Decoding the hidden colonist undertones in Marvel’s latest blockbusters

2018 marks a decade since the release of Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In ten years, Marvel has produced eighteen films which have been noted to be increasingly “politically self-aware and socially conscious,” blending the lines between entertainment and the promotion of political ideas. Take, for instance, one of Marvel’s “best films to date” Thor: Ragnarok, which made an impression on comic book fans and sceptics alike. Critics praised the stellar cast, “sublimely silly” humour, and creative direction by Taika Waititi. But beyond the surface, Thor Ragnarok is far more than a well-crafted superhero film. Heavy symbolism is prevalent throughout the film and colonist undertones are subtle but identifiable.

The scene in the Asgardian throne room is a reflection of an often-overlooked historical event. The murals, literally covering up the history of Asgard, are reminiscent of the tumultuous history of the “major basilica of the Byzantine Empire,” the ‘Hagia Sophia’ in Turkey. The Hagia Sophia, an architectural masterpiece, was one of the most significant buildings of the Eastern Christian world for over 900 years until the invasion of Turkey by the Ottomans in 1453. This symbolised a turning point as the Hagia Sophia was converted from a Church to a Mosque. Due to the Islamic sanctions against the ‘blasphemous’ depictions of living beings and the desire to demonstrate imperialism, Christian iconography was covered up. Images of saints, angels, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, were removed or plastered over with symbols of Islamic art such as geometric shapes and names of the Islamic prophet and his family in Arabic calligraphy, much like the Asgardian murals. Furthermore, the violence inflicted by the Asgardians in order to expand their empire is also reflective of the actions of the Ottomans upon their colonisation of what was formerly known as Constantinople. 4,000 soldiers and civilians were killed during the siege of Constantinople and estimates suggest that persecution of civilians involved the deportation or enslavement of 30,000 individuals. Venetian surgeon Nicolò Barbaro’s accounts of the siege reflected that Turks “made a great slaughter of Christians through the city” while “blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm” much like Hela and Odin who “drowned entire civilisations in blood and tears.”

Another Marvel blockbuster with perhaps more blatant political messages is Black Panther. With its 97% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating, the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating of any film in the MCU and its widespread success at the box office, grossing over US$ 1.1 billion, the film serves as a “love letter to people of African descent all over the world.” As described by Carlos Rosario Gonzalez, the film navigates “what Africa means to Afro-minorities” and therefore sparks conversations about the effect  of Western colonisation on African people, history, culture and societies. The antagonist of the film, Erik Killmonger, is a particularly fascinating character as he embodies the struggles of people of African descent to reconcile the Western cultures they grew up in and the African culture and customs they feel have been stripped from them. Like African Americans, Killmonger was not given the choice of growing up in his native African homeland of Wakanda and was deprived of his heritage and his people. The loss of his father, his link to Wakanda, also exacerbates his separation from Africa and reflects the sense abandonment felt by African Americans. His journey to Wakanda reflects the trips made by black Americans to Africa who search for roots as though they are “seeking their birth parents.” All Killmonger has are stories and “fragments” which allow him to feel “close to the culture” but never completely part of it. These feelings are mirrored by African Americans who try to piece together fantasies from the tales they are told but are still told “you are Americans. That is all.”  The mistrust and suspicion with which he is greeted upon his return to Wakanda demonstrates that he is “not one of us!” Killmonger is continually ostracised due to his accent, customs and practices which are far removed from those of the Wakandans. Killmonger, much like African Americans today, remains orphaned.

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