Movie theaters have been banned in Saudi Arabia since its rulers began enforcing ultraconservative religious laws in the early 1980s, but that’s set to end on April 18 with a gala premiere of Black Panther at a new AMC movie theater in Riyadh.* The choice of movie makes sense, and not only because Black Panther has been the most popular movie in the world this year while also being light on sexual and religious themes that could draw the ire of censors. It’s also possible to interpret the movie in a way—admittedly very different from what its filmmakers intended—that dovetails nicely with the Saudi regime’s recent propaganda.
Like Wakanda, the fictional African country where Black Panther is set, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. Both acquired wealth and power through possession of a coveted natural resource (substitute vibranium for oil). Both have long been wary of cultural influence from the outside world. And Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, would clearly like to be seen as a sort of T’Challa figure. He’s recently been on a publicity blitz through the United States—complete with a glossy, branded magazine—to present himself as a young, dynamic, modernizing reformer intent on dragging a sclerotic monarchy into the 21st century.
In addition to lifting the restrictions on movies and public concerts, the prince has touted his reforms of Saudi Arabia’s repressive gender laws: Women will finally be allowed to drive and hold an increasing number of jobs. In Wakanda, women hold positions of importance and authority, though the country seems to be mainly ruled by men. The prince has also promoted his investments in alternative energy and a planned futuristic megacity, the mock-ups of which look a bit like Wakanda’s glittering capital.
Most of all, Mohammed Bin Salman has promoted himself in the West as a steadfast opponent of terrorism and religious extremism. It’s possible to read Black Panther’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, as a sort of jihadi figure. Like Osama Bin Laden, he’s a wayward, exiled son of the country’s elite who turns against them. As with past Saudi support for extremist groups, many Wakandans, including senior elites, are sympathetic to Killmonger, though ultimately his violent methods are shown to be dangerous and destabilizing. And for an ostensibly anti-colonialist movie set in Africa, Black Panther takes a surprisingly benign view of the CIA, in the form of the helpful agent Everett Ross. Saudi rulers, long dependent on overt and covert U.S. security assistance, no doubt appreciate the depiction.
Saudi Arabia, of course, is not Wakanda, and the image Mohammed Bin Salman is trying to project to the world leaves out a lot. There have been no moves to open up the country’s political system or to stop the imprisonment of government critics and journalists. (Black Panther isn’t clear on the freedom-of-the-press situation in Wakanda.) For all the gender reforms, the country’s notorious male-guardianship system remains in place. And the country continues to wage a brutally destructive war in Yemen to pursue destabilizing policies against countries like Lebanon and Qatar. But for a government looking to change up its image, a Hollywood blockbuster about a benevolent monarch who wants to reform his country but is mindful of tradition, and fights violent extremists with the help of the CIA, couldn’t have been released at a better time.
*Correction, April 5, 2018: This article originally suggested that Black Panther will be the first movie shown in Saudi Arabia since the ban was lifted. It will be the first shown in a permanent movie theater, but screenings have been held since January in temporary locations. Black Panther was beaten to the punch by The Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants, about which I have no geopolitical analysis to offer.