Black Panther is the Transhumanist Future We Need
I’ve just returned from seeing Black Panther, and not only is it a great superhero movie, it is one of the most tech-positive movies I’ve seen in a long time. Its story-telling offers to reorient the entire superhero genre around deep questions of technology and human progress. And its heroes are not simply fighting bad guys in defense of an established order—they are actively involved in advancing the future of the human race.
> Spoilers ahead <
In the movie, Black Panther is the king of a small African nation named Wakanda, which long ago isolated itself from the rest of the world. Early in its history, a meteorite struck their country, leaving behind a mountain of a rare metals with extraordinary properties. Realizing what they had to lose if outsiders heard of this, they performed a vanishing act, disappeared from the face of the earth, and began an incredible process of technological development.
This is the basis of everything that happens. The heroes aren’t mutants, or born with supernatural powers. Instead, as they tell a newcomer, “There’s no magic here—just technology”.
For the Wakandans, that technology includes highly advanced medical knowledge, the tools to make people stronger and less susceptible to injury, and the ability to stabilize and revive people normally thought of as dead. It allows them to create bulletproof clothing, 3-dimensional “holograms” made out of material particles, and even—as one bystander puts it—“a Bugatti spaceship”. It has made their society a veritable garden city, with vast, highly-developed urban areas bursting with organic life.
All of this progress is fueled by deeply-held values, and a culture of strong internal critique.
Wakanda is offered as a profound vision of hope. Every time it impinges on the outside world, it leaves tantalizing hints to a greater reality, the possibility of dramatic transformative change.
In the movie, it has the most dramatic impact on children, many of whom may have been led to believe that certain possibilities were unreachable or off-limits. It holds up both an ideal to strive for, and an insistence that these efforts are not futile.
This is what a good superhero story does. Think of Superman being called “The Man of Tomorrow”—he was explicitly a harbinger from humanity’s future, sent to Earth to inspire and exemplify what we may become.
What’s remarkable about Black Panther is that this doesn’t stop with the hero. In fact, he is surrounded by heroes of all kinds, from computer scientists to charity workers. This movie isn’t a “super-team” movie, where the main character joins forces with characters from other storylines—this is a movie that shows the hero as part of a working, breathing, family of heroism.
And this extends all the way to Wakanda itself. Where Superman can evoke nostalgia for the lost civilization of Krypton, Black Panther invites us to imagine a technologically advanced society, actively engaged in the unfolding business of advancing the world.
This is what a good utopian vision does. It does not insist, in a Pollyanna-like fashion, that everything is fine the way it is. Nor does it suggest that a perfect society can be found by trying to emulate the society of an earlier time. Nor does it offer a static blueprint around which a society can be constructed.
Instead, it offers a snapshot of a society built around dramatic new possibilities—and by painting that image in high resolution, it convinces us that those possibilities are actually not that far away.
Because it does this, Wakanda is the kind of utopian vision that has the power to inspire real-world progress.
Wakanda is The New Atlantis.
In every respect, Wakanda is the kind of society Francis Bacon was dreaming of when he penned that vision. It is founded on strong values, a culture of humility and internal critique, and a recognition of the power of knowledge. And in the story, this generates vast technological progress, leading to great power.
And with great power comes great questions.
Both Wakanda and Bacon’s New Atlantis are isolated societies, which have largely avoided any interaction with the outside world. As the stories dawn, these societies are wrestling with deep questions about how this situation will continue.
Will they continue to be isolationists, allowing the world around them to go on suffering? Will they use their power to take over everything else, and run the world their own way? Or will they share their knowledge, lifting up others along with them?
These are, of course, the choices we always face when wielding great power.
Bacon’s account of the New Atlantis was never completed, and so left this question hanging. But it was a bold enough vision to inspire Britain to aim at becoming a New Atlantis themselves—embarking on several centuries of incredible technological progress. This gave them incredible power, and brought them face-to-face with this precise dilemma.
How would they use their power?
How would they complete the story of the New Atlantis?
As it happened, Britain used its power to take control, creating an empire on which the sun never set. Britain took the power they had gained through self-governance, and used it to destroy the self-governance of large parts of the world.
This had vast consequences, which still reverberate through our world today.
In Black Panther, the Wakandans are grappling with and reflecting on those consequences. All around them, countries had been colonized and pillaged by foreign powers with greater technology. Millions had been killed, enslaved, and oppressed.
Was it time for Wakanda to turn the tables, and use their greater technology to reenact what others had done?
Should Wakanda become the new British Empire?
Or should they write a new ending?
Should they share their knowledge, and lift up the world along with them?
This is the question at the heart of Black Panther. Wakanda is a new New Atlantis, wrestling with the failures of the old one. Wakanda knows that no utopia is complete until it has found a vision for how it will use its power.
For much of the last century, our society has grappled with the legacy of its scientific and technological revolutions. The mixed results of our uses of power have led many to question whether there might be something wrong with technology itself.
Is every technological society doomed to repeat the violent choices of the past? Will every bold and inspiring vision ultimately spawn fresh new versions of hell?
Black Panther boldly takes on these questions, grappling with all the complexity they entail. It gives us a fresh new vision of technological utopia. And it holds out hope that a world inspired by a Wakandan New Atlantis might not simply repeat the mistakes of the past, but might seize the possibilities of a much, much greater future.