The Marvel Cinematic Universe Superhero Movies became the the most successful and ubiquitous pop culture entity of our time. And no MCU movie has shown how that cultural impact can manifest like 2018’s. Black Panther. The film was a phenomenon – largely thanks to the black community finally feeling seen in a superhero blockbuster, it broke box office records, received near universal critical acclaim and was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.
And while there’s certainly an obvious representational purpose for seeing the film, Whitworth’s psychology professor, Justin Martin, was less focused on the cast and more focused on the film’s Afro-futuristic nation-state, Wakanda. . A huge fan of the Black Panther comics, he felt something was missing in the dialogue around this cultural phenomenon.
“It was one of the first times I watched a movie, a superhero movie, where I didn’t have to worry about, like, ‘Oh, how is this black character going to be portrayed?'” said Martin. “Those stakes weren’t as high here, because everybody was black. So since I didn’t have to worry about that, what about the human experience which I think is portrayed in the film? Not thinking about race, but just what is it about Wakanda – how do people interact with each other, how do they engage with their government, how do they view the moral questions – what is common to human experience?”
As a psychologist, one of Martin’s main areas of interest is social domain theory, or SDT. SDT argues that during their developmental stages, children interpret interactions in, among other things, three distinct domains: moral, socio-conventional, and personal/psychological. Morality deals with justice, equity, rights and harm/welfare. The social-conventional is related to norms, laws/rules and authority. The personal/psychological focuses on desires, emotions, intentions and autonomy. It is suggested that the three domains develop differently in individuals, and children often view actions fundamentally differently depending on which domain they are thought to fit into.
To illustrate, Martin points to the playground during recess. Games should be played within the allotted recess time and have set rules (socio-conventional), children should choose not to cheat and should include classmates who also want to play (morale), but they usually have free course to use the time as they wish. choose and play the games they want (personal).
In his diary The Many Ways of Wakanda: Viewpoint Diversity in Black Panther and Its Implications for Civics Education, Martin argues that the unique fictional civic foundation of Wakandan society—which he calls “the film’s unofficial main character”—actually offers distinct divisions between SDT domains, making the film a good model for 2nd grade teachers. in grade 5 on which to build for their lessons. .
“[Wakanda] share this national identity, but at the same time there are a lot of issues they disagree on,” says Martin.
In Black PantherWakanda is made up of five tribes and ruled by a king who doubles as Black Panther. Black society technology surpasses that of any other country on Earth due to its reserve of the rare super-mineral vibranium, but Wakandans keep their advances hidden and do not interfere with world events in order to maintain their own security and stability. . T’Challa takes the throne and mantle of Black Panther after a ceremonial battle where tribes can nominate royal blood to fight to the death (or yield). This old order of rules is upended when T’Challa’s morally complex cousin Killmonger claims the throne, eschewing the traditional isolationism of violent black interventionism backed by Wakandan technology and weaponry.
Film is incredibly fertile ground for SDT scrutiny, and using fictional realms like the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually makes it easier for kids to understand big issues of moral citizenship.
“If you can suspend disbelief – and you’re dealing with superpowers, and you’re dealing with time travel, you’re dealing with all of these things that in a normal context give limits to ordinary humans – I think that it allows for a more unique way of exploring issues of justice, prejudice, authority, legality,” says Martin.
Martin is not explicitly advocating education Black Panther to children. He realizes it’s a violent PG-13 movie, and showing it in a classroom wouldn’t be appropriate. Rather, her article is aimed at teachers who can design better lesson plans by seeing how a touchstone of pop culture can generate TDS-centered civic learning activities. These include teaching how individuals in a society can be generally unified but disagree on certain issues based on SDT viewpoints (such as certain tribes disagreeing on Wakandan intervention/isolationism), social contracts and the fairness of monarchies (like a society that chooses its ruler based on interpersonal competition, like T’Challa vs. Killmonger), and procedural justice (like how the Black Panther must be stripped of his powers for the ceremonial battle for the throne).
Martin hopes to open discussions about how social science research and civics can be integrated into our conversations about ubiquitous pop culture touchpoints like superhero movies. You understand Batman without Gotham or Black Panther separate from Wakanda. These heroes are connected to the civic environments around them…just like the children who consume their stories with admiration. ♦