By Dr. Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Through one of those curious accidents of timing, I happened to watch Black Panther for my film class the day before the newest version of Dune debuted. For most of my life, I’ve been somewhat indifferent to the story of Dune. I never fell in love with the novel the way other people have. While beautiful at times, the 1984 film directed by David Lynch was achingly long. The most recent movie has left me feeling let down again. This time, however, the comparison has given me some insight into why.
Both stories are of roughly the same time. Dune, the novel by Frank Herbert, arrived in 1965. The Black Panther, the very first black superhero, showed up a year later in Fantastic Four #52. The tales share a similar premise. The planet Arrakis is the source of the spice “mélange,” a mysterious substance upon which the entire economy of the future is dependent upon for space travel. The Panther’s native land of Wakanda is likewise dependent upon a unique material. Vibranium is an extraterrestrial metal with amazing properties that allows this African nation to enjoy considerable prosperity.
Both tales are about colonization. The central difference between the two premises is that in Dune the Fremen population of Arrakis is under the domination of outside forces while in Black Panther, the Wakandans have managed to keep colonizers away by living in secrecy.
Our main characters are also royals with superpowers. In addition to being the latest in a long line of Black Panthers, T’Challa is the newly crowned king of Wakanda. The Panther is a superhero with exceptional physical abilities. His vibranium infused suit gives him an even greater edge whether he is operating in stealth or taking on direct combat. Dune’s Paul Atreides is the next in line to the dukedom of the House Atreides. As the movie begins, Paul is learning to master both the physical arts of combat and the mysterious powers of command through his voice. Paul also has unpredictable prophetic visions. And his power will only grow.
However, only one of the stories has a protagonist who starts on the side of the oppressors. The Atreides family is essentially set up by their emperor to fail on Arrakis and to be destroyed by their enemies, the House Harkonnen. This involves them taking over the spice mining operations on Arrakis. While Paul’s father, Duke Leto, is a kinder overlord, he is still very much in charge. In fact, at one point in the film, Leto speculates that the native Fremen could make an ideal ally in his battle against the emperor. And Paul is about to become the Fremen messiah, thanks to the schemes of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.
Perhaps this problematic aspect will be adjusted in the second film, but for now Paul is a Chalametianly pale savior, there to avenge his family and take his artificially prophesied place.
Said another way, consider what would happen if the films’ sensibilities were reversed. Done in this perspective, Black Panther would be the story of Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross, come to save the Wakandans from themselves. Alternately, with a more Marvelous sensibility, instead of lingering on the exoticized beauty of Zendaya, Dune would center on Chani as the hero who would free her Fremen people.