Black Panther vs. Batman: Social Influence on Comic Book Heroes
With the rise of the Marvel movie universe, the comparison has been more and more made that Batman and Iron Man are counterparts, billionaire geniuses dedicated to making the world safer with their brains and tech. But examination will show that this is garbage. In fact, Batman shares more in common with Daredevil than Tony Stark (tragedy early in life, martial arts prowess, a home city they patrol, little points on their hoods).
The analog to The Dark Knight in the Marvelverse is Black Panther. Both were born into wealth, and both have studied combat all their lives. Both are scientific geniuses, excellent detectives (Panther deduced Daredevil’s secret identity and infiltrated the Avengers to spy on them), reluctant teammates with other heroes, and yes, wear little points on their hoods.
Marvel has unveiled its first movie with a black protagonist since Blade and Blade Trinity (we do not discuss the other one). Naturally, nerds have taken to the interwebs to make their case for which is the superior sepulchrous sleuth. Before someone tries to recall Blade 2, let’s examine the arguments faster than you can say “Chris Christopherson.”
T’Challa has a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford, and Bruce Wayne has, according to Fandom, about seventeen degrees, which he acquired by age 26. Both are backed up by an arsenal of specialized weaponry, including armored suits. Quora respondents hold Batman to be smarter. After all:
What has T’challa ever done? This shouldn’t even be a contest; Batman is leagues more intelligent than the Black Panther, any way you look at it. A little vibranium and being the son of the king doesn’t make you a genius.
Hold on there, Batman Goering. You knoweth not what you do.
This debate is standard on nerd sites, but the reader is probably wondering why this is worth discussion on a lefty activist blog. I’m so glad you asked, reader. Allow me to explain.
Education And Privilege
According to Quora, T’Challa owes herodom to being born on top of a meteorite made of vibranium in a civilization that for centuries was the most advanced on Earth. Bruce Wayne, however, took the initiative to travel the world and acquire the knowledge and skills he needed. According to one Quora respondent, this makes Batman the intellectual superior.
If you haven’t detected the subtle racism, dear reader, take another look. What the Quora respondent has done is claim that being born royalty in Wakanda is a place of privilege, while being heir to a massive fortune in the developed world is not. Bruce enjoys a privilege that T’Challa does not, as Gotham has not had to keep up with the rest of the world while dodging conquering outside forces looking to exploit their resources. T’Challa was groomed from birth to be heir to the throne, but that means he was saddled with expectations while Master Bruce was free to decide whether to be a playboy, philanthropist, predatory capitalist or superhero. How does being born a billionaire make you a genius?
Speculative Technology (SpecTech)
Another covert racism is the claim that Wakandan civilization has been centuries in the making as a result of the vibranium deposits under the soil, suggesting that without sci-fi resources, the culture would be way behind. However, the meteorite wasn’t unearthed until T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, discovered it. Within two generations, the measured sale of their local resources turned Wakanda from a hidden civilization to one of the most advanced in the world. The charge that without vibranium over the centuries, “his entire civilization wouldn’t have passed that of a superstitious jungle tribe,” falls apart as Wakanda survived colonization for centuries before discovering vibranium.
One of the charges against Black Panther in Quora is that T’Challa uses magic to enhance his abilities. Wakanda preserved the shamanic traditions of their ancestors and used them to help keep the outside world at bay. Batman uses magic “relics” that can be used by ordinary humans but does not boost his abilities with magic.
Arthur C. Clarke is famous for, among other things, making the observation that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” DC universe bases its science on nanites which, like electricity for Mary Shelley and radiation for Peter Parker, is a blossoming technology that can be invoked with as little explanation as for how T’Challa gains power from a Panther totem spirit. Magic, in both universes, requires patient study and testing and the advances occur off-screen for the characters and therefore is indistinguishable from science in comic books. If anyone disagrees, then please point me to the story arc where Bruce Wayne spends three months in a quantum-nano-molecular-doohickey graduate level Super Science class.
We don’t see John Constantine reading the Malleus Maleficarum; we don’t see Reed Richards applying for grants. We do see glimpses of Batman working on the minutiae of building teleporters with some kind of zappy-stick he makes sparks with, basically a Sonic Screwdriver. We are to believe that Batman builds complicated super-tech by hand. He also studies and keeps up with his 100 advanced degrees, patrols Gotham by night, keeps up appearances as Bruce Wayne and trains Robin(s) and his other proteges by day, practices his 10 or more languages and 127 martial arts and still has time to go to the Watchtower, which he also built presumably by hand, since part of his character is the arrogance to never trust anyone but himself to do anything ever. Unless Batman has a Time-Turner borrowed from Hogwarts or is just always whacked out on amphetamines, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, even in comic book worlds.
Only So Many Punches To Throw
In the field of combat prowess, we have another situation where the ignorance of the public fills in gaps. It sounds impressive when Wikipedia lists off Batmans “various martial arts…relying on Boxing, Ninjutsu, Taekwondo, Jujutsu, Capoeira, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, Savate, Muay Thai, and Judo as his primary style.” Savate and Muay Thai are regionally specific styles of kickboxing. While strategies differ (Savate only uses foot kicks, while Muay Thai uses shins and knees), the moves are basically the same. Similarly, if one masters Karate, it doesn’t take long to master Taekwondo. Even cross-training between “types” like Karate (including TKD, Hapkido, Kempo, Shotokan, etc.) and kickboxing (Muay Thai, Savate, Western Kickboxing) doesn’t take very long. The same goes with grappling arts, as wrestlers adapt to judo/jujutsu quickly. The difference is mostly in strategy, as the body only moves so many ways.
T’Challa beat his uncle, who held the Black Panther mantle while T’Challa became old enough to take it, at age 12, having mastered Wakandan combat. It is even more impressive that a hidden society could develop a fighting style that did not become “incestuous” (when practitioners of a single combat style only train with practitioners within that style, their strategy becomes narrow and unable to cope with other styles. See the earliest UFCs, or look up “McDojos” on YouTube). External differences in fighting styles are training methods that are meant to teach principles. Pragmatic styles like Jeet Kun Do, boxing, and MMA, are meant to take out all the frills of training by awkward body positioning and go straight to the principles. Ras al-Ghul basically says as much in Batman Begins, when Bruce assumes a traditional stance and Ras scoffs, “This is not a dance.”
It may be difficult to see how bigotry plays into the characters’ fighting ability. Wakanda has proven itself a strong civilization due to its ability to swiftly adapt to new technology and avoid exploitation from the outside. It should be assumed that the Panther tribe’s martial style ranks among the greatest in the world since it has been used to fend off conquest for centuries. However, Batman fans argue that since Bruce collected different styles from around the world, he is a better fighter. Fighting relies on principles of physics and biology (where to strike, how hard, at what angle, etc.). The idea that learning more styles is superior to learning one combat-tested technique with a focus on strategic application (Krav, MCMAP, Sambo, etc.) is based on the idea that martial arts are some kind of secret knowledge that one can only learn from honoring tradition rather than scientific testing. If anything, Batman has wasted an enormous amount of time relearning the same techniques.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. Also, Racism.
T’Challa grew up destined to be the king and was trained by a society to which he would be responsible. Wayne used his massive fortune to go out and acquire resources from other lands. While both are not without problems in the view of societal power dynamics, T’Challa presents a Noblesse Oblige to his people, while Batman appropriates the knowledge and skills of other cultures and uses them without benefiting those cultures. Both protect their societies from criminal elements, Batman fights Gotham’s gangs and his ridiculously garish rogue’s gallery, and Black Panther battles adventurers and looters in his country, while both gather with other super-teams to battle existential threats to the world. T’Challa is preoccupied with managing the resources of his nation. Batman spends his time building new Bat-computers and developing Bat-shark repellant instead of trying to establish Gotham’s infrastructure and fix the economic problems that turn people to a life of crime or leaves the mentally ill locked in Arkham Asylum where they can be recruited by Joker instead of receiving adequate mental health treatment. What time Batman spends welding nano-tubes to teleport devices, Black Panther spends negotiating disputes between the Wakandan tribes.
Despite being praised as a deep, humanizing story, Black Panther’s sales were initially low. Thus not only did T’Challa have to wait 27 years longer than Batman for someone willing to create a black hero. He had to wait to gain traction with fans who were either too bound by their own prejudice to buy a comic with a black hero or living under a roof governed by racist parents, making it over fifty years before we get to see Black Panther in a movie at all, let alone headlining one.
Given that history, Batman has had more access to develop his abilities. Comic book writers have to keep upping the ante, making characters more exciting and putting them in more difficult situations to conquer. Superman began with an advanced physiology which gave him super-strength, hence being heralded as “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” rather than “this guy can totes fly!” Over the years, he developed into a demigod because readers wanted to see him in new and more challenging situations. Batman appeared one year after Superman, in 1939, and has similarly evolved from a kind of noir-esque, two-fisted brawler, to a master of martial arts, science, disguise, business and, we can only assume multiple culinary disciplines.
Conversely, Black Panther began in 1966, an era where superheroes’ powers were a little more set in stone, getting upgrades in the stories rather than demonstrating a previously-unused ability or skill. Batman has featured in nine movies since 1989, starred in his own cartoon series as well as two Justice League cartoon series, not to mention a large number of animated feature-length films. Had T’Challa been given that exposure, he might be accepting the Nobel Prize for single-handedly defeating Thanos, repelling Galactus and removing lead from all the water in the world.
Objectivism and Collectivism
Batman is an expression of Ayn Rand’s ubermensch, especially in the Frank Miller adaptations. Born wealthy in society, but powerless in superhero world, he “earns” everything he has through indomitable will and constant self-improvement (and massive fortune), and hides his superiority from the corrupt mediocrity of the majority. The law is his to interpret, and he will enforce it as he sees fit. He maintains his moral fortitude by going out of his way at great personal sacrifice to avoid killing his opponents. His entire existence is due to the inability of the corrupt bureaucrats who micromanage the law to address society’s problems. Thus the duty falls to the superior man to stop the rise of “superstitious and cowardly” inferiors.
Black Panther is wholly devoted to his people. Like Batman, T’Challa must demonstrate extraordinary moral strength to resist corruption and sacrifice himself in service to the cause, but while Batman reacts to societal problems, Black Panther pro-actively maintains a society where his people live in plenty and prosperity. Sometimes a malcontent arises, like Black Panther’s nemesis Erik Killmonger (Deathguy McStabyou was too subtle), but apart from the occasional challenger to the throne and the threat of intrusion from the outside world, Wakanda is by any measure prosperous and successful. Gotham is a cesspool of ever-increasing crime and depravity because the one person who could do something about the high inequality would instead don black underoos and swing on a rope across rooftops finding faces to punch. We see an unintended comparison of a “free market” society with no cooperative planning, and the careful management of resources for the betterment of all.
Admittedly, the idea of a hereditary monarchy that has yet to turn into an exploitative dictatorship is difficult to swallow. However, part of Wakanda’s intrigue is that it speculates what an African society might have developed into, had imperialist forces not torn the continent apart. Wakanda sits on one of the most coveted resources on the planet, but instead of being subjugated and their wealth stolen, they have managed to harness and profit off of the vibranium meteorite under their soil. As I read objections to the comparison, it seemed that the majority opinion was to dismiss the idea that a fictional African culture was worthwhile, because they owed any and all progress to sitting on top of a vast resource of sci-fi metal. In real life, the growth and prosperity of societies hinged on their ability to utilize local resources. Guns, Germs, and Steel were based on this premise.
Noted white supremacist and alt-right muppet, Richard Spencer, was being interviewed by a journalist and was asked if African countries hadn’t been colonized, would they be better off, to which he responded, “I sincerely doubt that.” The Quora respondents who question Black Panther’s legitimacy may not be overt ethno-nationalists. However, in a world where dominant societies evolved due to their ability to exploit resources and with comic book pantheons filled with heroes who benefit from extraordinary circumstance, dismissing an African superhero because of the remarkable circumstance of resource distribution inherently questions Africans’ natural aptitudes. Overt or covert, it is racist.
So who’s better, Bruce Wayne, Dark Knight of Gotham, or T’Challa, ruler and protector of Wakanda? Characters in comics evolve so much, it’s nearly impossible to tell which iteration is the “real” Batman or Black Panther. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Bob Kane’s 1939 Bat-Man with Lee and Kirby’s 1966 Black Panther, as T’Challa had almost three decades of comic book history influencing his character, but in 1966, Batman had already evolved into a super-sleuth ninja. Shall we pit Chadwick Boseman against a movie Batman? Which actor? Michael Keaton? Val Kilmer? Christian Bale? Ben Affleck? Adam West? (George Clooney is in the dumpster with Blade 2)
Character match-ups are fun, but this one highlights issues of internalized inequality. Those who accept Batman as the greater hero give a pass to cultural preference towards white characters. Black Panther may not have been as popular as other characters, but he was ground-breaking as not only a black hero, but a ruler of an African country that enjoyed prosperity through self-determination. The much-anticipated movie may go a long way to fixing some of the problems with representation in pop culture, but like all the scars of inequality left by the long history of exploitation and white supremacy around the world, full restoration will likely be centuries in the making. Issues of social inequality still plague the nation, and are being poorly addressed, ignored or actively exacerbated, but at the box office, the Wakandan king and spiritual protector is finally getting his long-denied due.