Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Avengers: EMH "Panther's Quest"

Before I can critique this episode, I've got to set some things straight.

First of all, we need to talk about racism.

Finally, those college courses are coming in handy!
So, in the olden days, the various ethnicities on Earth didn't really mingle. Mainly because the Earth is really pretty big and your average Viking would have to go well out of his way to find himself in India, and vice-versa. But as is pretty well documented, white people eventually started finding ways to move around the globe and play "finders-keepers" with the land and people they found, treating non-whites with suspicion and prejudice because they seemed to be a bit upset over the white people taking their things.

(I am, of course, condensing hundreds of years down into a single paragraph, so there's more to it than that, but that's the gist of it.)

So let's talk about prejudice. "Pre" means "before." Obviously. The second half, "Judice," is a town in Louisiana. More relevantly, it's the Latin root of the word "judge." When somebody is "prejudiced," that means that they're judging something or someone prematurely. Like when somebody says that such-and-such movie will suck, even when it hasn't been released yet. In the case of Fan4stic, the haters were right. But in the case of race relations, this is where stereotypes are born; people say "This is how members of INSERT RACE HERE behave" even though they're making a very unfair generalization based on pre-held ideas.

Prejudice fuels stereotypes, and stereotypes fuel prejudice. Even "positive" stereotypes can be harmful. So now let's talk about African stereotypes. There are plenty to go around, so I'm going to focus on the ones relevant to this examination.

First, there was the old idea that Africans are sub-human ape people. I really hope I don't need to go into detail regarding exactly why that's racist and horrible.

An ever-so-slightly-less awful-but-still-terrible idea was the idea that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people. Which is "better" in the same sense that getting kicked in the face once is "better" than getting kicked in the face twice, but I digress. From that, a corollary stereotype was born.

"The Noble Savage."

The idea, which has also been (in?)famously applied to Native Americans, boils down to "They're not as sophisticated as white people, but there's a simplistic beauty in their oneness with nature." You know, the lone warrior surveying the surrounding plains from a mountaintop, the eagle crying in the distance, hearing the spirits of the world on the wind?

You know, this movie gets a bit racist if you replace the blue cat-people with non-white humans.
That stereotype. Look no further than Tonto, Disney's Pocahontas, or Iron-Eyes Cody for non-Avatar examples.

Now, from there, another stereotype was born as a "clever" subversion to the Noble Savage.

The Educated Savage.

The idea that a loincloth-wearing black man could hunt down a cheetah one minute and quote Chaucer the next.

And trust me, quoting Chaucer is no small feat for anybody.
It subverted expectations by showing Africans who not only honored their own culture, but were able to understand and appreciate the finer points of white culture.

You can find examples in Chief William Shakespeare the Tenth from the original Doctor Dolittle film, or even a Native American example in that Monty Python sketch where a stereotypically-dressed chief sits in a theatre and talks about plays.

Yes, this happened.
So now finally we can talk about the Black Panther.

The fictional country of Wakanda is basically an extrapolation of this subversion; the idea that there could be an entire country of technologically advanced warriors in loincloths and face paint. And this is when things get a bit problematic.

In theory, the idea that an African nation can keep its ancient traditions while also being very technologically advanced could be done in a respectful manner. And in the comics, it often is, the occasional writer notwithstanding. But the execution in Avengers: EMH is a little lacking.

One of the main problems is that all of Wakanda's "traditions" are based in stereotypes and generalizations.

So on the one hand, Wakanda has lasers. On the other hand, they still throw spears at outsiders. On the one hand, they have built a mighty city. On the other hand, the king still hangs out on his throne in a circle of dirt, waiting for challengers to try and take his title through combat.

Because why would the king ever hang out in a city this beautiful, am I right?
You see the problem?

In fact, remember a throwaway joke I made for Black Panther's Micro-Episode?

"My son, we are an African nation as envisioned by white Americans. Barbaric rituals are kind of all we have."
Every single Wakandan tradition in this episode revolves around combat, fighting, or spears in some way. Even Klingons have traditions beyond fighting and stabbing. Not many, but they exist. Like opera. And law.

Now, that's not to say that Wakanda can't be portrayed respectfully as a technologically advanced nation that also has a rich culture steeped in tradition. But turning the Wakandans into spear-throwing, loincloth-wearing stereotypes who just happen to have lasers set up around their forests isn't the way to do it.

Now let's talk about the Black Panther.

His story in the original comics as well as this episode boils down to "black man needs white people to solve his problem," while also being an example of an "Educated Savage" even when compared to the rest of his society. In fact, the rest of Wakanda could be said to simply be Noble Savage stereotypes that happen to include incredible technological advancements alongside their "primitive simplicity," while Black Panther is the only one who learns of the ways of the outside world. And when all is said and done, he becomes the team's token black guy.

But all of these rather unfortunate stereotypes come straight from the 1960's source material, and therein lies the problem: The '60s were pretty racist.

This show set out to faithfully recreate the spirit of the original comics in a modern setting. And I have to say, the Black Panther's story fits the comic version to a T... for better and for worse. While the comics were actually pretty fair for their day, these days....

Pretty much.
So while any and all racism was definitely (hopefully) unintentional on the part of the writers, you can still see it pretty darn easily.

But in the end, one has to ask: Is this episode racist?

Not explicitly, but the subtext is definitely there as a result of the stories being adapted.

So, putting aside the, for lack of a better term, "accidental racism," is this a good episode?

Well... it's okay. And I'll elaborate.

The basic plot is taken from the Black Panther's first appearance in Fantastic Four, number 66. Except in the original comics, Klaw was the one who killed T'Chaka. And, of course, the Fantastic Four were involved instead of the Avengers.

This story is a merging of Black Panther's initial appearance and the first appearance of Man-Ape in the Avengers comics, which is where Man-Ape was first introduced.

Man-Ape's deal has always been to try and take over Wakanda to rule it the way he sees fit, and he manages to succeed, thanks to Wakanda's oddly-might-makes-divine-right method of picking leaders.

I mean, the first thing T'Challa does after winning the throne is to give a little speech about how absolutely stupid that election method is. Although Black Panther's little speech about democracy and such is pretty problematic in and of itself.

So, T’Challa reclaims his throne through combat, establishes democracy and a council, and then leaves the country. Um… how exactly is this “council” going to be formed? Odds are, thanks to their only precedent being those traditional trials-by-combat, they’re going to have a big ol’ tournament to decide who gets to be on the council. I mean, I doubt that T'Challa had time to draft up a Constitution.

"...and finally, laws are made by majority vote of the legislature and signed by the head of state, who does not have an effective veto power. The head of state can return a bill to the legislative body to signify disagreement with it. But the parliament can override this 'veto' with a simple majority vote. Any questions?"
And who’s to say that the people of this isolationist nation are going to be receptive to the changes? Perhaps the first order of business for this council will be to vote in a dictator. Or maybe wage war with the outside world? I mean, if T’Challa steps down, all it takes is one guy crazy and strong enough to just declare himself king.

Vote Scar 2016.
And let's not forget that Wakanda is basically a giant target. Any would-be dictators from other countries would love to play politics with a country rife with political issues.

But in the end, it's an episode about accepting change. While T'Challa is intent on convincing his people to abandon the old ways, Captain America has to talk him into actually accepting the Avengers' help. Which can look a little racist, when you factor in all that other possible racism.

T'Challa/Black Panther (James C. Mathis III)

T'Challa is basically the black Hamlet. Just without M'Baku marrying his mom. And no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

But back to the point, T'Challa is yet another wandering prince who has to reclaim his kingdom from the man who killed his father. You can find this character archetype all over the place in fiction.

When you take away the archetype and get into specifics... well, there's not much left. Part of that is the fact that the character is powered by stereotypes, and part of that is the fact that T'Challa has had a bit of a one-track mind since the death of his father. We learn that T'Challa is honorable and reasonable... but not much else.

Hopefully, future episodes will do more with him now that his personal quest is over.


M'Baku/Man-Ape (Kevin Michael Richardson)
Seriously, what is this guy's deal?

He's a stereotypical tribal dictator who declares his intent to return to the old ways one minute, but ignores tradition the next. He's evil. Not much else to it.

Ulysses Klaw (Mark Hamill)
After all the buildup through the Micro-Episodes.... the culmination is a bit of a letdown. He starts of as a wonderfully slimy illegitimate businessman and ends up as a gigantic sound monster that gets defeated fairly easily.

And here I thought Klaw's appearance in Age of Ultron was a bit disappointing. Klaw completes his story not with a bang, but with a whimper. Still, Mark Hamill's voice performance is as top-notch as ever.

The Wakandan city is gorgeous. Makes me wish we actually saw some people doing things in it. And Klaw's final form is a bit distracting with the special effects used to make it look like it's fading and vibrating. Still, everything else is as good as ever. Which is to say, pretty good.

Final Thoughts
This is definitely an episode that depends on the viewer. You might like it, you might think it's racist, or you might be indifferent to it. As for myself, I fall in the latter category. I have no strong feelings toward it one way or the other.

Next time, we'll get to an episode or two that I had originally planned on doing quite a while back. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it won a poll for the next episode I should cover? I'm not sure.

...Man. I stopped doing those polls a long time ago.

Anyway, we'll see "Hulked Out Heroes" done right. See you then!


  1. "black man needs white people to solve his problem", " Captain America has to talk him into actually accepting the Avengers' help"... Doesn't Namor gets exactly the same plots, skin color aside? Its not like "character needs help and learn lesson from main characters" was that unique story idea.

    1. Excellent point.

      The "character need help and learns lesson from main characters" is not inherently racist in and of itself, but it becomes a bit problematic when it becomes a non-white person asking the white people for help.

      The "mighty whitey saves the day" plot is basically the same plot, just with certain races in certain roles. While "character need help and learns lesson from main characters" plots are comic team-up staples, there definitely needs to be a modicum of self-awareness on the writer's part.

      "Could this be taken the wrong way?"

    2. And as I hope I've explained, such stereotyping was most likely the intent, and the episode can be enjoyed by dismissingse parallels as unintentional.

    3. Sorry, I meant to say "NOT the intent." Geez, I need to stop typing these replies on my phone.

  2. I remembered seeing this when it first aired. It seems to be just as underwhelming as I remember it.

  3. While not related to this episode, you know those rumors that Martin Freeman might be playing Everett K. Ross in the Black Panther movie? Wouldn't that be AWESOME?

    I really need to read Christopher Priest's Black Panther run.

    - That One Anon

    1. I'm just excited that Martin Freeman's involved PERIOD.