Editor’s note: This article contains minor spoilers for the films “Black Adam” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
We’ve seen the Guardians of the Galaxy explore the stars, and Doctor Strange jump into different dimensions. But everyone? Manhattan, mostly. Sure, Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis are only inspired by New York, but the results are pretty much the same for most comic book movies – a supervillain barring the action bustle of urban America with citywide threats of crime or destruction. Whether it’s the Avengers or the Justice League, superheroes are entering the fray to save the American people and the status quo. There are only so many times an underdog white male from New York City can be judged to have superpowers before one begins to wonder if there is room for heroes from other parts of the world.
Two of fall 2022’s biggest movies, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Black Adam,” definitely depart from the status quo of superhero stories. In addition to featuring diverse fan-favorite characters from Marvel and DC, the films are set in very different settings than the average superhero movie. The story of Black Adam takes place entirely in Kahndaq, a fictional Egyptian-inspired country in North Africa supposedly located on the Sinai Peninsula. Black Panther is set largely in Wakanda, a fictional futuristic African country south of the Sahara Desert, inspired by several African nations. “Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler was particularly inspired by Lesotho, a kingdom that largely resisted Western influence at the height of British colonialism, according to eagle. Although the original creators of these countries weren’t experts, they are not intended as outlandish parodies. Instead, Kahndaq and Wakanda remain beloved cornerstones of their respective worlds because of how rich and elaborate each country is.
The decision for these films to screen these countries helps breathe new life into a well-worn genre. The cast of both films is filled with black, African, and Middle Eastern actors — a rarity for any major American film. But having the films outside the United States sets a new precedent as heroes can come from everywhere — and they don’t all have the same ideas about truth, justice, and the American way. In fact, the heroes of Kahndaq and Wakanda have very different ideas about the responsibilities that come with their power.
In Black Panther and its sequel, Wakanda and his protectors were mostly non-intrusive, caring only about protecting the people of Wakanda. However, by the end of the first film, King T’Challa (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) has taken the first steps to extend their technological knowledge and resources to help those in need, including African American children in disadvantaged communities. Choosing between protecting Wakandan sovereignty and offering aid to others is a major struggle within Wakanda Forever. Western powers claiming a share of Wakanda’s Vibranium – through pressure on trade deals or piracy – certainly refers to the dark history of Europeans colonizing and trading in Africa, especially along the Ivory Coast.
The inhabitants of Kandak in Black Adam also wish to be left to their own self-rule. However, unlike Wakanda, Kahndaq struggles with a history of invasion by various countries or folk groups, especially those with more advanced militaries. After the people of Kandak see Dwayne Johnson’s god-like Teth-Adam as their savior (warrior), they condemn the Justice Society of America’s efforts to pacify their new protector. They rightly ask, “Where was your help when the invaders took over?” Although the Justice Society’s intentions may be to keep the super-powered Teth-Adam accountable, the people of Kandak see an overextension of the Society’s power. They also consider it hypocritical that the Justice Society intervened when Teth-Adam sought revenge for the people of Kandak, but no superheroes came to the aid when Kandak was oppressed for thousands of years.
Although neither film makes a definitive statement about imperialism, both films depict the damage that can occur when one powerful country attempts to dominate another. Both films seem to emphasize that every country should be able to decide its own destiny – not the “good guys” of America. If Superman endorses the American way, Black Adam might question that allegiance. Black Panther may have different ideas than Captain America about what makes a hero.
The universe of comic book superhero movies often fails to address some of the real world’s biggest problems, such as systemic inequality, climate change, or the lingering effects of colonialism. In fact, superhero franchises often receive a push back for being “too political” if they bring up these topics, or even for casting a person of color in an important role.
Admittedly, many of Marvel and DC’s early comic superheroes—such as Superman and Captain America, created in 1939 and 1941 respectively—were created as symbols of unwavering support for the United States, its military, and its foreign policies. American ideologies, and notions of good and evil, are ingrained in the DNA of American superheroes, and they linger today. It’s often a challenge for superhero movies to question these roots while staying true to the original comics.
However, if comic book movies are here to stay, they should continue to bring new ideas to the table. The world has gotten smaller since these characters were created, and the world of comic book heroes has grown far beyond the dreams of the original creators. There are superhero fans all over the world, of every age, race, and gender identity. There are also various comic book locations and characters, old and new, that haven’t been brought to the big screen yet.
Marvel and DC are both going through major turning points in their respective franchises as they each aim to find a new identity. More recent Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Disney Plus shows like “Hawkeye,” “She-Hulk,” or “Ms. Marvel” spend a lot of time making self-referential jokes about the history of the MCU, or ruminating on the glory days of the Avengers. Critics and fans were mixed about “Eternals” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and although “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Shang-Chi” were well-received, they didn’t do much to explain where the heart was. The MCU travels next. It’s been difficult for the entertainment giant to step out of its own shadow in recent years, and several Marvel Studios shows and movies since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame have felt like closing material to a global blockbuster.
here to stay
DC has had its own difficulties. There has been a major change in the wake of the merger of Warner Media and Discovery, Inc. At Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), and several big projects like the Batgirl movie have been canceled despite being in the post-production stage of the movie industry. After several delays, “The Flash” is now set for a 2023 release, but its star, Ezra Miller, continues to be plagued by controversy after two arrests and several accusations of harassment. mowing. This leaves fans wondering if WBD will recast the actor moving forward.
DC finally got some good news in October with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Suicide Squad” director James Gunn taking the helm of the DC Universe as co-president and co-executive director of DC Studios alongside Peter Safran, producer of “Suicide Squad” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” upcoming. Kevin Feige — who directs the show at Marvel Studios — and several actors associated with superhero projects have been very vocal in their support for Gunn taking over, according to Hollywood Reporter. Feige and Gunn also mentioned that they don’t see Marvel and DC as competitors, but as allies — each studio working to bring the best quality entertainment to the movie-going audience.
Superhero movies seem to be here to stay, and it’s exciting to see how they will evolve as we settle into the postmodern era of comic book cinema. With films like “Wakanda Forever” and “Black Adam” bringing new voices to the cowl-and-cape conversation, let’s hope the creators at Marvel Studios and DC Studios continue to set their films in different parts of the world – maybe even real ones next time.
Franklin is a comics, science fiction, and fantasy reader and writer from San Diego.
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