An International Law Analysis of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

An International Law Analysis of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

[Radhika Kapoor (Twitter: @Radhikaaah) is a Fellow at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (HLS PILAC), where she researches and writes about contemporary legal issues concerning the international legal regulation of armed conflict.]

[This blog post has been written in the author’s personal capacity and does not reflect the views of author’s institution. Any errors are the author’s alone. The author thanks Shashankaa Tewari for helpful research assistance.]

[Note: This blog post contains significant spoilers for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.]

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the latest instalment in Marvel Studios’ burgeoning superhero film franchise, raises critical international legal questions. At its heart, the movie concerns inter-State relations along two axes: the relations between two independent nations — the small, wealthy African nation of Wakanda, and a sprawling underwater empire, Talokan; and the relations between Wakanda, Talokan, and the rest of the world. This blog post introduces, contextualizes, and analyzes the international legal dimensions of Wakanda Forever using one crucial but oft-forgotten notion that governs how States relate to one another: the notion of permanent sovereignty over natural resources.  

The existence and exploitability of vibranium have always been central to Wakanda’s internal and external politics. The fictional metal is native to Wakanda and cannot, or so we are told, be mined anywhere else. Vibranium’s supernatural ability to absorb, store, and impart immense amounts of kinetic energy equip its bearer with extraordinary strength and speed. At least twice in Wakanda Forever, officials of other States refer to Wakanda as one of the wealthiest, most powerful States in the world. Implicit within this assertion is an acknowledgement of the powerful potential of vibranium: it is through the exploitation of vibranium that Wakanda has managed to avoid the perils that plague much of the Global South, including post-colonial and post-enslavement legacies of poverty and resource deprivation. In invoking a rich and colorful international imaginary, Wakanda Forever achieves a powerful result: it urges viewers to awaken to alternative possibilities of the past, with the hope that so doing might ultimately “facilitate a different future.”

The Talokan of Wakanda Forever shares much of its paranoia and deep mistrust of the world with the Wakanda of the first Black Panther film (Black Panther-I). But the Wakanda of Wakanda Forever is different; Black Panther-I ended with Wakanda’s leader revealing, at a U.N. conference, the existence of vibranium to the world, and deciding to build outreach centers to reach out to underserved communities worldwide. Talokan’s existence and wealth remain unbeknownst to the rest of the world, including to Wakanda. The world, including Wakanda — collectively known as the “surface world” to the submarine Talokans — is also unaware that Talokan possesses, exploits, and generates revenue from large amounts of underwater vibranium. To viewers, it is evident from the outset that Wakanda and Talokan guard their access to vibranium jealously in part to protect themselves from the Global North’s long and storied resource-greed. At one point, Talokan’s leader Namor makes this explicit, asking Wakanda’s princess if she is aware of what they stand to lose if the West deprives them of access to vibranium.

The development and acceptance of the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources (PSNR) is widely regarded as a key step toward dismantling colonial architecture, enabling all States — including erstwhile colonized States — to take charge of their economic development. The principle ensures that a State has ultimate control over its natural wealth and resources, and that the “exploration, development and disposition” of those resources is subject to rules and conditions determined by that State. PSNR, being both forward- and backward-looking, seeks to restore a State’s precolonial potential while also bolstering continued and effective management of its own resources. It is in part a reparative instrument that recognizes and seeks to undo differential colonial policies that privileged White economies over those of colonies; equally, PSNR concerns natural resources as a “means of subsistence” for a State and as a potential pathway toward economic freedom and self-sufficiency. Domestic economic growth is a sine qua non for the accrual of power and self-sufficiency in the modern international context, and as such, PSNR shares DNA with principles of self-determination and the right to development. In Resolution 1803 (1962), the General Assembly characterizes PSNR as a “basic constituent of the right to self-determination.”

In Wakanda Forever, King Namor attempts to convince Wakanda’s Princess Shuri of the need for Wakanda and Talokan to join forces and wage preemptive war against the surface world to protect their stores of vibranium. “For centuries,” he tells her, “the surface world has conquered and oppressed people like us for resources.” The message is clear: it’s eat or be eaten.

Only a new pupil of international law and relations would query why Wakanda and Talokan harbor such fears. Historically, colonialism’s profitability was fueled by the twin engines of extractive greed and oppression of peoples of color. Colonizing forces profited from mining the Global South States for gold and silver, and from developing extractive plantations reliant on indentured and slave labor performed by communities of color. Present-day economic relations between States are informed by colonial heritage. Critical international law scholars have argued, time and again, that “race, development, and post-coloniality are inescapably intertwined.” Among colonialism’s more enduring legacies is the extent to which Global North corporations still control resource wealth in the Global South, particularly Africa (where Wakanda is located). Despite the tenet that economic agreements between the Global North and South be based on “principles of equality and … the right of peoples and nations to self-determination,” corporate plunder continues to loot natural wealth in the Global South in the name of record profits for a handful in the Global North. Colonial dominion over the lands, wealth, and resources of the Global South contributed not only to an abiding chasm between prosperity between the Global North and South, but also to lasting ecological destruction. The overexploitation of key natural resources can be traced back to colonialism.

Indeed, Wakanda and Talokan have everything to lose if the West’s desires to pillage vibranium are realized. In a telling faceoff between State leaders, Wakanda’s queen warns a row of Western leaders that she is aware of and willing to repel territorial incursions by the West aimed at looting vibranium stores. In another scene — to which the ever-vigilant SC Procedure might object — Wakanda’s army marches into what is presumably a Security Council meeting with a team of surrendered mercenaries in tow. A quick action set-piece confirms that the mercenaries had attempted to break into one of Wakanda’s outreach facilities to take over Wakanda’s vibranium reserves. The camera pans to France’s representative, who locks eyes with one of the mercenaries for a split second. 

A strong and visible undercurrent of neo-imperialism infuses the decision-making of the Global North throughout the Black Panther series. In Wakanda Forever, France and the U.S. stand in for the wider Global North, sending vibranium-detecting devices deep underwater and to Wakandan outreach facilities. At one point, the director of the U.S.’ CIA tells another agent: “I actually dream about [what the U.S. might do if it were the only country with access to vibranium].” It is remarkable that by all accounts, Global North States continue to be prosperous in the alternative world ofthe Black Panther series; if Wakanda is the richest nation, the U.S. is likely the second-richest. The West’s designs on vibranium are presumably rooted in the same bottomless resource-greed that has typically characterized relations between colonizing and colonized States. If, indeed, Wakanda and Talokan’s rights to sovereignty over their natural resources are “inalienable,” their efforts to protect their natural resources and to continue building economic wealth off their natural wealth are grounded in that inalienable sovereignty.

Eventually, Wakanda’s Princess Shuri — who does not wish to use force against every State in the surface world, even to safeguard Wakanda’s own access to vibranium — assures King Namor of her and her formidable army’s intention to protect Talokan and to keep its existence hidden from the rest of the surface world. Implicit in their agreement is the understanding that, were the West to learn of the existence of not just one but two nations abundant with the world’s most powerful metal, its extractive greed would be impossible to repel without resort to force.

In at least three distinct but intersecting respects, the fate of PSNR in the Black Panther series departs from that principle’s real-life trajectory. First, few resource-rich States in the Global South have actually managed to exploit revenue from natural resources to build domestic wealth. Known as the “resource curse,” this phenomenon describes some States’ inability to reap economic benefits off their plentiful natural resources. Despite an abundance of natural resources, many Global South States remain poverty-stricken and largely powerless in global politics. Second, in many developing States, resource-wealth fuels a “rentier institutional culture.” Exclusionary implementation systems at the domestic level reward vested interests of national elites — “imperial intermediaries” who prosper disproportionately at the cost of the broader public. In these contexts, national elites may believe that they have more to gain by becoming enforcers rather than dismantlers of differential imperial logic. And third, substantial literature — some of which is contested — links resource-wealth to high likelihoods of internal armed conflict.

What is noteworthy here is not merely the fact that Wakanda and Talokan appear to have sidestepped these pitfalls. Yes, both nations — free from unjust colonial policies that continue to plague their Global South contemporaries — are rich and developed; and, after having softened its isolationist approach, Wakanda commands considerable influence at global fora like the U.N. Security Council in Wakanda Forever. But the Black Panther series also illuminates clearly the central role played by smart decision-making by the States’ leaders in catapulting their nations to economic superstardom. Neither Princess Shuri of Wakanda nor King Namor of Talokan appears to have accumulated arsenals of personal wealth to the detriment of their peoples, both are deeply invested in the future of their peoples and their States as a whole, and both emphasize the pursuit of protective, rather than bellicose, scientific advancements. Sweeping, long-lens shots of the Wakandan capital and its underwater counterpart in Talokan establish that the average residents of these cities are thriving, wealthy, and fulfilled. These twin utopias, above land and under the seas, represent an alternative vision for what the future — or, indeed, the present — might look like, even in the absence of a magical kinetic-energy-storing metal that glows like amethyst.

With their rich portrayals of two non-White nations that successfully exercised control over their own economic trajectories for the benefit of their people, Black Panther-I and Wakanda Forever breathe fresh life into PSNR’s conceivable potential. In so doing, the series is inquiring, in part, what could have been. What could have been, if erstwhile lands of plenty had been left untainted by colonial interventions, resource avarice, and oppressive governance? The Black Panther series unveils contingent pasts and offers a glimpse into the myriad creative possibilities of today and tomorrow.

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