, this feature has disturbing repercussions. It presents a stereotypical image that strong black men are really just animals. Animals that either have to be controlled, or rendered safe for consumption.

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The second page of the spread features one image of “Captain America and Black Panther on the chase” and again, Black Panther is shown in full costume. The accompanying text is perhaps more disturbing though: in what is supposed to be a two page spread on Black Panther, the second page has nine paragraphs, only two that are actually about Black Panther. The rest focus on Captain America and Iron Man. Unfortunately it is a fairly common move to say you’re going to write about or cover the black character, but end up focusing on the white narrative.

But it’s just one publication, right? One trailer. And as we’ve said, it’s hard to make arguments on such little evidence.

So go to Google. Search “Marvel movie, Black Panther,” and see what comes up.

The majority of the results show Black Panther in costume, usually against a dark background, symbolically suggestive that he’s on the wrong side of the civil war. Several images place him against a jungle background, which while certainly relevant to the character’s history, is a bit of a minefield when introducing the first black superhero.

Out of the top thirty-seven images, only five feature Chadwick Boseman in person representing Black Panther, and in four of those instances he’s framed by Chris Evans and/or Robert Downey Jr. which is can be argued presents T’Challa/Black Panther as incapable of standing on his own, that he is only important as part of a white narrative, not for his own.  Seven of those images feature only movie titles, which is the “safest” way of dealing with the figure. Two of those images feature other black actors, which probably relates back to when casting was unknown and people were voting for favorites, but also, disturbingly can be implied that all black actors are interchangeable. Five of the images are from the comics.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa does not appear in a single image. He is either Chadwick Boseman the actor or in full costume as the Black Panther. Given the majority of images that show Steve Rogers as Captain America but still showing his face, and the same treatment with Tony Stark as Iron Man, this stands out as an oddity.

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It’s possible that all of this coverage, or lack thereof, is unintentional. But for me, that only makes all of this worse. Because that means that our societal norm is that we are still so threatened by a strong black man that we automatically take steps to render him safe, palatable, to a white audience.

He can be powerful, but only as a character, not as a man.

He can feature prominently in promotional materials but again, only as a character, not as a man.

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I hope that the actual movie proves a lot of these arguments wrong. But the problem remains that there is still an issue. It’s not coincidence that this applies to the first black superhero.

I already know the counter-argument: “But look at Falcon, he’s not treated this way.” And you’d be right. But I would argue that in this case, when comparing T’Challa and Sam Wilson, the racial differences is in their powers. Sam Wilson is Falcon as a result of technology, engineering, “safe” and controllable powers controlled by a mostly white military industrial complex. If the white establishment decides Wilson is a threat it is easy enough to deprive him of his powers.

T’Challa’s powers are supernatural. They are intertwined with his role within his tribe. They are inseparable from him, from his race, from his home in Africa. While his equipment and suit augments and supplement his powers, you could remove the suit and T’Challa would still be a powerful. A threat. He is still a potential danger. He is still powerful.

And it is that perceived threat, and the fear of that threat, that these promotional materials reflect.

Even 2015 Anglo America is still afraid of black power.

In light of current events over the last few years, the blind eye turned towards institutional racism and white privilege, that’s a dangerous, harmful representation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Wow, Entertainment Magazine really screwed up with that coverage. Kitty vision? Who the heck wrote that? This is a superhero for crying out loud, not a supermodel!
    However, I would like to think that Marvel is saving the character’s non-costumed appearance for the movie. A trailer shouldn’t give us everything, and since Black Panther is a new addition to the MCU, they probably wanted to keep him mysterious to keep people theorizing about his role in the movie.

  2. I was compelled to create an account just so I could comment on this article.

    Karra, I appreciate the thought and analysis you applied to this editorial, but this is one of the greatest examples of misplaced outrage I’ve ever stumbled across.

    As I read it, your main thesis is that Marvel Studios, Entertainment Weekly, and (I assume) the entire internet is out to minimize the importance of the Black Panther character because of his race.

    I want to touch on 3 of your main points.

    1) Marvel’s promotional material doesn’t show T’Challa’s face.

    First, Black Panther plays a supporting role in Captain America: Civil War and Chadwick Boseman (while a fine actor) isn’t the reason most people are going to see the movie. So, it makes sense Marvel wouldn’t devote time in the trailer to show T’Challa out of costume. Secondly, the Black Panther solo movie is still 2 YEARS away, so could you have just a wee bit of patience when it comes to giving Chadwick the spotlight? In just a short while, Chadwick’s image (in costume as Black Panther) will be plastered on every genre magazine, website and movie blog in the world.

    2) The Entertainment Weekly article and cover were insulting to Black Panther.

    First, Anthony Breznican (the author of the article) is one of the most respected journalists covering the superhero genre, so the idea he would intentionally denigrate a beloved Marvel superhero is ridiculous. Secondly, yes the little “meow” on the cover was a tad silly, but I think I know why EW added that text. It was done to instantly tell the non-comic reader – the millions of people who have no idea who Black Panther is – this superhero has cat-like powers. I can just imagine the the average person standing in line at the grocery store looking at the EW cover and wondering why BATMAN is standing next Cap and Iron Man. As for “Kitty Vision” – again – a tad silly, but the article was written to appeal to readers who are not steeped in Marvel comics lore. By the way, how is “Kitty Vision” that much different from “Spidey Sense”?

    3) All of the concept art, promotional images, and trailers fail to show T’Challa the man – instead only showing the character in costume.

    Again, easily explained. One, it bears repeating – T’Challa / Black Panther (while important to the plot of Captain America: Civil War) is not the star. Two, the Black Panther costume is regarded by many as one the greatest costume designs in history, so – if you’re Marvel – wouldn’t you want to showcase that stunning, iconic image? Three, (again I’m repeating myself) we’re about to be treated to non-stop Black Panther coverage once the solo movie begins production. By the time ‘Black Panther’ opens on February 16, 2018 Chadwick Boseman (re: Point 1) will be on every movie magazine and Marvel will make sure everyone knows about T’Challa and his important place in superhero history.

    In conclusion, I respect your desire to make certain Black Panther isn’t slighted or disrespected because of prejudice, but I think your concern is way too premature. If, two years hence, your arguments are validated and Black Panther isn’t given the respect he deserves I’ll (sadly) admit I was wrong.

    Cheers.

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