At first glance, a story about barefoot hobbit and an African warrior-king-superhero don’t have much in common. But the works they’re a part of, The Lord of the Rings and Black Panther, are both attempting to process meaningless violence—Tolkien’s experience with the brutality of WWI and the oppression of the black community throughout history.
What’s interesting to me is that LOTR casts industrialization and technology as one of the villains, and Black Panther slots it in as the hero. (*Spoilers for both ahead.*)
While talking about gun control issues recently with my family, I said, “The trouble is that I can’t think of a single time that humans have voluntarily stepped backward technologically because they realized that what they created had terrible implications. Not even in fictional stories.” I then cited Jurassic Park and a bunch of robot movies…and then I stopped.
Because I remembered: there is at least one time in fictional history where the heroes have chosen to set their entire culture back several steps technologically for the greater good.
My friends, I bring you: the Ents.
I love these guys. Is that because I love trees in general? Yes. Is it also because they’re just as curmudgeonly as I am? Probably. (Their scenes are also way better in the books because you can read their dialogue at whatever speed you want and no one can stop you. Take that, J.R.R.!)
The Ents’ big moment, embedded above in case you need a refresher, is completely destroying Isengard, the industrial complex the wizard Saruman built to manufacture minions of evil. The Ents go in there with a fury, smashing orcs and machinery, tearing down the dam that once powered what it’s now wiping out, and completely submerging the weapons of war.
Ents. You gotta love ‘em. It might take them three days to decide to do anything, but once they’re set, you don’t want to get in their way.
The last time I watched the movie version, I thought that what they didn’t do was interesting. They don’t confiscate weapons or take over the caves and try to use, say, the water wheels to produce something helpful to their efforts. They destroy it all, and it’s presumed that after Saruman is dead, no one would be able to recreate something like Isengard again (because I’m pretty sure there’s not an engineer Uruk who secretly designed the whole thing and will leak plans to Aragorn for some Longbottom Leaf).
The Ents destroy it all. Except the pantry, I mean. Technology is good for something, right?
Contrast that with Black Panther. Now, I realize that commentary about every complex sociological issue would be too much to expect from a superhero movie that already had a lot going on, but at some point, I was hoping someone from Wakanda would ask, “Would it actually be good to introduce this technology to the world?”
But that never really happened. The choices as presented were: using the technology to subjugate the rest of the world: bad (but arguably a bit sympathetic under the circumstances). Hiding the technology for the benefit of the Wakandan people alone: slightly less bad, but still bad. Creating an exchange program to share the scientific advancements with the world: good, noble, these-guys-are-such-heroes.
And maybe that was the right choice, but I’m not sure it should have been such an obvious one. After all, the same technology that can stabilize a guy who took shrapnel to the spine just by sticking a multi-purpose bead in the wound can also make a person with nefarious intentions basically invincible even against the best defenses.
Like, cool, Agent Ross shot down the weapons that were going to decimate Europe…but in a few years, after lessons from Shuri and her team, wouldn’t other mercenaries be able to create their own?
Yes, it sounds like the plan is to focus on the medical and trade and transportation advances. But the entire point of the whole Eric-Killmonger-becomes-king plotline is that angry, violent people can and will usurp control and use neutral things (like the nifty black panther suit) for terrible ends.
Does that mean the world would be a better place if Wakanda kept their secrets? Does it mean that the developers of the nuclear bomb should have halted research, or that any other real-life development with staggering potential consequences should be buried?
Not necessarily. Because I think that people, unlike Ents, don’t willingly go back. That was what pushed the nuclear arms race forward. That’s why banning certain types of guns might not work as well as proponents think it will in ending mass shootings. And that’s why I’m going to let Treebeard give us some wisdom on this:
“We must not be hasty. I have become too hot. I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout stop! than to do it.”
That, my friends, is the problem we as humans face when it comes to technology, and not just when we invent it, but when we use it.
In a world dominated by technology, it’s easier to shout stop!—to recognize we can now become tethered to our work and ambition 24-7 via our devices, to know in our heads that the images we see in ads and the lives we admire on social media are airbrushed, to mourn that we beat our plowshares into swords instead of the other way around—than to actually stop.
Easier to complain about how busy and stressed we are than to take time to rest.
Easier to condemn the way other people use the Internet than to evaluate our own use…and even step away.
Easier to grumble about planned obsolescence than to decide we don’t need a newer, faster, fancier whatever, that our simpler life is just fine where it is.
It’s easier to shout stop! than to do it once we’re already in motion. And we are always, constantly in motion, progressing, advancing toward a vague destination that might not be worth the struggle.
So I’m put in the place of saying that while T’Challa’s words are wise (“We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe”), the outcome of his dispersion of information and resources might not have only the effects he intended. And yet…what other choice could he make?
Only the Ents, it seem, can march forward while destroying what we would consider progress.