The fifth highest grossing film of all time at a staggering $1.2 billion since its release two months ago, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, has and continues to receive widespread acclaim from movie fanatics worldwide. The film creatively addresses some of today’s heaviest themes such as white radicalism, institutionalized colonialism, female empowerment, Afrofuturism, and of course, the longstanding debate between socialist versus capitalist societies. These themes aside, the events and characters in Black Panther relate strongly with another highly pressing issue in today’s world: the Syrian civil war. While it may have not been Coogler’s intention to create a superhero film reflecting the trajectory of the seven-year war in the Levant, one can see noticeable parallels between the two worlds upon examining them through following five lenses: initial grievances, disproportionate violence inflicted by the state, splintered rebel groups and nationwide disunity, extensive influence of outside forces, and roles of military.
In both Black Panther and the Syrian civil war, uprisings began due to a series of grievances towards the ruling figures (President Assad and Erik Killmonger), though a distinction needs to be made in regards to whom the grievances came from from both situations. In Syria, it was primarily the public that held mass economic, social, and later political frustrations towards President Assad and his ruling minority Alawite party in early 2011. Contrarily, while there are grievances towards Erik Killmonger’s rule as King in Black Panther, they stem from the elite and not necessarily the public, as seen from the council of tribal leaders’ frequent disagreements with Killmonger throughout the film. So, despite the common existence of grievances towards both ruling figures, the groups from which the grievances root from are different, thus nuancing DeFronzo’s first condition of mass frustration resulting in public unrest. Nonetheless, the public frustrations towards President Assad and the frustrations stemming primarily from the elite in Black Panther serve as catalysts for the consequential revolutionary processes in both Syria and the fictional world of Wakanda.
The next lens reflecting parallels between the two worlds is the disproportionate violence used to quell the uprisings. In Syria, once considered by the public to be the country’s beacon of hope beacon of hope, the Western-educated, initially reformist-minded President Assad stood as a stark contrast to his father’s dictatorial rule. However, his failures to meet the demands of the people quickly resulted in the public’s opposition to his rule that morphed into a reflection of his heavily-opposed father’s governance. As a response to such opposition, President Assad has and continues to utilize his state resources to carry out forced disappearances, frequent episodes of torture (an infamous incident being the death of Hamza el-Khateeb in early 2011), grisly killings, and overall terrorization of the public, utilizing violence as a warning to not challenge his rule. In Black Panther, Killmonger too resorts to disproportionate violence as the sole method to suppress uprisings and potential threats of succession. For instance, he demands complete incineration of the heart-shaped herb that gives the kings of Wakanda their superpowers after being told by the herb collector (whom he nearly chokes to death) that their harvesting is for “future kings.” His self-inflicted scars that cover most of his body the number of kills he made in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to eventually kill King T’Challah is another example of the disproportionate violence Killmonger is willing use to eliminate any and all contenders to his rule, as well as attempting to reinforce his own power base.
The next factor is the rebel groups and disunity forming as a result of the uprisings. In Syria, defectors of the military formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the primary rebel opposition group to the regime . Over the years, additional factions began to crystallize, with the Alawites in the west, Kurds in the north, and an overall distribution of moderate and Salafist Islamists, the latter being ISIS strongholds, still scattered across the country. In Wakanda, there is also disunity, but not quite to the extent of Syria’s case. W’Kabi, a former ally of T’Challah, chooses to ally with Killmonger, while Queen Mother, Nakia, and Shuri seek the Jabaris, an isolated mountain tribe that formerly contested T’Challah’s rule, to create a coalition rebel group to counter Killmonger’s forces. Now, despite the common existence of rebel groups and disunity, the extent of the disunity serves as the primary distinguisher between Syria and Wakanda’s revolutionary trajectory. In Syria, because such factionalization and varying agendas amongst the various rebel groups (eg. Kurds seeking independence, Islamic extremists seeking the establishment of caliphates) failed to meet DeFronzo’s third condition of powerful, unifying motivations needed for a revolution to succeed, Syria’s revolutionary process has become deeply porous, thus transforming into an endless proxy war with an extensive network of outside influencers. In contrast, since there is no apparent split amongst the opposition forces in Black Panther, as their common goal remains the removal of Killmonger from power, they are eventually successful in their overthrow.
The penultimate factor is outside forces in both the uprisings of Syria and Wakanda. In Syria there is Tartus, which is Russia’s sole military base in the area extending to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s heavy involvement in the war stems from its attempts at preserving the base and preventing rebel groups backed by Western powers from succeeding in the country, as that would likely result in Russia’s loss of such strategic grip of power. Similarly, the CIA in Black Panther is depicted to be involved in the country solely because of its intentions at extracting vibranium for the US’s own military purposes (although their vested interests in Wakanda are not as extensive as that of Russia in Syria). Furthermore, in Syria, Iran essentially uses the country as a means to an end, as its extensive funding of Hezbollah fighters in Syria is the country’s attempt to extending its power across the region and counter the influence of Israel (which lies in close proximity to Syria). Similarly, in Black Panther, Ulysses Klaue, an independent actor, also uses Wakanda as a means to an end, as the country to him is merely a passageway to the much prized vibranium he illegally seeks to obtain for reselling and profit.
The last factor is the military involvement in both situations, which has largely influenced the varying outcomes of Syria and Wakanda. In Syria, the military has and continues to remain by President Assad’s side since the dawn of the conflict, frequently using brutal force against the public. This, along with support from outside parties, helps explain how President Assad has been able to maintain his power. So long as there exists no elite versus elite power struggle, DeFronzo’s second condition of dissident movements that include elites (in this case the deep state and military will be considered part of the elite) will not be fulfilled and a people’s revolution will not be successful. On the other hand, in Wakanda, despite the elite Dora Milaje forces being in service to Killmonger, as determined by General Okoye (who steadfastly believes that she “serves her country” before anything else), her forces eventually turn on Killmonger as a desperate attempt to save the country from his tyrannical rule. This turn is very similar to Egypt’s situation during the ousting of ex-president Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military, headed by former General Abdel Fatah al Sisi. In both latter cases, because the ‘elite’ turned against the ‘elite,’ the revolutions were successful, though Egypt’s current status quo of a successful post-revolutionary state remains debatable.
In the end, even as one series of events remain set in a fictionalized world while the other plays out on an international scale with real-life repercussions, Black Panther, when examined through a revolutionary lens, still gives room for debate amongst political junkies, particularly those partial towards Middle Eastern affairs. When compared to the contemporary case of the Syrian story starting from the nascent communal uprisings of the Arab Spring to the full-blown proxy war we see today, the film raises pertinent questions regarding the various factors that determine the trajectories, successes and failures of revolutions across the Middle East and in Syria — an unorthodox comparison, indeed, but a pressing one nonetheless.