I really like Black Panther. It's up there alongside Thor Ragnarok as my favourite Marvel movie, for a multitude of reasons.
I also absolutely adore RWBY. It's one of my favourite animated shows of all time, alongside Steven Universe, the Owl House, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
But what I'm here to talk to you about today is something that both Black Panther and RWBY do wrong, in subtly different ways, and for different reasons, and that's their handling of the "Well-Intended Extremist" trope.
And to head you off at the pass, I'm not talking about Adam Taurus.
The characters I'm looking at today are N'Jadaka/Killmonger on the Black Panther side, and Sienna Khan on the RWBY side. There are parts that RWBY gets wrong and Black Panther gets right, and there are parts that RWBY gets right and Black Panther gets wrong.
(But first, reality check. RWBY uses a Fantastic Racism allegory in the treatment of Faunus, in a constructed fictional world that has no real-world bigotries like racism or homophobia, while Black Panther deals directly with real-world anti-Black racism and colonialism. For the purposes of this essay, I'm going to talk about Faunus in RWBY as though they are a real minority, but one is fictional, and the other has affected countless real people throughout history.)
Spoilers ahead for both Black Panther, and RWBY up to Volume 8.
So! Let's talk about N'Jadaka! N'Jadaka, aka Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, is the villain of Black Panther. His father, N'Jobu, a prince of fictional Afro-futurist nation Wakanda and brother of King T'Chaka, raises him in Oakland, California, in the Black community there. N'Jobu helps recurring villain Ulysses Klaue steal vibranium1 from Wakanda, with the intent of redistributing the stolen vibranium to oppressed Africans the world over so they can overthrow their oppressors. T'Chaka murders N'Jobu over this, leaving N'Jadaka an orphan. With N'Jobu dead, Klaue instead sells the vibranium to Ultron, an unrelated villain from one of the worst Marvel movies, Age of Ultron.
When N'Jadaka shows up as the villain of Black Panther, he takes over Wakanda and continues the plan to redistribute the country's vibranium to oppressed peoples... and here's where the movie pulls a sneaky little trick Marvel likes to pull. First off, N'Jadaka also has a drive for revenge against T'Chaka, who's already dead, and he decides to take it out against T'Chaka's son and the hero of the movie, King T'Challa. So, he tries to kill T'Challa, and so is turned against the audience, and the movie frames all his further actions through the same lens. You're not supposed to agree with N'Jadaka - for fuck's sake, they literally call him Killmonger. This is the same thing they pulled in Spider-Man Homecoming, where they took the working-class villain whose "evil plan" is to steal some stuff from a billionaire, and made him do the literary equivalent of kick a puppy to make the audience not listen to him.
The second sneaky trick is that they don't make his goal equality - instead, they have N'Jadaka mirror anti-Black racism in a sort of reverse racism.
The world’s gonna start over, and this time we’re on top. The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.
This is a direct reference to the British empire, and places N'Jadaka squarely in the villain role, ensuring audiences will go "he's just as bad!" and never consider the validity of his other points. I'll get back to N'Jadaka later, especially with how T'Challa responds to him.
So, let's look at the White Fang, the Faunus2 rights organization turned terrorist group, in RWBY. The White Fang is organized "in the ashes of war", which could either refer to the Great War, a cataclysmic event set 80 years before the start of the show, or the Faunus Rights Revolution, set some time between the Great War and the show's present, which was fought to try and stop Humanity from "centralizing Faunus population in Menagerie", an island in the corner of the world of Remnant covered in non-arable desert and hostile wildlife. After the war, equal rights for Faunus was made the law, but in terms of de facto treatment, Faunus were still exploited and discriminated against.
So, the White Fang rose up, with rallies, peaceful protests, and boycotts... which are explicitly stated - by former member and one of the show's four main protagonists, Blake Belladonna, no less - to have not worked. At the time of Blake's membership in the White Fang, her father, Ghira Belladonna, was the leader, and he was committed to pacifism and peaceful protest - in essence, to appealing to the oppressors' consciences. Five years before the start of the show, Ghira steps down, and is replaced by Sienna Khan, who replaces peaceful protest with organized attacks - setting fire to shops that refuse to serve Faunus, hijacking cargo from companies that use exploited Faunus labour. As Blake puts it:
And the worst part was, it was working. We were being treated like equals. But not out of respect... out of fear.
So, Blake leaves the White Fang over their methods (and, as later seasons show, due to the increasing bloodlust by her partner, Adam), and the organization serves as the show's primary antagonist for the first two Volumes as they attempt to destroy the city the first three Volumes are set in. The fact that an organization trying to gain rights for an oppressed minority is portrayed as villainous is... not great, but if that were all RWBY had to say on the subject, I wouldn't be watching it, nor would I be writing about it. See, it's revealed in Volume 3 that the White Fang is, in fact, only working with Salem3 under threat of death - and it's further revealed in Volume 4 that, in fact, only one chapter of the White Fang is involved with the villains. As it happens, the leader of that chapter, Adam Taurus, is also a megalomaniacal abuser who eventually sides with the villains by choice, but he is deliberately not portrayed as representative of the entire White Fang - unlike N'Jadaka, whose "colonialism, but against white people this time" plan is portrayed as the be-all and end-all of any attempt to overthrow oppression in Black Panther. And, sure, there are Nakia's missions at the start of the movie, but those are on such a small, non-systemic scale, that I'm not sure they disprove my point.
But what happens next is very different. See, T'Challa actually listens to N'Jadaka, and recognizes that his father's playbook - to sit back and do nothing - is wrong, and that N'Jadaka is a monster of their own making. So, while T'Challa does take down - and kill - N'Jadaka, it doesn't quite signal a return to the status quo. T'Challa makes plans to open Wakanda up to the rest of the world, and provide outreach and aid to Africans the world over. ...Which, of course, does not, in fact, actually end oppression or help in distributing power, but it's at least something.
When the villains in RWBY destroy Beacon Academy at the end of Volume 3, Blake goes home to her parents, and tells them that they were right to leave the White Fang when they did - despite the fact that the White Fang's violence at Beacon is explicitly only the actions of a single chapter of the organization, and that the heads of the organization explicitly condemn that specific violence. Despite attempting to add nuance to the conversation, the writers still clearly want to have the White Fang as a villain - and so, they make what is, in my opinion, the worst writing choice in the series.
When Sienna Khan is introduced in Volume 5, she is immediately shown completely dressing down Adam Taurus, declaring that the White Fang will not be involved any further in Salem's plans.
I was one of the first to suggest violence where violence was necessary. Peace bred complacency and acceptance of our place in the world. I will not allow humanity to push us down without pushing them back. But the destruction of the Huntsman Academies crosses a line! The loss of the CCT has brought global communication to a crawl! And the White Fang is more of a target now than ever before! You have justified humanity's campaign against us, and for what?! Empty promises from a group of humans? Humans we still know nothing about, and come and go as they please! These are not examples of strength, Adam. They are examples of your talents being diminished by shortsightedness!
In response to this, Adam goes on a full Killmonger-style rant about how the Faunus are superior to humans, and how they should be the oppressors rather than the oppressed, to which Sienna responds that
I'm starting to doubt either of you [Adam, and Hazel, an agent of Salem] fully comprehend what it is that I want. I want humanity to fear the Faunus, to know that we demand respect! I do not want to start a war with the humans that we cannot win!
And in response, Adam Taurus murders Sienna Khan and becomes the leader of the White Fang.
Her nuanced ideological position of necessary violence in service to the distribution of power and the achievement of equality is removed from the story in the most visceral way possible, polarizing the narrative into a choice between aforementioned stinky bastard man Adam Taurus, and Ghira Belladonna, whose tactics, the narrative explicitly states, do not work.
I think the intent was to have Blake emerge as the new champion of Faunus rights, but not only does she side with her father on the need to use only peaceful protest (despite being a trained fighter who has no trouble executing violence towards the White Fang and Salem's lackeys), but after dethroning Adam in the Volume 5 finale, she completely abandons the Faunus rights subplot to her father in order to join the other main protagonists in the fight to save the world from Salem.
So where does all this leave us? We have one extremist whose plan is portrayed as unambiguously evil, but whose opponent understands his motives, learns from him, and pushes to make real change; and we have another extremist whose plan is thoughtful and directed towards moral ends, seemingly placed in the story to add nuance to an otherwise dangerously simplistic and harmful plot, but who is then killed off by a monstrous egomaniac, and whose opponent never wavers in his position, even when his tactics are textually stated to be ineffective.
Surprisingly, both stories actually end4 on the same message, extolling the virtue of peaceful, nonviolent means of improving conditions for oppressed people, and condemning violence in the name of justice - and both stories are also then set in a narrative filled with non-marginalized individuals continually performing acts of violence in the name of justice without facing narrative condemnation, be it the Avengers fighting Thanos in an all-out war, or Team RWBY rebelling against General Ironwood's authority after his slide into fascist authoritarianism.
On the whole, I have to give and detract points to and from both of them - they both do some things right, and they both do some things very wrong. Black Panther allows the hero to learn from the extremist and condemn the status-quo-maintaining tactics of his predecessors, but also portrays the extremist's goal as unambiguously evil, and pulls the old Marvel trick of "person with perfectly valid critiques kicks a puppy to make the audience hate them" while also giving a weird reverse-racism vibe. RWBY portrays the extremist in a more nuanced light, delving into her motivations and giving her a very solid base from which to argue for the necessity of violence in the pursuit of justice, and explicitly names the earlier evil actions of the extremist group as being performed under lethal duress, but then kills off the extremist to replace her with an outright villain, and has the hero stick with ineffectual techniques that seemingly prioritize maintaining respectability and a pacifistic moral high ground over actually improving material conditions.
- A magic plot metal in the Marvel universe that Captain America's shield is made of. Wakanda has a massive amount of it compared to the entire rest of the world.
- People with an animal trait, like cat ears or bull horns. In the world of RWBY, Faunus are discriminated against, exploited for cheap labour, and have a history of being enslaved.
- The main villain of RWBY. Her goal is to divide the people of Remnant, turn them against each other, then destroy the world.
- RWBY isn't over as of this writing, but I don't know if the White Fang subplot is going to come back, as the writers have openly admitted that they screwed it up, and Faunus-related plot beats have consistently been cut for time and pacing ever since the start of Volume 7.