What can be said of Marvel’s latest movie that has not already been said? In this latest iteration of the cinematic journey through the Marvel Universe, many have been surprised to find a bit more than they bargained for. On the whole, superhero movies of the last decade have all seemed to follow the formula of thin storylines and Bay-esque, gratuitous action scenes. For the most part, we barely expect a storyline from the superhero genre to hold our attention, much less provide an insightful and meaningful commentary about social and political issues of our day. However, I think Black Panther challenged this norm. I’d like to take a specific look at the themes of beauty in Marvel’s Black Panther and the cultural significance of lessons we learned in the fictional paradise of Wakanda. Moreover, I find there to be some striking parallels that lend to the broader study of theological aesthetics and the significance of beauty to the Christian Faith and worldview.
A Genealogy of Social Commentary in Comics
While Black Panther’s cultural significance was certainly unique for the present era, that isn’t to say the genre has never been more explicitly connected to the world around us. Historically, comics have contained deep truth and parallels to contemporary social and political issues. Moreover, they boasted an accessibility invited the general population to engage in a sort of pop-Critical conversation about the culture around them, largely informed by the one they experienced on the pages of a comic book.
Watching Black Panther gave me an overwhelming sense that Marvel had reinvigorated this history of socially conscious heroes in the world of comics. Given recent developments in film that blend allegory into popular genre- such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out– it is exciting to see Marvel engaging contemporary issues through such a medium and in a sub-genre of its own.
Hidden Beauty in Wakanda
While Black Panther is certainly poised to be a cultural centerpiece in the larger conversations of racial justice, let’s not miss the immediacy of the impact such a movie has on the lives of individuals. Quite simply, the story of the Black Panther was empowering. It is a rarity in Hollywood to see a black man portrayed as the hero- much less one that didn’t have to overcome a difficult background, face setbacks due to the color of his skin, or had an all female army fighting alongside him. No, the Black Panther led a prosperous nation in a land of lush gardens, flowing rivers, and a thriving culture. In fact, the most often expressed fear for Wakanda was that their way of life would be compromised if the world were to discover and become envious of their land.
Contrast Wakanda with today’s portrayal of Africa and you’d scarcely find a common thread. Especially in Western media, we almost exclusively see a picture of an impoverished land of culturally degenerate people living in countries torn apart by warring factions and terrorists. One of the themes in Black Panther from the onset of the film is the hidden beauty of Wakanda. This is a nation rich in resources and culture, yet the beauty of Wakanda is invisible to the world around it. Wakanda was beautiful, yet the world could not see it. Whether intentional or not, I can’t help but think how much this is a present reality.
Beauty and the Christian Worldview
Unseen beauty is something Christians should be familiar with, given that the foundation of our Faith is in a Truth rejected by the world around us. The Psalmist impassioned plea to gaze upon the beauty of God (Psalm 27:4) seems far from the sentiment a non-believer might feel towards God. The same could be said of Creation; the naturalistic worldview explains the expanses of Creation to be the result of random chance and evolution. This certainly fails to capture the beauty of Creation being spoken into existence by God (Psalm 33:6) and intimately and exhaustively sustained by His power alone (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:17). The Bible also teaches that human beings were formed in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and intimately crafted to reflect his nature (Psalm 139:13). There is a reason, as Augustine reflects in his Confessions, that our hearts seemed to be inclined to beauty. God is Beauty and all people and all of Creation bear the mark of the Creator’s infinitely beautiful self. Therefore, beauty is a priority in our hearts. Yet this isn’t a uniquely Christian experience- though I believe there is a depth unseen to the blinded soul. By God’s grace, all people experience the wonder of being stunned by the majesty of a brilliant landscape or being captivated by works of art because our hearts are expertly tuned to desire beauty.
Although we all have innate desire for beauty, we are often unable to recognize beauty when we see it. There is a defect in the human heart to distinguish the beautiful and that defect is sin. Yet, by the grace of God, the sin that once blinded our “hearts and minds” (2 Corinthians 4:4) does so no more for those in Christ. Where there once was a blindness to that which is “true, right and lovely” (Philippians 4:8), the grace of God enables us to see (Acts 9:18). It enables us to discern the Truth of God’s Word, but ultimately enables us to see the evidences of God’s beauty in all things, not the least of which being the Cross of Christ. By the wisdom of God (Colossians 2:3), we know the beauty of the scandalous nature of the Cross- a beauty unrecognizable to the world around us. The problem of sin is that the Cross certainly is not pretty and our nature can do little to distinguish that which is pretty from that which is beautiful. Therefore, that which is the most beautiful is not only unappreciated, but is laughable (2 Peter 3:3) and hated among men (John 15:18).
The parallels between the vision for beauty in Black Panther and the conversation of beauty in the Christian worldview are strong- almost palpable. Just like in the fictional world of Wakanda, beauty IS present, yet unrecognized by the world around it. The work of our Savior in purchasing for us a redemption by his blood is the epicenter of beauty. For Believers in Christ to whom the richness of God’s grace in Creation and our Salvation have been made known: yearn and cling to that which is beautiful. In cherishing that which is good and true, we display the excellencies of God and the Beauty that can save the world.