How to Superhero
This past weekend, election in the rear view mirror, I actually went to see a film at the theater. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. And it effectively slid into my top five MCU films along with the first BP film and The Winter Soldier.
~ | ~ | ~ Spoiler alert! ~ | ~ | ~
I cried several times during the film. I walked out of the theater thinking it was the greatest eulogy to an actor who died tragically too young—not by his own hand but from cancer—that had ever been filmed. And then I listened to the first two songs on the soundtrack. And I was struck with the emotions again. But instead of thinking about my own reaction to the film, I started to see it more clearly.
This ‘superhero’ film is a study of grief. A character-driven, psychological journey set in a superhero universe. Like Bruce Wayne’s guilt and grief over his parents’ murder, even though he was a bystander to forces much larger than this one tragedy, I believe Shuri starts to resent T’Challa for making her feel like a failure.
She was unable to use her considerable intellect, skills, and resources to save him. A year later, still mired in her inaction, Namor then is the personification of Shuri’s grief—her true nemesis. An unforeseen force, overwhelming, alien, and threatening to everything she knows and holds dear. Impossible to imagine beforehand, difficult to overcome. Namor contributes to Shuri’s doubt of herself, putting her faith instead in her mother the Queen and General Okoye to save all of Wakanda. She even looks to a 16-year old American girl and a ‘colonizer.’
But no one can save her from herself. No one can lead her down the path or out of her own emotions. Shuri saw beauty, sadness, power, and many other things in Namor. In her own grief. She identified with his tale of losing his own mother, their retreat from the rest of the world, and his need to protect his people. She also identified with his failures.
When Shuri finally is able to replicate the heart-shaped herb and endow herself with the powers of the Black Panther, she has a vision of Killmonger. Why? Because he understands her feelings of failure, helplessness, rage, and single-minded need to escape all of them. And he offers her the path toward 'dealing' with these emotions--follow his example and lash out with excessive force.
Killmonger reinforces Shuri's conviction that she is weak and a failure when she acts as herself (even though she just replicated the herb). When she uses her mind, she can't protect her people. She must seek action, something that doesn't come naturally to her as it did to T'Challa and Okoye.
But the great triumph of this film, woman-centric as it is, is the end. It is the final choice that Shuri makes. She chooses not to use her grief and anger to destroy. She doesn't follow Namor or Killmonger's examples. She also doesn't follow her brother's example. She forges her own response, her own identity and power.
Shuri relies on those around her. She calls on Nakia, Okoye, M'Baku, and other Wakandans to help her in the final battle. She even mentors Riri Williams as the young woman constructs the Iron Heart suit and joins the fight. Shuri doesn't kill Namor. She overpowers him, but then she calls on him to take a different path than he had been on. She asks him to face his grief as she is facing hers.
Shuri had to go through her grief by embodying the power of the Black Panther and understanding its great responsibility. Being a protector means putting others' needs before your own. It means marshaling the forces that are needed. It means that you have to find strength in your emotions, not weakness.
Why post a long exposition about a superhero movie on this blog?
Because this story resonates with me as a grassroots organizer of democratic campaigning and activism.
Superhero stories have historically been written from the classical story form of the lone hero's journey. Most stories are written in this form. But we see the dawning of new story forms, this film just being possibly the largest budget film to embrace a more collective version of heroism.
Grassroots political activism isn't about being saviors. It isn't about being an unfathomable force, well-funded, and polished. It is about small victories. It is about individuals contributing what they can to a whole. It is about honoring the collective more than just one name or one leader.
The type of activism that gets the best results is about moving through our emotions of fear, anger, and grief toward our power and our purpose. Together. Acknowledging the emotions, embracing them, and turning them into proactive tools for change.
Only together, as a whole people, can we truly achieve our goals of freedom, equity, and justice for all citizens. It is not just up to our leaders. It is up to all of us. We step up and do our part. We all have superpowers waiting to be put to use.