By Dr. Jim Denison
I saw Black Panther yesterday, which makes me anything but unusual. The movie took in an estimated $192 million over the weekend domestically, making it the highest February film debut in history. It has already grossed $169 million overseas as well.
It is the highest rated superhero movie of all time. After viewing the film, I can see why.
Ryan Coogler, already famous for Creed, directed an astounding cast in one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in years. Part of the movie’s appeal is clearly its amazing action sequences and outstanding performances. But its deeper message is one I believe to be especially significant for Christians in America.
Why superhero movies are so popular
Black Panther is the eighteenth movie connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. DC Comics has made dozens of movies over the years as well.
Superhero movies are extremely popular these days, in part because the news reminds us daily how much we need protection.
Nikolas Cruz has confessed to attacking Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, one of more than 140,000 schools in the US. In addition, there are more than 5.6 million commercial buildings and more than 107,000 shopping centers in this country.
Most have multiple access points and little if any armed security. The cost of protecting each of them against an armed attacker would be astronomical.
A list of the deadliest single-day mass shootings in modern US history includes schools, churches, businesses, a cafeteria, a McDonalds, a postal center, an immigrant community center, a casino and resort, a gambling club, a nightclub, a navy yard, a street, a movie theater, two brokerage houses, a Buddhist center, a nursing home, and a government center. Clearly, securing every vulnerable location is impossible.
In our post-9/11 world, the promise of superhero protection, even though fanciful, is attractive. But there’s an element central to the plot of Black Panther that helps explain its unique appeal as well.
A dilemma at the heart of life
Black Panther is about an African nation called Wakanda, which developed a metal called “vibranium” from a meteorite. Vibranium helped them produce an extremely advanced civilization and technology they have hidden from the world by posing as an impoverished country.
At the heart of the movie is a dilemma: Should they share what they know with those in need?
If they do, will they lose control of their resources? Will people use their technology for evil? Is their king’s highest duty to his nation or to humanity? If he refuses to help those he can, what kind of country will Wakanda become?
Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”
Black Panther resonates with audiences in large part because its dilemma is our dilemma. Every day, we must face the question of serving self or serving others.
The best test of character
I heard about an executive with an unusual hiring practice. He would force the prospective employee to wait in his assistant’s office for ten minutes before their interview. Afterwards, he would ask his assistant how the candidate treated her. Her response was critical to his decision.
The best test of our character is how we treat people we don’t have to treat well.
We find this maxim on display in Genesis 45. In the midst of famine, Joseph’s brothers returned to Egypt seeking food. Recall that they sold him into slavery some seventeen years earlier (Genesis 37:28). Now he was prime minister of the most powerful nation in the world, second only to the pharaoh himself.
His brothers’ lives were in his hands. For their crimes, he could easily and justifiably have ordered their execution. Instead, he arranged for them and their families to join him in Egypt, where they would live under his protection and provision.
Thirty-eight centuries later, his benevolence serves as a model for us.
Let’s learn a lesson from Joseph: When we treat with kindness those we don’t have to treat well, God blesses our compassion. And we manifest the character of the One who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Albert Schweitzer was a world-renowned theologian, musician, and missionary doctor. In 1935, he gave a speech to the students of Silcoates School in England on “The Meaning of Ideals in Life.”
Dr. Schweitzer told the students, “I don’t know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Will you be “really happy” today?