Black Panther, What if, and the Philosophy of Fathers and Sons
Edwardo Raul Pérez
Watching “What if … T’Challa Became a Star-Lord,” the second episode of Disney+’s What if, with my children, having just learned that my father died (but being emotionally unable to immediately tell my kids, because the words just wouldn’t come out, and because I’ve been worried about their possible deaths due to the rampant Delta variant and the politics gripping my home state of Texas), I actually felt a sense of calm, even hope … that maybe our world will eventually find its way again.
It was the father/son focus that spoke to me, especially between T’Chaka and T’Challa, because as a character we’ve already seen T’Chaka die, and we also know that since Chadwick Boseman died on Aug 28, 2020, T’Challa is dead, too. So these scenes had an added gravitas and nostalgia.
T’Chaka and T’Challa only get one scene together in Captain America: Civil War, but it’s pivotal because it sets up not just T’Challa’s narrative arc, it establishes his sense of morality and worthiness—I mean, all the second episode of What if needed was for T’Challa to pick up Mjolnir (because if Cap’s shield was in The Collector’s collection, Thor’s hammer wouldn’t have been a stretch) and wield it mightily at Thanos’s old crew during the episode’s big battle scene.
This is what made What if’s T’Challa (and the effect of Yondu finding him instead of Peter Quill) so believable. It might’ve seemed like fan service because Chadwick Boseman was (and continues to be) so cherished (and, a year after his passing it still seems fresh), but the characterization in What if tracked with the T’Challa we’d seen in Civil War, Black Panther, and Infinity War—not just because it was Boseman doing the voice work in his final Marvel performance, but because the sense of morality T’Challa possesses is perhaps the most admirable of all the MCU characters we’ve seen, including Steve Rogers.
No offense to Captain America (I mean, I use a Captain America Infinity War Lego photo as my email avatar on Outlook—so I definitely admire him) but the edge goes to T’Challa because, in my viewing, he’s driven by a strong moral compass rather than by heroism. The difference is subtle, but it’s also significant.
For example, in Civil War, after his father is killed, he doesn’t immediately suit up and run off. Instead, he sits on a bench with Natasha Romanoff and tells her about the Ancestral Plane. Yes, T’Challa ends the scene by getting up and saying, in reference to Baron Zemo, “I’ll kill him myself.” But the point is: he doesn’t kill Zemo because his sense of morality stops him.
What T’Challa embodies, as I see it, is Immanuel Kant’s idea of a categorical imperative, an objective, rational principle we must always follow regardless of the circumstances—it’s categorical because its application is unconditional, and it’s an imperative because it’s a command we must follow no matter how we might otherwise feel. There are three formulations for this.
The first formulation states that we should “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become universal law.” Another formulation suggests that we shouldn’t treat humanity as a means only, but always as an end. And the third formulation says that we should act as if our will could legislate universal law.
Isn’t this what T’Challa does, not just in What if—because yeah, the effect he has in space, as opposed to being in an isolated Wakanda, is to actually change the universe—but in every film he’s in?
No matter how much T’Challa loved his father and wanted to avenge his death in Civil War, he realized that killing Baron Zemo wasn’t the right thing to do—not just because he would essentially become as ‘evil’ as Zemo if he killed in cold blood, but also because vengeance, no matter how enticing it might seem, isn’t the answer. As T’Challa tells Zemo, “vengeance has consumed you, it’s consuming [Cap and Tony], I’m done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough.”
Imagine if forgoing vengeance (but not necessarily giving up on seeking justice) were a universal law?
By contrast, Tony Stark goes berserk when he sees Bucky kill his parents in the video Zemo showed them. Tony doesn’t contemplate anything. Rather, he lets vengeance totally consume him—to the point that he wants to kill Bucky and Cap, and almost succeeds. In fact, it’s Cap, after getting the upper hand, who stops short of killing Tony (but only after Cap goes berserk, too, defending Bucky).
In Black Panther, T’Challa nearly kills Klaue when he finds Klaue in Korea. And, to be fair, he really seemed like he was going to kill Klaue (who stole vibranium and eluded capture by T’Chaka), forgetting how he dealt with Zemo, the man who actually killed T’Chaka. In fact, it takes Okoye and Nakia (and a bunch of people with cell phone cameras) to stop him. But once he regains his composure, he returns to form, even letting Agent Ross deal with Klaue—and later, at the end of the film, he offers to heal Killmonger, showing compassion rather than hatred.
Imagine if we all could show compassion to our enemies. Shouldn’t this be a universal law?
In Infinity War, T’Challa orders the protective shield around Wakanda to be lowered, putting Wakanda at risk (as M’Baku says, “this will be the end of Wakanda”), because sacrificing his nation for the sake of the world and the universe is the right thing to do, isn’t it? Imagine if real-world nations were willing to take the brunt for the sake of other nations. Shouldn’t this be a universal law?
This is what makes T’Challa so appealing and, again, it’s what makes What if so believable, as T’Challa is able to stop Thanos (which we don’t see!) and turn the Ravagers into a force for good, and he does these things not with vibranium weapons but with words. As he says, “sometimes all you need is a good argument.”
Of course, this is idealistic, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t argue in our society anymore, at least not in the sense of having an actual deliberation where we can present logical claims, support them with factual evidence, and arrive at a conclusion. If we ever lived in such a world, it’s long been snapped out of existence, replaced by conspiracy theories, absurd assertions, alternative facts, and an absence of any sort of rational, critical thinking.
Even the word ‘critical’ has become a pejorative term, as if criticism and analysis of the issues of the day (and the perspectives they produce) is somehow evil. For most on both sides, the other side can never be right (or validated or shown to have merit or be perceived as having a win) simply because they are on the other side. As such, there is no way our society could ever formulate a universal maxim because we can no longer conceive of universals—and our maxims aren’t based on shared principles, they’re based on one-sided ideologies.
So, it’s refreshing to see T’Challa breeze through his What if episode, fully confident in his oratorical ability (and I had to wonder, if he could convince Thanos, what could he do with those who won’t get vaccinated and won’t wear a mask?). Because, for all the fanboy arguments as to which Avenger was powerful enough to beat Thanos alone (to me, it’s a tie between Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel, if we’re talking superpowers) all T’Challa did was talk him out of it. Not even Doctor Strange could do that (seriously, that wasn’t one of the four million, six hundred and five options?).
But that’s the joy of T’Challa and his What if episode, reading (like some of the early episodes of Wanda/Vision) as a callback to a simpler time.
Of course, that simple time is just as imaginary as What if, with its pseudo-realistic animation (reminiscent of Scanner Darkly, as if what we’re watching wasn’t just an alternate universe, but a simulacrum of our universe), because nothing about America’s past is simple.
We’ve never been at peace and our society has never been idyllic or pastoral. Rather, we’ve struggled, since 1619, to build Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” but we’ve barely laid the foundation. And there’s no beacon guiding “freedom-loving people.” Instead, there’s a wall (sort of) and bureaucracy preventing them from coming in and preventing a true democracy from ever being realized (which many states seem to be actively working toward).
So, the simpler time is the one we wish were true, just like we might wish Boseman (or those we’ve lost this past year) were still with us. It’s a nice world to live in (or dream of living in).
Despite the final scene with Peter Quill and Ego, I imagine T’Challa’s What if episode, if we were allowed to see more (like a whole season’s worth), would show us a world completely different from the one we saw in the MCU films and the one we are currently experiencing in our daily lives. In this world, T’Chaka doesn’t kill his brother N’Jobu and leave N’Jobu’s son, N’Jadaka behind in Oakland. Maybe Ultron never gets made. Maybe Tony and Cap don’t have a falling out. And maybe when Natasha reunites with her family it plays out differently—because if Thanos didn’t snap, then Natasha didn’t have to sacrifice herself to get the Soul Stone and Yelena wouldn’t have to mourn her.
It’s fascinating to play out what amounts to butterfly effect scenarios, to see how changing one thing (like substituting T’Challa for Peter Quill) makes a huge difference—especially to Jason Johnson, who makes an interesting cultural analysis of T’Challa’s What if episode on The Grio website, suggesting that T’Challa is a better hero than Peter Quill: “the white guy man-child in our universe who literally has a god’s blood running through his veins but couldn’t think beyond being a petty thief until a talking raccoon, a sentient plant and a Black woman in green face paint told him he was special for 140 minutes,” adding that “Fans need to see that Black people can be heroes because of what’s inside their hearts and minds […] and Boseman’s final performance brings that message home.”
Johnson has a point, but again, what sets T’Challa apart is his morality, not his skin color. As positive of a representation as he might be for people of color, he’s more than just a Black man. Indeed, as What if draws him, he’s the most moral man in the universe, the ultimate example of a philosopher king, or philosopher Star-Lord—though, if we want to be critical, it’s worth noting that, as the episode presents it, having Yondu as a father made a difference, too.
Is this good or bad? Does it make Yondu more likable than T’Chaka? Does it suggest that T’Chaka really wasn’t a good father? Is it a subtle (and perhaps non-intentional) reference to the centuries-old notion that brown parents need to be replaced with white parents? (Yondu might be blue, but the actor who plays him is white).
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, because the what ifs we dream about can’t really come true, no matter how much we want them to—because yes, I’d chose to live in T’Challa’s What if universe, where T’Challa and Boseman are still with us, and where my father got a new liver before his old one gave out.
But Boseman, like my father, is gone. No matter what Ryan Coogler does with Black Panther’s sequel, it won’t (it can’t) be the same. So, Boseman’s performance in What if has to suffice, not just as a rumination or a remembrance (because hearing Boseman’s Wakandan-accented voice again is heartbreaking) but as an inspiration—for us to do better, to act in universal ways for the sake of one another, as T’Challa says at the end of Black Panther, “as if we were all one tribe.”
As I reminisce about my father, I can see that, in his own way, he was like T’Challa. He wasn’t famous like Chadwick Boseman, but he was loved by those who knew him, touching every life he came into contact with. In his own micro universe he made things better, helping anyone who needed help, even at his own expense, with humor and wisdom and compassion – he was human (flawed and mortal and frustratingly stubborn), but he was a hero as much as any father could be, not just to me and my sister, but to all the friends that my sister and I brought through our house as we grew up, making him a second father (and sometimes only father) to so many kids who needed one.
In my own What if episode he’s still with us, like T’Challa, making the world, if not the universe, a better place—and in this universe I don’t waste the time we’re given. Instead, I make the most of every shared moment.
If there’s anything universal we’ve learned in the past year, it’s that our shared moments have become increasingly significant—for so many reasons. But maybe, if we reflect honestly on what really matters, we’ll start to come together rather than drift further apart.
In my reflection, it’s also interesting to note how several MCU narratives depict fathers and sons—from T’Chaka and T’Challa to Howard and Tony Stark, to Yondu and Star-Lord, to T’Challa and Yondu, to Tony Stark and Peter Parker, to Odin and Thor and Odin and Loki. To be fair, there’s some father/daughter relationships and moms (and aunts and sisters and brothers), too. But at the core of the MCU seems to be a recurring theme between fathers and sons and the relationship between T’Chaka and T’Challa is one of the most interesting, as we see T’Challa go from mourning his father and seeking revenge in Civil War to rebuking his father in Black Panther (telling him “You were wrong!”) and opening up Wakanda to the world, to being separated from his father in What if and having Yondu fill the role.
In every instance, however, their relationship remains like most father and son relationships do (a blend of mutual admiration and annoyance) because fathers and sons (perhaps like mothers and daughters) see one another as reflections of themselves.
As fathers, we see ourselves in our sons (the good and bad) and on our best days we try to help our sons do better, to be better than we were. As sons, we see what we might become (the good and the bad) and we rebel accordingly—though, in our best moments, we pay attention to every lesson, knowing that those are the maxims we need to not just remember, but pass on. Because they’re not just universal, they’re eternal, tying us to our past and our future.
What remains, then, are the what ifs, the reimagining of certain moments we wish we could change or simply relive—like having a chance, as Tony did in Endgame, to see his father again (or Thor and his mom) and make the moment count.
But we “beat on,” to rephrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, searching for the categorial imperatives that would not only make Kant, T’Challa, and our fathers proud, but that just might make enough of a difference to change our universe.
Edwardo Raul Pérez is a Professor of English, speculative fiction writer, critical thinker, and possible Loki variant.
Johnson, Jason. “Disney+’s ‘What if T’Challa beame a star-lord?’ is a repudiation of mediocre white men.” Disney+’s ‘What if T’Challa became a star-lord?’ is a repudiation of mediocre white men – TheGrio
Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/kant-moral/>.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge University Press, 1998.