My Spoiler-Filled “Black Panther” Take

My kiddo Shane and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship, but when I  introduced him to LEGO Marvel Superheroes for the Xbox, suddenly I was the Fun Parent. I’m not the biggest Marvel fan in the world, but out of some 200 playable characters, I could explain the superpowers of the first 50 or so, and I could Google the rest of them. Shane loves superheroes now. All of his obsessive collecting urges that used to be for Thomas the Tank Engine trains suddenly found a new outlet. And unlike the Thomas trains, playing Marvel heroes let him fly or shoot fire, and they all have stories that I can explain.

Well, up to a point, anyway.  I had to sum up the tail end of the Dark Phoenix saga as “then there are clones and breeding super-mutants and it gets kinda dumb.”

But we like movies. And we like superheroes, including Black Panther. In the game, Black Panther gives out side quests, and you can unlock him as a playable character. So Saturday of opening weekend, you better believe our family had our butts in the seats.

I warned the kiddo it was PG-13, like Revenge of the Sith, so it might be scary. And it might be long, like The Last Jedi, which he walked out of for ten minutes or so. And there were a lot of movies that happened before it, so it might be a little confusing. But I’d be right there to explain anything.

I didn’t have to worry.

I have never seen him so actively involved in a movie. He asked a million questions, and none of them to Mama, because Daddy was Designated Explainer of All Things Marvel. I think the two most difficult things to communicate quickly were that the vibranium suit could absorb energy and release it again, and why Killmonger shot a guy to finish him off even though the guy was going to die anyway. (For the record, my wife’s explanation of “because the writer wanted to show him as a bad guy” is a lot more of a teachable moment than my suggestion, “because he was extra mad at what the other guy said.”)

So I was heavily biased in favor of this movie. Shane liked the movie, so I liked the movie. When the lights came up, I wasn’t about to get into trouble because my idea for a family outing was too grimdark for a six-year-old to handle. This is not always a given. Recently we watched Jeopardy and a question about Dr. Manhattan came up, so he asked me “who are the Watchmen?” That wasn’t hard to field, but it was immediately followed by “Are they good guys or bad guys?”

Yeah, we’re going to have to wait a little while before explaining that one.

Anyway, to use my formal Reviewer Voice, I thought Black Panther rocked. Beverly (my daughter) was not as thrilled; she thought it was inappropriately violent. And my wife, who’s a much bigger fan of books than action movies, made what seemed like a rather true observation: the characters in Black Panther serve the needs of the action. The Wakandans are a highly advanced pretty-much-utopia, but they’re also a monarchy where leadership is determined by single combat. Does that tradition make sense? Mmm… in a superhero action movie, yes, but probably not outside of that. Why are the Dora Milaje running around with vibranium spears rather than guns? Because they make for cooler choreography, that’s why. (To be fair, I don’t want to see Wakandans firing guns at each other and leaving bodies everywhere like it’s 1990s Rwanda, so bring on the spears, I say.) And, as often happens with action movies, we examined T’Challa’s character arc.

A caveat: nobody in my immediate family saw Captain America: Civil War. From what I’ve read, T’Challa gets an extensive introduction there. But in BP, T’Challa’s conflict is largely external. His father’s spirit says he’s a good man, which makes it hard to be a good king… and yet, we don’t see him grapple with kingly decisions very much. Once he’s crowned, he chases down Klaue on a mission of personal vengeance, and then his time is pretty much taken up defending his throne. He gets beat up by Killmonger, who’s a better hand-to-hand fighter without the Panther powers, and then in his rematch, triumphs because…

….because he pulls off “a hell of a move.”

So, we thought… that’s it?

Maybe he’s more used to the powers than Killmonger. Maybe he just got lucky. But his victory wasn’t because he’s exemplifying some great revelation about the mantle of kingship or because he’s right and Killmonger’s wrong about the nature of the world. (The battle for Wakanda was, however, swayed because of his recruitment of allies, so I’ll give him a nod there… but siding with the enemy of your enemy is something both Killmonger and T’Challa share and is basically Warrior Stuff 101.)

That said, Black Panther does something that’s pretty rare in comic book movies: the hero learns a lesson from the villain’s example. My wife, who headed for the bathroom as the credits rolled, didn’t see this, because it only comes up in the mid-credits scene, when T’Challa declares to the United Nations that Wakanda will no longer be isolationist. And that’s where the real ending to the movie lies. T’Challa has been changed, and while he expressed a bit of that when he funded a few outreach centers in Oakland, T’Challa’s character arc is only capped once he is determined to change Wakanda from the path it’s been set on for centuries. He doesn’t become complete and then triumph over Killmonger: he learned from Killmonger and then he becomes complete. It’s like culminating an on-screen romance with a kiss in the final frames of the film. Now he’s a real king.

This is where Black Panther’s social commentary and world-building got really interesting for me, and why I’d want to see a sequel. The premise of the movie is that Wakanda has thrived because it’s a special fantasy kingdom. In a departure from every real-world African country I can think of, colonialism never took root there. At some point, they decided to hide their technological prowess and created a satellite-fooling illusion and what is probably the most incredibly well-kept secret ever shared by a million-plus people. When they say “we do not speak of this” early in the movie, they freaking mean it. No foreign spies have ever discovered the vibranium that their society has run on for what must be a century or so. Now that’s some sharp self-policing.

I’m forgiving that questionable world-building, because that’s how comics roll, and it was basically all the backstory of the movie, a.k.a. the setup or the “gimme.” ‘S cool. I’m on board.

The mythmaking of the hero is also worth discussion. He’s from an ancient bloodline of kings, he’s got money and a semi-magical flower and incredibly advanced technology on demand, plus supreme executive power… and to top it all off, he’s got a loving family that has his back. T’Challa is a hero, but he’s one who has been given everything in life. He’s a good person, sure, and has many great qualities, but I think someone should point out that he’s privilege personified.

Then we get Killmonger, who’s had none of it. His family’s broken up. He grew up in a section of Oakland where they didn’t even have basketball nets, they had to use a crate. He went into the military, he trained and he learned, all so he could fight when it matters and gain the power necessary to distribute Wakanda’s hoarded resources to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Wait… are we 100% sure he’s the bad guy?

This is where the movie broke some new ground. Because here we have an American movie where an African-American is the villain and a straight-up African is the hero. The movie is not American-centric, as opposed to most Marvel movies, and this conflict contrasts America with the rest of the world. Killmonger’s visible acts of villainy include stealing artifacts from Wakanda, killing tons of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, meddling in a foreign  country’s leadership (okay, he’s got a claim to it, but still), and planning to use spies to sell weapons all around the world.

The only thing he doesn’t do is transform into a bald eagle eating apple pies, ’cause all of those dick moves are about that American. When he is defeated (in a fight on a literal underground railroad, no less), it’s hard for an American audience not to feel a bit for the guy. He’s the scrappy underdog we’ve been programmed to root for… but just because he’s self-made doesn’t mean you want him in charge.

So that brings me to the next question: is T’Challa, Mr. Wakandan Privilege, really that heroic by American standards? Wakanda values a royal bloodline, a might-makes-right combat ceremony to choose a leader, and has a high-tech wall to keep outsiders out. And let’s not mince words: “outsiders” means everybody who’s not Wakandan. White people. Asian people. Probably most black people, too, ’cause they referred to Killmonger as an outsider because of where he grew up, despite the fact he’s related to the royal freaking family. And for a nation we assume is a benevolent actor on the world stage, the Wakandans sure have a lot of weapons to defend themselves against neighboring countries. You know… this sounds kind of like an ethno-state, and I’m pretty sure most Black Panther fans would agree that that’s a Bad Thing.

“Whoa,” you may say. “That’s a pretty dark reading of this superhero movie.” It is, but Black Panther deserves some examination, at least as much as those Web articles that point out that the Ewoks probably ate some Stormtroopers. But I’m not going to bash the movie, because Black Panther doesn’t fall into that trap a hundred percent. Rather amazingly, the film has its never-seen-on-the-big-screen-before cake and manages to eat it, too. At the end of the movie, the black fantasy hero of the black fantasy world can no longer rely on the world of the past. His connection to his legacy has been forever severed: the heart-shaped herbs have been destroyed, so he can no longer speak with his ancestors. Finally on his own with the mantle of kingship, T’Challa does the heroic thing in the mid-credits sequence and rejects Wakandan tradition. “The wise build bridges and the foolish build barriers,” he says, and ends centuries of secrecy and isolationism. He’s a patriot, as are his allies, but he is one who sees the need for change.

Because of that mid-credits sequence, the fantasy we’ve been buying into for the whole of the movie is over, for both the characters and the audience. Maybe we looked into the mirror and saw how appealing the idea of “Wakanda First” might be, but now T’Challa, and we, must face the real world.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to see what happens next.

So does my kiddo.

Blame the Pirates

When someone busts out an article on “Pirates in Popular Culture,” there’s usually some mention of Peter Pan, and Treasure Island, and Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now of course, Jack Sparrow and Black Sails will probably make an appearance.

This post isn’t about any of the above. It’s about the weird factoids that I’ve come across when writing Pirates of the Caribbean that have struck me as cocktail party fodder. As it turns out, the Age of Sail and the Golden Age of Pirates are a trove of trivia.

Examples:

The expression “Above Board”

We want people to deal “above board” with us, meaning honestly and fairly. But where’s the expression from? Pirates.

Turns out, the boards in question are the deck of a ship. Pirates would stash their armed troops below the deck when nearing a target so that they could look legitimate long enough to get into attack range. Someone who has all their men “above board” is not a scalawag bent on robbing you.

The epithet “Limey”

Scurvy was a serious problem if you were planning an ocean voyage. I should draw the distinction between a full-on trans-Atlantic voyage and just cruising up and down the coasts as pirates frequently did. Sailors had to pack a lot more carefully for one than the other.  Fresh fruit is easy to come by in the tropics, but it doesn’t store so great for long trips across the Pond. One of the key exceptions to this was a fruit that packed vitamin C, preserved well, and grew in Caribbean soil: the lime.

Part of the British Royal Navy’s daily rations to keep the sailors’ teeth in their heads was a shot of grog — rum with lime juice. And so, the slang for a Royal Navy sailor became “limey,” and the phrase eventually evolved to mean a Brit of any stripe.

What the snot “Avast!” means

I always chalked this one up as some kind of pirate battle cry. People repeat the word saying “Avast, me hearties” or some variant thereof when they dress up as a pirate for Halloween. For years, that was about as far as my Talk Like a Pirate education went.

“Avast!” means, “stop whatever you’re doing.” So if a pirate jumps onto your deck and yells it while pointing a pistol at you, in context it would probably mean “stop trying to escape,” or “stop fighting back or I’ll gut you like a tuna.” The phrase “belay that” is similar, but is more of a general order and doesn’t sound nearly as violent.

The best wood for ship parts

To no one’s surprise, English oak was the go-to standard for masts and planks. It’s durable. To a lesser extent, ash wood made an appearance, too. Oak forests were a strategic resource in the Age of Sail, and capturing or destroying a warship was a serious financial blow. All that said, there’s a lesser-known wood that is kind of interesting.

The tree it comes from is called lignum vitae, or guayacan. It’s a Caribbean wood that is much denser than oak — it doesn’t even float in water. You wouldn’t want to make a ship out of it, but it is very strong, and oozes a little sap so it’s self-lubricating. That made it ideal for an axle for the ship’s wheel or the apparatus leading down to the rudder. For its strength and resilience, lignum vitae is classified as one of several trees called “ironwood.”

The metric system

Why do we citizens of the U.S. still measure our impulses in foot-pounds rather than joules? Why do we put up with inches and miles instead of centimeters and kilometers? Because of pirates.

Okay, slight exaggeration. The U.S. has had several good chances to convert, and it’s always refused. But there’s an amusing story about Thomas Jefferson, noted Francophile and Secretary of State in 1793. He wanted the U.S. to adopt a standard of weights and measures since some states still used Dutch systems, others English, and so forth.

So the French government sent a nerd (um… gentleman scientist) named Joseph Dombey with a few carefully constructed official weights to the U.S. He was going to do some lobbying and persuading, and the U.S. might have gone metric.

Except it didn’t. A storm came up. Dombey’s ship got blown into the Caribbean. And they got robbed by pirates. The weights and measures were auctioned off with the rest of the booty.

So the next time you eat a Quarter Pounder instead of a Royale with Cheese, blame a pirate.

The Last Fish of Its Kind

Warning: long post.

My company is owned by a big Chinese conglomerate, so I was in Beijing recently on business. Seasun Games personnel are wonderful hosts, and they took us out to dinner each night. As you might expect, the food was spectacular and a fair bit of it was unusual to Westerners. At the risk of sounding like an Instagram post, the things I ate included:

* Lotus root
* Black carp
* Preserved plum
* Sweet corn soup served in a drink glass
* Borscht
* Stewed Milk
* Raspberry juice with chunks of dragonfruit
* Jellyfish

The jellyfish was my least favorite. I was basically dared to eat it, and besides having a mediocre taste, the cooking process dehydrated it so it was like rubbery jerky. But that wasn’t the real culture shock.

If you’ve been to Chinese restaurants in North America, you’ll be familiar with the displayed fish tanks full of live animals destined for the dinner table. It’s like a “Guaranteed Fresh” sticker, but it can’t be faked. In China, it’s even more blunt. One memorable restaurant had a steamer bowl built into the table. The waiter proceeded to dump live, squirming, gray shrimp into the bowl, legs wriggling and all. He turned on the heat, and we watched our dinner die.

The shrimp convulsed, trying to escape. They leapt a few inches inside the glass, but they had no chance, and soon they stopped moving entirely. After a few minutes, their gray carapaces turned the familiar pink of shrimp you see in the grocery store. And the Beijing team proceeded to eat them. I refrained, as did my co-writer Phil, who’s vegetarian.

I’m not vegetarian. And I don’t particularly like people who act superior because they are. This post is for people who eat meat, but wonder, “hey, what’s that all about?” Because it matters in ways you might not be aware of. And if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it with your eyes open.

As people go, I’m fairly used to the idea of watching animals die. I eat chicken, fish, and less frequently, pork and beef. I’ve got no illusions about where the food comes from. I’ve also owned pet snakes, which means I’ve bought live animals to be killed and consumed whole because that’s how carnivores roll. I don’t subscribe to the view that all life is sacred no matter the circumstances. While an admirable stance, it fails to take into account the killing of microscopic life our bodies do every day, and our cleaning products kill similar organisms in abundance, so we can live healthily.

Denis Leary had a comedy routine mocking the people who want to save cute animals, or at least the people who don’t think about it too hard. In the interest of keeping this page fun, I’ll post it here:

Jokes aside, I sympathized a bit with the trapped shrimp. Were my co-workers actually going to eat them all? Or would a portion of the shrimp have literally died for nothing? If you’re going to take something’s life, you might as well not waste it, right?

In the book “Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines,” the author chats with a rural Filipino fisherman and tells him the fish he’s catching are endangered. “Do you feel any guilt about killing them when they could be the last of their kind?” the author asked.

The fisherman’s response was, “If it’s a choice between saving a fish and feeding my kids for a day, I’m going to feed my kids.”

I tell people about that exchange at parties and such because it sums up a lot about the resistance to environmental initiatives the world over. It’s not greed or ignorance or “them” having the misfortune to be born somewhere that isn’t as perfect as where “we” live. It’s people being forced to decide between two outcomes that both suck.

If you’re shocked by the fisherman’s statement, I’d like to remind you that humans can shrug off an amazing amount of terrible outcomes. For thousands of years, humans tolerated the slave trade. We tolerate crime and homelessness today, turn a blind eye to wars that were largely held to be mistakes, and so on. As I see it, this breaks down into about five levels of probable reactions.

  • If they don’t have to see it or think about it, they’ll tolerate an almost unlimited amount.
  • If it’s not one of their own mental “group” suffering, but they’ll profit from it, they look to others for social cues and often do some mental gymnastics to justify it.
  • If it’s not one of their own, and they have no stake in it, but it’s right in front of them, we’ll say it’s a 50-50 chance.
  • If it’s one of their own, but they’ll profit from it, they may have an actual dilemma.
  • If it’s one of their own mental “group”: they often speak up, if not act.

Heroic people, who are actively trying to make the world a better place, and amoral people, who deliberately don’t give a crap, are on the far ends of the spectrum in this generalization.

So how do I reconcile environmentalist views with the fact that meat tastes good and it’s one of the few ways I can get my kids to eat protein?

I shoot for not being as bad as many. As some religion said, “You aren’t required to save the world, but neither are you allowed to abandon the effort.”

So if I can decrease my impact, and use my 5 seconds of Internet fame to reach some people, and encourage them to decrease their impact, maybe I’ll leave the world in a better place than I found it.  So I’m going to do that encouraging now.

I’m not encouraging you to go full-on vegetarian. It’s much better for the environment, but I’m aiming at easily achievable steps here. Easily Achievable Step 1  is to eat less beef and pork and substitute chicken instead. Why?

First reason: because it tastes just as good. You’re the opposite of that fisherman who was catching endangered fish. You have two options, and they both taste great.

Second reason: it’s convenient. Anywhere that serves beef will probably serve chicken breast, so you don’t have to change your choice of venue.

Third, chickens are not going extinct any time soon. Humans turn about 50 billion (with a B) chickens into food products every year. I don’t freak out about this because we’ve got industries that depend on a steady supply of chickens for their survival and are great at breeding new ones.

Fourth, chicken meat is much less ecologically damaging than beef. Here’s why:

  • Chickens don’t need as much space as cows (i.e. less clear-cutting of forests to make farmland).
  • They don’t need as much fresh water throughout their life cycle. Fresh water is not the most renewable resource in the world.
  • Chickens don’t produce as much methane (see here but note the caveat about grass-fed beef not being as great as advertised here).
  • This video, “Beans, Not Beef,” covers why beef production in Brazil and the U.S., its biggest market, is a major producer of climate-wrecking stuff.
  • Switching from beef to chicken gets you most of the way without having to give up meat entirely.
  • If you’re still a beef-lover, vat-grown meat is on its way in a few years. (You can invest in such companies now, but that’s a topic for another day.)

“Okay, wait,” you say. “You’re okay with the deaths of fifty billion chickens a year, but you’re up in arms about other species?”

Well, yeah. I don’t like other people closing off options for me.

Growing up, I was kind of annoyed reading textbooks and seeing dodos and passenger pigeons and the long list of other creatures that died due to human influence. (Did you know North America was full of megafauna before humans arrived? Lions? 4-ton sloths?)

Barring wonderful advances in cloning technology, those critters are gone for good. Not only will I never be able to see them, my kids won’t, and their kids won’t, and on and on forever, because some dumbass humans didn’t pay attention to how few were left. When someone says, “Hey, the Great Barrier Reef is dying off because the oceans are a giant carbon sink and the coral’s bleaching,” my response is, “I never planned on going there, but I’d still like the option!” And there’s no shortage of species that are endangered now.

I’m sure the more anti-environmentalist among you have seen Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit!” segment on environmentalism (around the 24 minute mark here). The “too long, didn’t read” version is that Penn and Teller asked NGO spokespeople how many species there are in the world, how many are going extinct and how fast. The spokespeople weren’t able to give good answers.

To which I say, “you know you can Google it, right?

There’s somewhere between 1-2 million species that have been named, and about 16,000 that are declared endangered right now. A small fraction, you say? Sure, but only about 80,000 of them are vertebrates, the rest are bugs, bacteria, and things you’d never notice are a species anyway. 16,000 species is a lot of species. If you wanted to mount an annoying, week-long campaign at your office to save X species, you could find one to do for the rest of your natural life and still not save them all. Worse, some endangered ones are keystones.

What’s a keystone species? They’re the ones that take the rest of the ecosystem down with them if they go. Elephants are one. I don’t really like being near elephants at the zoo: I never found them all that neat, and they often smell like elephant poop. But elephants eat young trees and prevent certain bushes from encroaching on the savanna. That means the whole freaking savanna loses habitat when you start losing elephants, and they don’t reproduce very fast. In North America, the gray wolf is a big deal, because it keeps down the elk population, which otherwise eat way too many plants. Off the California coast, the local environmentalists want to (all together now) save the whales, another keystone. Note to Denis Leary: otters are a keystone too.

So if you’re an affluent American, you probably won’t have to watch your dinner die, like I did. But it did die. And if we all keep going the way we’re going, there are going to be a lot more extinctions. So have some chicken instead of a burger for a change. Try a veggie patty and see if you can stand it. I don’t want a world where “survival of the fittest” means we have nothing but rats and roaches and jellyfish.

Trust me, you don’t want to eat jellyfish more than once.

Let’s Get You Started

I’ve been building the Writing Tour section of the site with links to Mass Effect, Shadowrun, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, and the rest. However, due to a quirk of WordPress, it’s easier to put tags on posts than it is on pages. So this post is a sort of welcome mat with long data-driven tentacles, trailing the Internet like a jellyfish.

If you’re looking for the content, start here.