Black Panther Movie: Weapons are metaphors. We use them in figures of speech (the pen is mightier than the sword) and as figures of speech (stick to your guns). The weapon-as-metaphor suffuses contemporary culture but it is perhaps nowhere more present than in the Marvel Universe.
Thor’s boomerang hammer, Spider-Man’s sticky tech—they’re ripe with symbolism. In Black Panther, the MCU series’ new blockbuster flick, Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms dealer unzips his pants in the midst of a South Korean casino and pulls out a heavily curved slab covered in brown paper. It’s labeled “FRAGILE.” He slams it on a table and smirks. It’s a gag so dated that one of the earliest etymological variants of the word “weapon,” the Old English “wæpnan,” also meant “penis.”
Klaue’s phallo-weapon is the detached head of a pickaxe made of vibranium, the precious metal and major resource of the African Kingdom of Wakanda. It’s vague whether the first item was a tool or a weapon, used for digging or killing—not that there’s much of a difference to Klaue, who also adds an old Wakandan mining tool into a gun that he attaches to the end of his stump. This hand-gun, so to speak, later causes an explosion of cash. Klaue hysterically laughs at his own joke “I made it rain” as bills float down around him.
This is the sort of double, or triple, entendre we would want from a comic book movie, so familiar we pretty much slide over all that it implicates: masculinity, power, blood, money, and even the witty hint of overcompensation for a vulnerable ego. But the way that Black Panther uses weapons—the way it plays with them and makes them metaphors—becomes far more interesting as it proceeds. It’s the crux of Black Panther’s plot and offers some of its most stunning visual and dramatic effects. Weaponry also predictably contours the film’s politics, and perhaps less predictably, its ethics.
The initial weapons audiences witness conform to kind: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) barges in on his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) at work. She’s a spy in the midst of a night mission to “bring our girls home,” rescuing them from a Nigerian terrorist group dressed in army uniforms, riding in covered cargo trucks, and carrying automatic firearms. Bullets is seen brightly flying across the grim screen as T’Challa, dressed in his indestructible Black Panther suit, takes down the foes with martial arts. He receives last-minute help from Okoye (Danai Gurira), his bodyguard and general of the Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje, who calmly uses her golden spear to kill off a surviving gunman.
Okoye’s strong loyalty and stunning beauty are matched only by her chops as a woman wielding spear, which she shows off to marvelous effect in the casino scene. Disguised in a vermillion gown and an uncomfortable wig—which she snatches off and tosses into an adversary’s face, turning feminine distraction literal—Okoye stabs and throws and pulls her spear from corpses with graceful panache. In a following car pursuit scene, as her attackers shoot at the car she’s in, Okoye sums up the traditional Wakandan hierarchy of weapons: “Guns,” she rolls her eyes. “So primitive.” It’s a clear riposte to Klaue, the film’s token bad white guy, who says he steals vibranium from Wakandans because “you savages don’t deserve it.” It’s no coincident that “vibranium” has the word “brain” in it—the secluded nation of Wakanda, untouched, is secretly the most technology advanced nation in the world, under the cover of being a “nation of farmers.”
Black Panther’s speculative fantasy does not simply reverse these stereotypes about Africa; it complicates them. We witness tons of weaponry come from Wakanda that might be regarded as “primitive” or “savage”: swords, knives, scimitars, shields, and even beasts—trained, armed rhinos that look part horse, part tank. At the center of Wakandan rites of succession is a ceremony of melee combat, in which warriors from the many tribes in the country challenge T’Challa for the reign.
Black Panther movie choreographs two of these gladiatorial brawls on the very edge of the Warrior Waterfalls—a deadly gorge below, a mountainous amphitheater atop. Prior to the fight, the king must consume a potion that strips him of the power of the Black Panther—a physical power that comes from a vibranium-infused plant known as the Heart-Shaped Herb, which is planted by the Wakandan royal court. Given only wood and metal weapons and his bare hands to endure himself in the battle, he is reduced from a demigod to a simple mortal, or more precisely, to a man.
All of the challengers of the heir to the throne are men, as would be expected for a rite of passage surrounding brute strength. The kingdom seems patrilineal and based on bloodlines—only tribal royals are allowed to challenge the throne, and at no point is a woman proposed as a possible candidate for the monarchy.
There is a hint otherwise when the fight is made open to any last challengers: T’Challa’s giddy sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), raises her hand. Indeed, in the comic, Shuri really wants to challenge her older brother for the crown and (potential sequel spoiler) she later takes over his position when he’s in a coma. But in Black Panther, we get a quip about a disturbing corset instead, as if to deflect the clear phallocentrism of the Wakandan monarchy.
But the gag is hilarious and suits Shuri’s personality: she is the tech-savvy of Wakanda, an intelligent teen whiz who, as one challenger describes, “scoffs at tradition.” Wright, clad in mesh hiphop gear, is a sheer delight in the wise-cracking role, and she stands in for the innovative side of Wakandan weaponry. She relishes illustrating “updated” gizmos to her older brother (“just because something works, does not mean it can’t be improved”), which vary from Kimoyo Beads, used for medical and communication purposes, to a gleaming black outfit that materializes from a metal necklace and spreads over the body at a moment’s notice. Later in Black Panther, we get the chance to witness other nice futuristic gadgets that merge the rudimentary with the digital in the name of defense: “gauntlet” boxing gloves, spinning “ring blades,” and even Basotho blankets that turn into shields that can form force-field.
Vibranium itself is the substrate of all these weapons is, which in the Marvel Universe is the strongest metal on earth (Captain America’s shield is also made from this very special metal) and simultaneously has a curious—and symbolically rich—property: it can absorb, store, and give out kinetic energy.
As Shuri breaks down, her brother’s outfit absorbs the force of every attack it withstands, holding it in place “for redistribution.” It takes bullets, blows, and bombs—which charge it with energy that he can boom back out into the world. It has the potential to become a new source of energy, to protect the world from nuclear fallout, to mitigate climate change. In in the film, it’s mostly just a weapon, and a MacGuffin—the thing everyone dreams of that triggers the action.
However, metaphorically speaking, vibranium also adds a cluster of black tropes, which include the longstanding theme of “vibration” in Afrofuturist art and the historical gutting of Africa’s mineral resources. Its capacity for “redistribution” can be allegorized politically, but in two paradox fashions that comprise the primary conflict of the plot. Should the nation of Wakanda share vibranium as a technology, redistribute it as a resource to oppressed lives around the world? Or should the kingdom of Wakanda share vibranium as a weapon for retributive justice by any means necessary?
This last word, made famous by Malcom X, is never said in the film. But it lingers over the movie—and its marketing—as the verbal equivalent of one of the most potent visual symbols of the Black Power movement. Dressed in black berets, black afros, black leather jackets, and big, black guns: that’s the way the Black Panther Party is recognized, which was created just months after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby named their new comic book hero thus. Huey P. Newton, who took the title and the mascot from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, claimed it was a perfect symbol since a panther doesn’t strike first, but if the aggressor attacks first, then he’ll return. This reasoning, uncannily like a description of vibranium, did nothing to change the widespread view that the Black Panthers were themselves the aggressors. On the contrary, the retaliatory logic of the Panthers turned the legacy of American violence back on itself—including the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The real villain of the movie, Erik Killmonger, in a luminous—no, numinous—portrayal by Michael B. Jordan, is a Black Panther of the American sort. He speaks a pithy, cutting black dialect, he loves his guns, and he is from Oakland, California. We realize that he is African American in the most literal sense—the offspring of a black American woman and a Wakandan royal, N’Jobu, who was radicalized by the suffering he saw among black people in America. When N’Jobu sold vibranium arms to start riot, his brother, King T’Chaka finished him; thus Killmonger swears to revenge for his father’s death by killing T’Challa.
As ruthless and revengeful as he is made out to be, Killmonger has as much claim to the title—of the movie and as the King—as T’Challa does. Similar to Milton’s Satan, this bad guy steals the limelight: Killmonger is a fallen son and a cannot-be-trusted ally—and a charming revolutionary, to boot. After he defeats T’Challa and takes the throne, he declares his goal to arm the people across the world so that they can “rise up against their oppressors,” finally gave the firepower and resources they have historically been missing. This idea is apparently loathsome to the Wakandans, who cry, “That is not our way.”
But I couldn’t stop wondering: what is the Wakandan way to be exact? T’Challa rebukes Killmonger for becoming his foes and fights back that the people of Wakanda will never serve as “judge, jury, and executioner to those who are not our own.” Still, T’Challa comes very close to doing just that to both Klaue and Killmonger. A long-lost son, “a monster of [their] own creation,” Killmonger forces the people of Wakanda to confront their reliance on the very structures that formed his rise to power—all the ones that implicate one another: masculinity, power, violence, capital.
Beyond the fictional world of the film, a new and worthy initiative known as Wakanda the Vote is registering audience members to vote in the next United States elections. However, similar to Thor’s Asgard, and different from most African nations, the mythic kingdom Wakanda is not an electoral democracy. It’s a bloodline-based monarchy supported by a brawl with the logic of a ritualized coup d’état. At one point, Nakia is in tears, declaring the death of The King and you can almost hear the response, “Long live the King”—rather, Killmonger later declares himself to be the King. And he is right—that is exactly what a political process built on physical prowess would yield. Might isn’t always right.