I recently had the opportunity to watch the latest instalment in the Marvel movie universe, that is, The Black Panther. The movie concerns the eponymous superhero, who hails from a hidden, high-tech kingdom in middle Africa, called Wakanda. After the death of his father, prince T'Challa must prove that he deserves to ascend the throne and to determine the future course for the kingdom.
Whatever the movie's cinematic merits, the issue that it raises for purposes of this blog is its position in the historic tradition of technotopias. The term technotopia often refers to a utopian state whose policies are set by a technocratic elite. In this sense, the term clearly applies to Wakanda as seen in the movie. It is ruled by a nobility who rely on advanced technology to administer their policies. Furthermore, the technology that makes the Black Panther a superhero, namely his special suit and the special elixir that gives him super powers, are monopolized by the royal family. Finally, one of the central policy objectives of the kingdom is to limit export of the super-metal vibranium, which is abundant in Wakanda but nowhere else on Earth.
However, I am more concerned with the sense in which Wakanda is a utopia made possible by its advanced technology. A utopia is an imaginary, ideal community. The point of discussing utopias is to consider what social, political, and technological arrangements would make for an ideal (or just really admirable) state and what kind of lives its citizens would lead.
First of all, Wakanda is demonstrably advanced in technological terms. It has developed a number of ways to exploit its special access to vibranium, which include hoverjets, advanced medical instruments, and some kind of directed ray weapons. Notable in the movie is the awesome public transit system based on magnetic levitation. In these terms, Wakanda puts all other modern nations in the shade.
Second, Wakanda also has some kind of technology that allows it to shield its capital city from the outside world. To all appearances, the kingdom is a rural, developing nation without any resources that would interest others. This deception has allowed Wakanda to avoid the depredations of colonial powers over recent centuries.
A central theme of the movie is to question whether or not this policy is a good one. Although it has saved Wakanda from the avarice of outsiders, it has left other African peoples to their own devices, which has not worked out well for them. A central plot development in the movie comes from a challenger to the throne, the aptly named Erik Killmonger, who wants to turn the tables and apply Wakanda's technology in a war against Africa's exploiters.
This ambivalence about Wakanda is typical of utopias. Societies that appear ideal in some respects may seem regrettable or degrading in others. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was a utopia that achieved extraordinary social solidarity but at the expense of manufacturing people to fit their social roles. In short, it achieved its ideal of order by reducing its citizens to the level of mere machinery.
More pertinent, perhaps, is the 2013 movie Elysium. This film features an idyllic, orbital community called Elysium filled with the great and good of future Earth society. Its technology delivers many goods, especially medical technology adequate to cure nearly any ailment. Like Wakanda, Elysium maintains itself through a policy of isolation from the rest of the Earth, where things have gone rather badly. (Of course, Elysium achieves its isolation through altitude instead of illusion but the effect is much the same.)
In truth, Elysium's isolation has brought it low. It subsists by exploiting the rest of the Earth. Its citizens have no compassion for their fellow human beings. The question T'Challa faces is: Has its isolation, made possible by its advanced technology, also brought Wakanda low? Does it survive by exploiting its neighbours, leaving them to the mercies of colonists? Has its shielding technology made Wakanda and its rulers insensitive to the plight of others?
In the end, T'Challa decides that Wakanda's policy of isolation must change. He rejects the armed conflict that Killmonger favors. Killmonger sees international relations in terms of a Hobbesean war of all against all, a war that he means to win. Instead, T'Challa favors a kind of outreach, within a framework of the international rule of law. Indeed, his presence in the film is framed between appearances at the United Nations. Wakanda is here to help, not to conquer.
Thus, T'Challa seeks to resolve or, at least, disarm the ambivalence characteristic of utopias. His is certainly the more hopeful resolution. Of course, those with super powers often have trouble playing by the rules, as Captain America found out, in spite of himself. Time will tell how well Wakanda and T'Challa deal with this tension.