This has been a long time coming, but I’ve finally had a chance to see and think over Marvel’s latest movie, Black Panther. The movie itself was so widely seen that I don’t really feel the need to discuss the plot all that much, but the gist is this: the setting is the fictional country of Wakanda, home to the Black Panther himself as well as a precious commodity known as vibranium, which seems to have all the power to do everything from creating powerful weapons and armor to uses in medicine and technology (the wonderstuff is not particularly well explained in the movie, but hey, it’s Marvel, there’s probably a rich history of it in the comics). In order to keep the vibranium for themselves, Wakanda managed to hide and isolate itself from the rest of the world to the point where even those who know that the country exists only think of it as a poor nation. How exactly this was done isn’t made completely clear in the movie, but we get the idea that for years and years Wakanda has essentially been a country with completely closed borders. This closing off and isolationism leads directly to the central conflict of the story.
In the introductory scenes of the movie, we get a shot of multiple things that Wakanda, as a country, did not involve themselves in. We see, briefly, everything from colonization and slavery to various wars, and due to the country’s isolationism, we are left to believe that they sat out for all of it and allowed themselves to thrive while everything else went crazy around them. And thrive they did. The views that we see of the city are fairly amazing, and what we see of their technology is impressive as well. Of course, since the movie needs some kind of a conflict, that kind of thing was not going to last for long. Wakanda keeps spies in multiple nations, and some of the ones that were sent to the U.S. (and, although it’s only mentioned in passing, the U.K.) see first-hand the continuing effects of slavery and racism. They understandably want their country to get involved and to help, but due to the strict, isolationist policies, Wakanda continues to stay hidden.
There won’t be any spoilers here in the event that anyone hasn’t seen the movie, but the question that Black Panther raises is essentially this: is isolationism a good policy if it helps the country that is isolating itself? The thing we need to keep in mind here is that, economically at least, Wakanda is helped by its isolationism. That being said, it creates other problems in the long run. The villain’s main motivation, for example, is that he wants to help people that he’s seen who are victims of unfair systems and policies, and although he tries to do this through violence (which is never really the answer, by the way, and particularly isn’t the answer in a Marvel movie), his central idea is both understandable and in some ways even noble. Because of this, some of the more common superhero movie tropes are turned upside down: although his methods are wrong, the villain is going in the right direction, and although he’s technically the good guy, the eponymous Black Panther continues to support the isolationism that created the problem in the first place. So as to the question that the movie raises, the answer is a decided no. Isolationism is not good for anyone.
There’s a quote that gets attributed to pretty much everyone from John F. Kennedy to Moses that goes something along the lines of “the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.” Black Panther takes the same view. There was quite a lot of evil in the world that Wakanda could have stopped, and quite a lot of help it could have given, but due to their isolationism, evil was allowed to prevail in that world. As we think of things like border walls and brexit and the like, keeping the potential humanitarian pitfalls of isolationism in mind is quite important. And while I don’t think we’re in any danger of having the president lose his position in one-on-one combat (as entertaining as that would be), the questions that Black Panther raises and the ways that it answers them are important to consider.