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Captain America and Black Panther: How Two Iconic Characters Lose and Regain Their Faith

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney

Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney

Going back through a rewatch of some of the Marvel movies to get into the mood for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier series, something struck me pretty hard regarding the surprising similarities of two fan fav characters: Black Panther and Captain America.

Captain America was introduced into the MCU in 2012’s Captain America: The First Avenger, with Black Panther following up four years later in Captain America: Civil War. Initially, I felt the audience’s perception of Black Panther was as the Black Captain America since their abilities seem so similar.

Yes, Black Panther was the first modern Black superhero since the 1990s Blade Trilogy to hold their own, but being Black wasn’t enough. In other words, any connection between the two characters was superficial and inconsequential: another flavor of the same thing. So it was watching Civil War with Black Panther where I noticed the deeper connection and that was the breaking and rebuilding of their absolute faith.

Waking From the American Dream

Captain America begins his journey through the MCU as a naïve young man during the early part of World War Two where he tried to sign up and was continually rejected. Steve Rogers is portrayed as the typical American during that period of films: White, young, from a major city, and patriotic to the core.

Because of this, many people felt he was too one-dimensional, too simple, and a reminder of an Americana that was best left in the past with the war. His naïve patriotism seemed to allow him to be manipulated by military propaganda. Even after he broke out of that and finally got into frontline service, Steve was still the poster boy for traditional American values.

Even after he is reawakened into the modern era, Steve Rogers still seems too trusting of the system that most of us as the audience and the heroes around him have come to distrust. Though having leadership qualities, he thinks of himself as a soldier and not a revolutionary. However, this perspective is skewed from the beginning, since even in The First Avenger, Steve is shown to be willing to break the rules if it meant saving his friends or if a plan was too slow in coming together.

And it is after The Winter Soldier that this aspect of his personality comes to the forefront for people to see more. He signs up with SHIELD trying to find a purpose in his new life, he but falls back into old mindsets. That his old comrade in arms, Peggy Carter, Col. Chester Phillips, and Howard Stark founded the ultra secret organization was a close enough tie to something familiar while doing something with his future that Steve felt he could get behind.

Upon the revelation that his friends’ legacy was corrupted by Hydra, the pseudo-Nazi organization he fought against during the war, Steve has his first break of faith. And his response?

Burn it all to the ground: literally. Somehow, the revelation actually re-asserts the veteran’s clear sense of right and wrong, and what was right to Steve Rogers was to destroy an organization corrupted by decades of Hydra’s influence. Steve experiences his second break of faith with the Sokovia Accords after Civil War where the Avengers’ intervention resulted in major destruction of yet another city.

By this point, global leaders have had enough and demand the submission of the Avengers to a security council that decides when and where they should act next. Now already well-versed in how the politics of the day plays out and further spurred on by the manhunt for longtime friend Bucky Barnes, Steve chooses to reject the accords. With half the Avengers, he goes into hiding.

By now it seems Steve Rogers is finally his own man, but the final breaking point occurs with the victory of the universal threat, Thanos, over the Avengers in Infinity War and Endgame. This loss hits him hard because he has his own righteousness and words thrown back into his face like ash. The realization that Thanos won because neither he nor his frien-emy, Tony Stark, would compromise on their ideals that resulted in the splintering of the one force that could have opposed Thanos. This puts Steve in a dark place for the next five years.

Modernizing Old Traditions

T’Challa has major differences from Steve Rogers. He was born into royalty whereas Steve was born into poverty. His nation of Wakanda was relatively peaceful while America and the rest of the world were at war. And he was raised with knowledge of the racial burden that the world placed on dark-skinned people, whereas Steve Rogers, for all intents and purposes, is either never aware of it or doesn't acknowledge it.

Regardless, they are also both similar in that they come into personal power. Moreover, they both share the same wide-eyed naivety towards where they come from. While Steve believed in the traditional ideals of 1940s America, T’Challa believed in the proud heritage and history of a nation that has withstood the powers of colonialism and imperialism. Wakanda had for centuries been able to maintain their traditions and values thanks to the vibranium metal that they found and harvested in their land.

Civil War initially portrays T’Challa’s pride as he extols to Black Widow during a conference some of the wisdom he has gleaned and in his father T’Chaka, shortly before the explosion in Vienna. And yet despite this long tradition, when his father died, T’Challa is willing to break from the Wakandan tradition of accepting death and moving forward in favor of hunting down the person who killed his father. This is not the last time this happens either.

Black Panther is where we first see the new king/superhero among his own in full Wakandan glory. While saying very little directly, it’s clear that the movie is showing a more positive, alternate future where Africans did not have to deal with baggage of colonialism and subsequent wars since then. It is a lot to be proud of and seemingly justifies the long standing Wakandan tradition of remaining out of world affairs. You could argue the first half of the movie is about the power of untainted native tradition.

That is until T’Challa’s long lost cousin, Killmonger, arrives from America and challenges him, taking the throne legally via ritual combat. T’Challa is at odds with Killmonger’s more militant view of how Wakanda should operate. That the country should have been using their immense power to help the dark-skinned peoples of the world and eventually even rule the world itself.

When T’Challa learns of Killmonger’s origin as the son of his uncle whom his father had killed in America decades ago, and was subsequently abandoned afterwards, his own faith in Wakandan heritage is broken. He is confronted with the flaws in his own legacy, and those flaws have been given physical form and are about to destroy the soul of Wakanda.

It is with this mix of grief, rage, regret, and sadness that T’Challa confronts his ancestors in the spiritual plain, chastising his father for abandoning a child and his predecessors for upholding a system that allowed it for the sake of their own tradition. T’Challa makes good on his new conviction, opening up outreach centers across the world to help people, but not in the fashion that his cousin envisioned.

Losing Their Religion to Gain their Religion

Both men are the same in that they are gifted with peak physical abilities that permit them to do miraculous things and were raised in a simplistic worldview in how to apply them. Both relied on their upbringing and heritage as a moral compass in a grey world that they believed themselves to be divorced from. And both found out through betrayal that their heritage is not immune to the same forces that disgust them in the modern world.

And yet despite that, though their ideals have slightly changed, they still remain true to their fundamental cores and themselves as well.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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