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The Wonder of American Exceptionalism

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther was met with overwhelming critical and popular acclaim as arguably the most politically conscious and radical superhero film produced in Hollywood’s history. A majority black cast enacts an alternative reality of African development in which the African nation, Wakanda, was not colonized, and in this world, their technological achievements actually surpassed those of their Western counterparts. The fact that this film achieved such commercial success under the banner of one of the most mainstream movie franchises is a powerful statement, especially given that the film launches a critique of Americans’ understanding of African cultures to be inherently uncivilized.

Black Panther’s release follows in the wake of another superhero movie that garnered significant attention: DC Comic’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a box office success that raked in more than $100 million in the U.S., breaking the record for female-directed film. Amazonian Diana (Wonder Woman) is convinced it is her destiny to defeat the god of war responsible for the carnage of WWII, and she leaves her home island with an American spy, Steve Trevor, to confront the conflict. Like Black Panther, Wonder Woman broadened the definition of a “successful” superhero movie, proving that female superheroes sell.

However, it is important to not blindly accept these superhero films as simply carrying empowering, progressive messages. They also serve as instruments of U.S. propaganda.

Diana fits the trope of a “noble savage:” she enters the human world morally righteous with her own set of principles she’d been taught on her island. However, over the course of the movie, her values shift, and she ultimately relies on an American to teach how to exist in the modern world. In order to fulfill her destiny and defeat the god of war, she must first be colonized, body and mind.

Diana struggles to navigate the human world: everything from watches to female clothing confuse her. Steve helps her dress in confining female clothing so she can integrate into European society. In addition to controlling the presentation of her body, however, he also teaches her new ways, his ways, of seeing the world. When Diana becomes frustrated with her quest, she reminds Steve that her mother had told her the world of men doesn’t deserve her. Steve responds by saying that it’s not about “deserving,” it’s about “believing.”

Diana adopts this mantra in her final battle with Ares, a moment that is not just a benign testament to the power of love, but also an illustration of Steve’s power in reorienting Diana’s non-Western mind so that it aligns with his beliefs. His colonization of Diana extended beyond appearances: she adopted his “American” values and, in doing so, recognizes them as superior to the knowledge of her mother. Furthermore, the very content of Steve’s worldview is problematic because it privileges actions that he “believes” are necessary, rather than focusing on the needs of those he interacts with in order to determine what they “deserve.” This framework gives Steve the moral authority to determine which actions are justified.

Similarly, the plot of Black Panther implicitly endorses U.S. economic institutions. Some have argued that Black Panther promotes a Western, neoliberal agenda. By casting the villain to be a revolutionary figure who wants to redistribute Wakandan resources to underprivileged black people around the world, the film frames the protagonist’s Western-modeled economic system, even as it exists in the context of a developed African nation, as the superior form of civilization.

While commercially successful superhero films centered on minority characters represent social progress, we have to be critical of how films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther represent U.S. values. Both films are testaments to U.S. soft power. In contrast to hard, coercive power, soft power, a concept developed by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, refers to a country’s ability to use its cultural capital to influence the preferences and beliefs of other countries. The U.S. military is a formidable source of hard power, but the country also projects soft power abroad through its companies, universities, and other institutions of civil society.

U.S. culture and values, such as freedom and individualism, have historically appealed to other countries and shaped their interests. Soft power can be partially credited for the collapse of the Soviet Union because some claim attractive media portrayals of both Western culture and American economic prosperity slowly eroded the Soviets’ faith in communism. Recently, however, experts argue that U.S. soft power is waning. The Iraq War, ethically questionable drone strikes, and most recently the Trump presidency have damaged the world’s perception of America as a global moral compass. In June 2017, America’s global favorability in the Pew poll of global attitudes and trends dropped from 64 percent at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to 49 percent under the Trump administration.

However, the export of American popular culture continues to play a significant role in maintaining the country’s soft power. The film industry and Hollywood itself is a hallmark of U.S. culture and beacon of soft power operating in an era of rising global anti-American sentiment. We must be critical of the way in which these commercially successful films attempt to counter this shift in global attitudes toward the U.S. advocating for American exceptionalism. The feminist framing of Wonder Woman masks how the movie promotes U.S. hegemony and tethers moral legitimacy and power to (American) masculinity. Similarly, by heralding the setting of the advanced African society in Black Panther as socially progressive, the film argues that the Wakandan conservative nationalism (reminiscent of U.S. economic policy) is equally utopian. Although Wonder Woman and Black Panther increase representation in film, they are still inscribed within an industry that seeks to profit off ideas that promote the American image abroad.