Toxic Masuclinity Ruined BLACK PANTHER

Black Panther was a solid movie. Maybe the best of the Marvel Studios films. But it wasn't a GREAT movie. Ultimately, it was let down by the same tired trope that most superhero films fall victim to: An ending that, um... Oh.

There may be some spoilers in your future.

Let's reiterate: I liked Black Panther. A lot. And beyond that, I recognize that it's a milestone for black representation in blockbuster movies and that it will be an emotional touchstone for many. I would never try to talk someone out of liking a movie. And to the extent that I question decisions made by the filmmakers, I am not saying that they did a bad job.

What I'm suggesting, is that they didn't go far enough.

One way to think about Black Panther is this: The old king is dead, and a new king takes his place. And even as he deals with his grief, he's forced to question the decisions of his father and his forefathers. Also there's punching and stabbing and rhinos.

Seriously, did I mention there were spoilers?

The bulk of new king T'Challa's soul searching is centered on the fact that his country, Wakanda, has historically survived and flourished by hiding itself from the rest of the world. The bad guy, American cousin Erik, wants Wakanda to use its technology to conquer the rest of the planet. T'Challa eventually settles on a middle road, sharing Wakanda's technology peacefully with the rest of the world.

Suffice it to say that T'Challa and Erik do not settle their disagreement through parliamentary debate. No, Wakanda has a rule that says that certain individuals, by virtue of their lineage, have the right to challenge the king to one-on-one combat with the winner becoming (or, you know, staying) king.

We see this rule invoked once early in the film, when rival M'Baku challenges T'Challa and loses. This firmly establishes that T'Challa deserves to be king NOT JUST because his daddy was king, BUT ALSO because he's good at wrestling.

To be clear, there are a lot of reasons why T'Challa makes a good king. He seems to be wise and kind and intelligent and forward thinking and he's surrounded himself with a metric ton of badass women. Please note that none of these reasons were "won the dad lottery" or "wrestling," which are the actual two reasons he sits on the Wakandan throne.

Anyway, then Erik rolls into Wakanda, and he's all "I'm your cousin! I want to wrestle too!" (I'm being a jerk. Erik is a fantastic villain.) So T'Challa and Erik throw down, and (TWIST!) T'Challa gets his ass thrown off a waterfall. And because nobody in Wakanda's read Sherlock Holmes, they all assume T'Challa's dead, and Erik becomes king.

To be fair, a small contingent of Wakandans say "This is stupid!" and set out to overthrow King Erik. We might see this as a brave political stand if those Wakandans weren't his mom, his sister, and his ex. Um. And also there's a white American dude there, because... I get super uncomfortable if I go ten minutes without seeing someone who looks like me on screen?

That last part doesn't sound right. But that's a whole other discussion.

Back to the plot: Surprise, surprise, T'Challa's still alive and ready to return to Wakanda and finish his fight with okay-not-technically-yet-King Erik. Because T'Challa neither died nor surrendered, he's still technically king. So when the whole country goes full-on Civil War, it's suddenly the folks siding with Erik (not mom, sis, and ex) that are the traitors for not allowing T'Challa and Erik to settle this one-on-one.

Of course this is a Marvel movie, so that one-on-one fight still happens. There are some big ideas at stake here, both in terms of how a country uses its power and how it decides who directs that power. But ultimately what this movie REALLY cares about is who wrestles better: T'Challa or his cousin.

Fear not! After getting his ass kicked the first time, T'Challa comes back to beat Erik using some weird sonic train gizmo and a knife. T'Challa has defended his kingship and can go ahead with the kind of changes he'd been soul searching over, opening up Wakanda and its technological advances to the rest of the world.

Which is pretty satisfying. I admit to getting teary at the end of the movie when the the American kids find out about Black Panther and Wakanda for the first time. Heroes and hope and optimism are all good things.

But at the end of the day, at the critical moment in the story, Black Panther fails. Because it paints a world where we accept the decisions not of the wisest or the kindest or the most forward-thinking leader, but of the man who wrestles and stabs and sonic-trains best. Sure, T'Challa rejects some of his forefathers most important traditions, but not THE most important one: the tradition that says that the true mark of a king is who he can beat in a fight.

So what should have happened? T'Challa should have straight-up lost that first fight, no loop holes. Erik should have been the legitimate king by Wakandan law. And when T'Challa attempted to challenge him, he should have lost again. (Or given up, when it was clear Erik was a straight-up better fighter.) Then T'Challa should have defeated his cousin by rejecting one-on-one combat all together and convincing the Wakandans to reject Erik by appealing to their better angels. By inspiring his people to embrace kindness and altruism over war. By actually exhibiting the qualities that make someone a good king. By, dare I say it, empowering the people to decide for themselves which leader best represents them.

Why didn't that happen? Well, okay, maybe the screenwriter didn't think of it. But from a practical standpoint, I don't know how an audience would have responded to a superhero who can't physically beat up his archenemy. I suspect a lot of people would label T'Challa a wimp or a loser. And I get why you wouldn't want to emasculate (or appear to emasculate) your flagship black superhero. I get that.

But being able to wrestle/stab/sonic-train your enemies is not what makes you a man. And rejecting violence doesn't make you a loser. The ending of Black Panther perpetuates and frankly celebrates toxic masculinity.

Now you might say, "Drew! Drew! This is just a movie. In real life, obviously we wouldn't pick our leaders based on who punches hardest."

To which I say, are you so sure of that?