Comments on Black Panther

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I’ve rarely been struck by a superhero film like this. At multiple points watching Black Panther, I found my emotions stirring and could feel my eyes tearing up. Moments in the Captain America films came close, but they still lacked what this movie had in spades.

I don’t want to minimize the racial importance of the film, but as someone who has no personal experience the struggles of American and worldwide Black culture, most of those concerns do not strike me so profoundly. Killmonger does a good job of embodying the righteous anger, tragically devolving into hateful wrath, of a widely oppressed people, but it will only have its greatest effect on those who are personally feeling the struggle. A weakness of the film is in just giving Killmonger this motivation and not seeing him develop into it, and so those like me who do not have the experiential material to easily fill that in are not able to feel it as profoundly.

Devotion to Wakanda, to the Nation

Instead, what really struck me, was the emphasis on self-sacrifice for the community, of recognizing it as a greater good than oneself, and laying down one’s life in service to it. Okoye’s call of “Wakanda Forever!” rings with a truth and honesty that is rarely experienced today. To cry “For the the Republic!” or “For America!” always has a taste of either selfish propaganda or irony.

Now, Wakanda is an idealized setting in the film. We see no inner corruption or struggle (though it would have made the third act all that much stronger). It is assumed that it’s people live in society where technology, infrastructure, bureaucracy, economics, politics and spirituality are carefully structured so as to bring about peace. There is even a strong martial culture which fosters devotion to the throne in its defense of Wakanda’s welfare.

But this isn’t a movie about the corruption of a nation, of dealing with the inner rot. Wakanda is. Period. No qualifier needed. This may make it boring to some, but it allows the nation to be just that. It is the greater-than-I which drives the heroes to their acts. It is a movie about patriotic-piety.

The Virtue of Patriotic-Piety

Patriotism, in traditional virtue ethics, is a species of piety. It is devotion to and respect for one’s fatherland. Our glimpses of Wakandan spirituality are tied up in the ritual around the kingship of Wakanda – ritual combat is constitutive of inheriting the throne, the powers of the Wakandan king (the Black Panther) are granted him by the gift of a goddess, taking the throne entails a mystical experience with one’s ancestors. And the king, of course, is devoted wholeheartedly to Wakanda, to the nation. He is the tangible servant and even icon of the nation.

Wakanda is, again and again, made the greater-than-I which the heroes must serve, an almost divine thing. Thus they practice true piety in sacrificing for it.

Wakanda’s (Wo)Men for All Seasons

Two women, beyond T’Challa himself, come to mind. His sister Shuri and Okoye.

Shuri is the comedic center of the film. It thankfully sidesteps the bathos the other films have leaned on, but she still offers a comedy which humanizes the stoic T’Challa. Little sisters are the same the world over.

However, when the demands of patriotic-piety come to her, she stands up to take them on. She gives herself to prayer, to the struggle for her nation’s heart, and even arms up and puts herself in danger for it. Her comedic personality, which will good-naturedly cut down and humanize T’Challa, bows before the seriousness of this matter. She’s no Rocket Raccoon (of Guardians of the Galaxy) or Korg (of Thor: Ragnarok) that finds the joke by uncutting the moment.

But this living out of piety truly finds its greatest model in Okoye, of “Wakanda Forever!” fame. When confronted with the choice of devotion to a dead king or devotion to Wakanda, now under the leadership of a villain, she elects, painfully, to stay devoted to Wakanda. She is not an ideologue or one who demands to serve only the pure, but is one who serves the community, the nation. It is a Man for All Seasons moment, and only the tropes of superhero movies keeps her from that same end.

Realities, not Ideas

It is important to realize that this greater-than-I is something real and tangible for the heroes. It is Wakanda, this people, this nation. It is these ancestors, these who came before us. It is not some idea – there is no abstract freedom or justice that guides them. The movie even helps this by having a few shots of T’Challa and his entourage among the people of Wakanda. This is what they serve. It is what T’Challa has, in a matter, already died to – becoming Black Panther involves a very real burial and travel to the spirit world.

The importance is made all the more visceral in Killmonger’s tragedy. He has been broken by the horror of the world – of watching his fellows of African descent oppressed throughout the other nations. This has made him a devotee of liberation and of justice, but only as ideas. He speaks of a Wakandan Empire, but he cares not for Wakanda. He subjugates Wakanda and it’s might to an idea. Justice and freedom are goods, but separate their incarnation in a time and place, in a people, they become tyrants. So Killmonger plans to become a tyrant for the sake of justice and freedom.

Wakanda and the World

Perhaps there is a wrinkle in my emphasis. Perhaps I’m ignoring the final developments of T’Challa – the rejection of the errors of his ancestors and the opening of Wakanda to the world.

The rejection of his ancestor’s error, especially that of his father, is by no means a rejection of the ancestors or of Wakanda. If anything, it is a recognition that the ancestors, in their errors, have failed Wakanda. He recognizes that he must serve Wakanda, not some abstract idea of separation-from-the-world.

The world has moved on – the strict protectionism of the past is no longer an option for Wakanda. The choice before them is whether to subjugate the other powers of the world – the path outlined by W’Kabi – or to use the might and power of Wakanda to aid and uplift the world – the path outlined by Nakia. In Killmonger, we see where W’Kabi’s path will end up. In T’Challa’s ultimate decision, we see the fruition of Nakia’s.

But it is still devotion to Wakanda – Wakanda as subjugator on the one hand, or Wakanda as peace-maker on the other. Anyone can guess which wins out.

Some Caveats on the Film

It’s not perfect. The real pathos it could have achieved is cut-down by the business model of needing characters to survive. Seeing a real sacrifice-to-the-death would have strengthened the film immensely – Okoye being a prime candidate as Thomas More to Killmonger’s Henry VIII.

Further, Wakanda could have been made stronger if we saw more development of it’s own people. Getting to know some of the other tribal leaders beyond their visuals would have been nice. Further, by the end of the film, there’re traitors among them and getting to see them as more than idea mouthpieces would have been great, and gave real weight to the final civil war struggle in the third act.

And while Killmonger is probably the strongest of Marvel movie villains, he’s not yet the Joker, Bane, or Ra’s the Marvel films are looking for. He has all the right motivations – a twisted righteous cause – but his scheme is only sketched out and plays second-fiddle to T’Challa’s personal struggles. He doesn’t become the kind of existential threat Batman faces in the Joker, or Daredevil does in the Kingpin, or Kilgrave becomes for Jessica Jones. Closer, but still far off.

Still, as I think I’ve made clear, the movie’s great.

Some Caveats on my Thoughts

My praise of the film’s devotion to the nation, dare I say, the state, may terrify some. My Catholic brethren, especially, may worry I’ve been drinking too much Alt-Right Kool-aid.

Firstly, patriotism, a species of piety, is an especially human virtue. That we’ve sought to throttle it in favor of ideas – freedom, justice – does both damage to those ideas and to our own humanity.

Secondly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie expounding a path out of nihilism and relativism that isn’t individualism. Most attempts to deny our culture’s lack of idealistic aims is some species of nietzscheanism – either of the darker “overcome all barriers” form or the kindlier “follow your heart” sort. Ever since the Revolutions, we’ve given up, at least explicitly, on the old path of self-sacrifice for the greater-than-I – self-sacrifice for family, nation, and God.

Black Panther is by no means a full-throated return to such, but it’s possibly the closest thing that has come to it in popular entertainment. It is unabashed in it’s devotion to family and nation. Even devotion to God, in the deformity of paganism and ancestor-worship, is just below the surface.

For that, it should be celebrated.

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Liberty and the common life

This here is probably why I have more difficulties with my fellow right-wingers than leftists. It’s also probably why right-wingers tend to unite around the lowest-common-denominator issue of “Everything is going to hell.”

Just Thomism

One of the dominant Enlightenment notions of liberty is whatever the law leaves undetermined, which is why Hobbes takes it as axiomatic that the greatest liberty of the citizen is the silence of the law.  This was in accord with the older sense of the term liberty which was what we now call free time, i.e. we were “at liberty” in that domain where nothing was scheduled or required for persons to do together.

This division of life into law and liberty was thus the same sort of division that schools or monasteries make into [class time/ structured time] vs. [recreation/ free periods]. The crucial point is that the free period is always contextualized: it’s not as if the monks can use recreation time to open strip clubs or recruit for Scientology, and students are continually trying to negotiate and expand just how much they are allowed to do during…

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David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Interview in Elle

Check out this interview at Sancrucensis. I’ve not read DFW (and am iffy on whether I really want to), but everything I’ve read about the man makes me think he was a prophet. A pagan prophet, but a prophet nonetheless.


There is a quotation from an interview with David Foster Wallace reproduced on hundreds of webpages across the internet. There are several variants of the quotation, but it runs something like this:

…fiction’s one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties—all these chase loneliness away by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

None of the webpages that reproduce it, however, give a reference to the original. Searching the right phrases in Google Books turns up a snippet, which Google says is from p. 58 of Elle, Volume 11 (1996), Issues 5-8. It was surprisingly…

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The year of Paul VI

On matters more urgent and profound than those I’ve been pontificating on.


Here is a prediction for 2018: it will be the year of Paul VI. In addition to canonization talk, there are two important anniversaries connected with Paul’s papacy. On July 25, the feast of St. James, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s landmark encyclical On the Regulation of Birth, known around the world by its incipit: Humanae vitae. Shortly before that, on June 30, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s Credo of the People of God, which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre called, “an act which from the dogmatic point of view is more important than all the Council.” Both events—the promulgation of Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God—are of acute importance at this moment in the life of the Church, when the role of the Petrine ministry seems to be hotly contested. Both events saw Paul acting as a guardian…

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The Last Jedi and the 3 Readings

So I’ve come across, generally, three ways of reflecting on The Last Jedi. (If I may be so bold, it almost seems like the breakdown of readings of Vatican II).

Firstly, the Liberal – “The Last Jedi changed everything, overthrowing what came before, and ringing in a new age of Star Wars storytelling which isn’t weighed down with the worn out ideals of the past. It should be celebrated!”

These are the ones who think the ideals and values present in the film – the primacy of wise women over foolish or weak men, the questioning of traditional practices, the skepticism of masculine heroism, the presence of a diverse cast, the ‘breaking of the cycle’ – have made this film a kind of rally cry for more modern values. Read almost any bit of positive commentary and the story’s ideas will be the strongest argument for its status as “a good movie”.

It should be recognized that these are most likely to be “right-side of history” folks of various stripes. They want the old order, to varying degrees, to be done away with, and a new order, often of egalitarianism, relativism, and feminism (of a certain sort), to be put in its place.

Secondly, the Reactionary – “The Last Jedi changed everything, overthrowing what came before, and ringing in a dark age of Star Wars storytelling which is defined by a rejection of perennial values in favor of the modern agenda. It should be condemned!”

These are the ones who see in the film a break with the past. Tradition, in the person of Luke, seems to be given short shrift. The heroism of the past films is made to look foolish in a hamfisted manner. The old characters are killed off without handing much of anything off. Story and character choices appear to be agenda rather than plot driven.

It should be recognized that these tend to be “wrong-side of history” folks – from Conservatives, to Altright, to Reactionary Traditionalists. They want to either keep the current order in place or return to an order more grounded in tradition.

Thirdly, the Hermeneutic of Continuity – “The Last Jedi has some ambiguity in it’s treatment of traditional values and includes more modern sensibilities. We should welcome its challenge to refining and reaffirming the traditional values in light of the modern situation.”

I’ve only met one person espousing this, really, and not online. He made a cogent argument for the movie’s strengths even among its weaknesses (e.g. the whole Finn and Rose subplot). On the matter of, say Luke’s plot, one must lean in to Luke’s despair – he is seeing everything he’s worked for fall apart, he feels abandoned by the Force, he feels like this is just a cyclical pattern, he can’t overcome his attachment to the Jedi ways which only exacerbates the despair – and so his tale becomes one of trying to find a way out of despair. His first choice is just waiting for death, but by the end he is given a new way out in self-immolation as a sign of hope for others. Theoretically, you could do the same sort of lean-in for much of the rest of the film.

This is basically an attempt to rise above the ideological commentary of the film and to allow the traditions and values of the past to fill in the connections and plotholes and so become the guiding light on that which appears new. This is a typical practice in large paradoxical canons (see Marvel or DC) or religions founded upon textual continuity (see Catholicism).

It’s a reading I’m sympathetic toward – it’s animated by great optimism. If TLJ was a religious text, I’d basically read it as such. That’s by and large how I read Vatican II and certain recent comments by the Holy Father.

But TLJ is not a religious text. It’s formed by its cultural milieu and is similarly attempting to form that milieu. Ideology cannot be separated out so neatly, especially on a cultural artifact of this scale and where one’s ideological opponents won’t do so. Reading 3 is aligned with 2 insofar as it is not progressive but conservative and traditional, and so is an opponent of 1.

Upshot to all this reflecting – our discussions of The Last Jedi aren’t about The Last Jedi. They’re about who we are and who we are seeking to be – traditional (which the OT and Prequels fundamentally were) or liberal-progressive (which the sequels seem to be embracing).

So I exercise my right be a reactionary. Ultima Jedae delenda est.

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Comments On… Murder on the Orient Express

NB: Spoilers on the remake of a 43 year old mystery movie and adaptation of a 83 year old mystery novel.

I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t do any comparison. This, though? I really liked.

I left the movie wondering about my own sense of justice. I was immediately drawn to Poirot with his seemingly innate sense of right and wrong, balance and imbalance – a sense of the world which draws him to unerringly recognize when it is in error and must be corrected. I make no claims to such an innate sense myself, but it’s a vision of things which inspires and attracts and to which I hope I may in some part attain.

Which makes me so conflicted about the final act of the film, a conflict which, perhaps, mirrors Poirot’s own conflict. In the investigation, he not only come to recognize clues and put together evidence, he’s forced to delve into the pain of these travelers, these, well, murderers. His interviews quickly become like a priest confessing a reluctant penitent, and so he recognizes that these people are, from a certain point of view, commissioners of sin for the most noble of reasons. They are not all-right and all-wrong but the line between such cuts directly through their hearts.

Ratchett/Cassetti, the victim of the plot is deserving of death – if Poirot had uncovered him separate of the movie’s events, he surely would have brought him to justice. However, it appears, beyond a rather tortured conscience, he’s getting away with his heinous crime and the massive domino effect it’s brought about. At least until the mass plan of the 12 vigilantes. But is what they have done, killing him in the night, justice? Or murder?

This is the main conflict of the film’s final act. Poirot is confronted with the 12, each affected deeply by the horrific crime of Ratchett/Cassetti. He knows they are all killers. But similarly, he knows they are each broken, struggling for peace, desirous of finding their own justice.

There’s something of the Wild West about how the film puts the matter – the crime and Poirot’s seeking of the killer occur away from a center of authority, away from police and judges, in the wild, snow packed mountain of Yugoslavia (albeit in the comfort of a world-class Express). In a fashion, that final act foists upon Poirot the authority to mete out justice – he’s the sheriff in town.

Though that’s not entirely true. Poirot and the audience know that real authority is only a few hours away – once the snow is cleared and the train comes to its next stop Poirot must turn over his investigation and, he originally hopes, a culprit for the crime.

So does he turn them in? This is the source of Poirot’s conflict in the final act and it’s mine as well.

Poirot’s answer is to silence his own conscience, to sit with the imbalance of a world where these 12 killers go free – he pins the murder on some uncaught (and imagined) mafioso desirous of vengeance on Ratchett/Cassetti. Branagh plays the part of tortured detective wonderfully; his final attempt to suss out a real killer by offering himself as victim comes off as perhaps a real desire to become a sacrifice for their sins.

But my thoughts? Poirot was wrong to let the 12 go free. He was wrong to simply accept the injustice, even if it may have brought about another sort of justice. I can’t judge him, not being the one bearing-by-confession the pains of these 12 people, but his act can be judged.

Though what does that say of me?

The problem brings to mind Javert of Les Miserables. In chasing Val Jean, Javert brooks no mercy. He is uncompromising in carrying out the law. He would have turned in the 12 without a flutter of conscience.

However, there is a great distinction. Poirot is not simply carrying out the law, he is confronted with the question of justice itself. Javert’s suicide in the end of Les Miserable is because he cannot move beyond carrying out the law to carrying out its spirit in a purer fashion, in carrying out justice. I have great sympathies for that tortured man.

So did Poirot carry out justice by “ignoring the law”? Or did he fail justice? His final comments, a mental letter to the long dead Col. Armstrong, on following his heart and learning to live with the imbalance implies even he knows he failed justice.

The movie is not, I think, about Poirot’s act of mercy – there is no mercy here. The 12 remain horrifically broken, the act of vengeance not bringing peace.

Rather, the lesson of the film is the weight of justice. Not all men can live up to it. Not all men can bear it. Perhaps none can, not wholly. Even the best of us, and Poirot is among them, can break when confronted with the brokenness of man.

Something greater than man is needed, something which will both bear the weight of justice and effect true healing of hearts. Something divine. A comforting Advent thought to end on.

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Star Wars is Not a One-Trick-Pony

So, apparently I’m still fuming about Star Wars (whenever I set this to post, anyway).

This take at WaPo makes some assumptions about what Star Wars is and the themes George Lucas subscribes to which lead the write to make some questionable conclusions. Let’s look at two of these assumptions.

  1. There is a central theme to all Star Wars trilogies: ‘an obscure, powerless individual on an impoverished planet is suddenly thrust into the most important and pivotal political struggles of the galaxy.’

Have you watched anything except Episode IV and I? Do you only let those films define the whole of the story. Further, do you only allow two characters – Luke and Anakin – to define the story and that separate of their familial background (Luke’s not so obscure and powerless in light of the end of Empire). I mean, this sidelines Leia and Han, Kenobi and Padme. It ignores the struggles with identity and desires present especially in Empire and Attack of the Clones. It ignores the temptation to righteousness by might (the Third Temptation of Christ) that defines the third films.

Star Wars is so good because it doesn’t have a simple central theme (well, it does, but modernist secularists are willfully blind to the transcendent). It is rich and complex – at least richer and more complex than our modern illuminati believe a call back to pulp-era space opera should be capable of.

And in the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, and Han AREN’T dealing with politics in the modern sense. All three movies concern events that are extra-political, points in time where action is called for – the rescue of a princess and destruction of an enemy weapon in; gaining self-understanding or fleeing from the enemy; making a desperate assault on an enemy weapon.

If you want politics, you need to go to the prequels, which is where error number two comes in:

  1. In previous trilogies, the Jedi were viewed as the proper galactic elites; the best parts of “The Last Jedi” are devoted to tearing down that myth.

Let me summarize what this sounds like: “I haven’t watched the prequels”.

The prequel trilogy is, from beginning to end, a damning of all elites. Lucas recognizes the tragedy of civilizations in decline, of powers too confident to see the cracks in their own system. The politics of the prequels enacts the “tearing down” which The Last Jedi only gestures at and squawks about like an undergraduate history paper.

And the Jedi are the ones who take the damned-stick hardest. They don’t have a grumpy old man wagging a finger at them – they have their military compatriots turn on them, their most powerful shamefully defeated, and one of their own become the right hand of their hated enemy. Like Oedipus, they can only look on in horror as their own actions set all they’ve built to the torch.

Complain all you want about the terrible, horrible execution of the prequels (terrible dialogue, crappy acting, questionable side-plots), but under all of it there’s a rock solid foundation. It’s almost opposite for TLJ which does little more than badly ape and poke sticks at the themes of the past.

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