Note: This blog post contains some spoilers of both Black Panther (2018) and Godzilla (1954).
I like superheroes. And, according to IMDB’s list of the top grossing movies of all time in the United States, I’m not alone. Of the top 20, six are superhero movies (and, for good measure, so are numbers 21 and 22, so eight of the top 22).
Amazingly, Black Panther is already number 16 on that list, having grossed around $430 million dollars to date. That is remarkable, considering the film only debuted two weeks ago! At this rate, it is probably on track to be the highest grossing film of all time.
Beyond its box office success, Black Panther has drawn accolades for being so, well, black. Superheroes have tended to be overwhelmingly white and male. For example, the number of white men in superhero movies played by actors with the first name “Chris” has drawn derision and scorn. (Buzzfeed even produced “A ranking of Every White Guy named Chris Who Stars in a Superhero Movie.”) Wonder Woman, #20 on the above list of box office grossings, has received similar praise for being so unabashedly about a woman and directed by a woman, things out of line with most superhero flicks. But, Black Panther has had its racial aspects even more highly discussed and lauded
One film critic (FilmCritHulk) has even claimed, “Black Panther unspools with a complexity I have not seen talked about with regards to race since [Spike Lee’s critically-lauded] Do The Right Thing.” The Hulk (the film critic one) even said the film is “in short, a miracle.” But, to me, the appropriate comparison to Black Panther is not Do The Right Thing, but, instead, Godzilla.
Stay with me here.
In 1954, the original Godzilla (Gojira, if you will) was a cinematic marvel ahead of its time. Yes, it appears cheesy today to see a man in a foam rubber suit destroy what is clearly a model of a city. But, at the time, it was a revelation. Beyond its theatric appeal for people who liked destruction, Godzilla had a deeper meaning. Bill Tsutsui well explains in his book, Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters (2004).
In the original Godzilla, the big green lizard is originally awakened by U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean. As a postwar Japan struggled to find its identity and deal with the horrors of WWII, this mechanism made sense to Japanese moviegoers; the United States was bad, and its atomic bombs caused bad things to happen. But the film placed Japanese scientists as the direct antithesis to their U.S. counterparts.
In the film, Japanese scientists have also created an ultimate weapon: the oxygen destroyer. Combatting both a love triangle and the King of Monsters, a Japanese scientist ultimately uses the oxygen destroyer to kill Godzilla and then kills himself so that the knowledge of how to make such a horrible device would never fall into the wrong hands. You see, in this story, when the Japanese created a world-altering weapon, they only used it once in defense and then realized that it was too terrible ever to be used again. The scientist who killed himself thus protected the world in two ways.
The movie implicitly makes the comparison between the ethics of U.S. actions and the ethics of hypothetical Japanese actions. This message was scrubbed out of the U.S. release almost entirely, but it resonated a great deal with Japanese people at the time.
Fast forward to Black Panther. The film postulates that the most technologically advanced nation in the world (by a longshot) is Wakanda. To the outside world, Wakanda appears to be a poor herding nation that is not worth messing with at all. It is so poor that, in the European colonial landgrab of the 14th through 20th centuries, it was left entirely alone. Because of this, Wakanda was never colonized by a foreign power.
We know, of course, that the Wakandans never would have been able to be conquered due to the fictitious metal vibranium they mine, and also the power granted by the heart-shaped herb that helps create Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther himself. These two facts make Wakanda incredibly powerful, more so than any other nation in the world by a significant margin. It is, in this way, that the comparison to Godzilla becomes clear.
A central component of Black Panther’s plot revolves around a leadership struggle in Wakanda and the fundamental question of what Wakanda’s role in the world should be. Two diametrically opposing viewpoints emerge: one states that Wakanda should hide itself from the world and only use its technology in defense, and the other states that Wakanda should use its technology to arm people of color all over the world so that they can become colonizers and take over other nations. (In one of the post-credit scenes a compromise is effectively reached where Wakanda does not take over the world but instead decides to share its technology for the good of everyone.)
Black Panther, therefore, presents essentially the same idea as Godzilla. It posits a tremendously powerful African nation saying, “when WE had the power to do horrible things like Euro-Americans did, WE instead decided not to do so.” Just as the Japanese did not unleash the oxygen destroyer on the United States, the Wakandans did not colonize the entire planet like Euro-Americans did. Both sides COULD have done so, but had more honor, integrity, and value for human life than that.
Thus, to me, Black Panther is the modern equivalent of Godzilla, especially in the morality that it espouses. Both films are highly cognizant of history and want to show that things could be different if people made different, better choices. Non-violence in this case does not represent a weakness or incapability to commit violence, but instead demonstrates a higher level of moral fiber. As an historian, I find that message highly appealing, especially the idea that if good people make decisions they can change the world for the better, creating a safer, more harmonious world for all nations.
Because of that, I am looking forward to watching Black Panther climb the box office charts. I do not know if it will become the highest-grossing film of all time. But its message is good enough that I will be happy if it does.