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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Book review - The Wakanda Files. A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond.


Benjamin, Troy. The Wakanda Files. A Technological Exploration of the Avengers and Beyond. Epic Ink, 2020. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7603-6544-1. $60.00.

 reviewed by Aaron Ricker

Troy Benjamin is the author of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Declassified book series, and a contributor to the Official Guidebook to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His new book The Wakanda Files is, like these other titles, an illustrated look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) aimed at fans in a hardcover book with plastic slipcase.* The book’s creative conceit presents The Wakanda Files as a collection of top-secret intelligence assembled by the royal scientists of Wakanda (a fictional African kingdom featured in the MCU, led by the Black Panther). The high-tech information thus collected by Wakandan spies and scientists is arranged into five sections: “Human Enhancement” (pages 4-69), “Weapons” (70-105), “Vehicles” (106-129), “AI and Mind Control” (130-143), and “Energies and Elements” (144-162). Chapter 1 therefore presents data on how Steve Rogers was transformed into Captain America, for example, and Chapter 2 talks about the development of his shield. Chapter 3 includes a discussion of the ups and downs of Howard Stark’s flying cars, and Chapter 4 highlights the AI breakthroughs (lucky and otherwise) achieved by Tony Stark. Chapter 6 presents some of the most fantastical science of all, including wonders like the fictionalized powers of palladium and the “Infinity Stones” whose blatantly magical character does not even get a perfunctory scientific fig leaf.


As this list of representative items suggests, the focus of The Wakanda Files is squarely on the MCU and the Avengers. The book’s subtitle touts it as “a technological exploration of the Avengers and beyond,” but the scope of its attention never extends far beyond the marvels of the Avengers-related movies. Even the illustrations are often just screenshots from the films, run through various Photoshop filters. If Wakanda has been patiently collecting data on exotic science related to human enhancement for years, one might ask, why do these files include no mention of achievements like Dr. Doom’s ultra-high-tech armour? The answer seems to be that the narrative focus of The Wakanda Files is restricted by the marketing needs of the real world outside the MCU: the Fantastic Four movies were (by MCU standards) commercial flops, and done by a rival studio which controlled the intellectual property. Hot Marvel properties that are fresh in people’s minds from the Avengers blockbusters are more likely to sell books.


The presentation of The Wakanda Files is not only limited by the MCU’s Avengers high-tech context in terms of the fictional technologies deemed worthy of attention. As intimated above with reference to the Infinity Stones, the book is also noticeably shaped by the way the Avengers movies tend to casually “retcon” the magic found in their source material as exotic science. On the very first page, chief scientist Shuri-Kimoyo specifies that the goal of the project is to “bring our planet the forefront of technology and innovation” (Wakanda Files, p. 3). The first file presented, though, is about the magic herb that allows the Black Panther to “access the ancestral plane” (Wakanda Files, pp. 6-7).


As a result of this artistic, or commercial, decision to accept the MCU’s preference for non-explanations, The Wakanda Files squanders some of its potential. A book about science (and) fiction can help scratch the hobbyist’s itch for collection and escapism. Such a book can also serve at times, though, to inform and inspire. It can give readers a pleasant chance to marvel at how elegantly the fantasy has been made to dance with the hard science. The lazy approach that The Wakanda Files picks up from the MCU shrugs off this opportunity. In Chapter 3, for example, Howard Stark explains that Captain America’s shield is bulletproof because it’s “[c]ompletely vibration absorbent” (p. 72). What do readers interested in scientific information gain from the suggestion that bullets are dangerous due to vibrations as opposed to their weight and speed?


At times, the loss in terms of potential infotainment value is exacerbated by losses in narrative coherence. According to The Wakanda Files, for example, the Bifrost bridge from Asgard to Earth controlled by the thunder god Thor is an Einstein-Rosen wormhole – an idea floated as theory in the movies and repeated here as fact. As such, the Bifrost is said to permit travel through space and time (pp. 80, 149). In narrative terms, though, this picture just doesn’t work. If Thor had the ability to open portals for time travel, the Avengers wouldn’t have needed to spend so much time and energy building a time machine (the very device discussed on pages 59-61 of The Wakanda Files). Now and then, this unfortunate streak of intellectual laziness drags the book down to the level of absurdity. In Chapter 3, for example, the reader is presented with Dr. Hank Pym’s plans to become smaller than an atom, which for some reason include worrying about how breathable the air might be. “Oxygen levels within the Quantum Realm are undetermined,” Pym notes (p. 129). This is a truly bizarre concern to attribute to a brilliant scientist. How many oxygen molecules per billion is he hoping to inhale, once he’s smaller than an oxygen molecule? The services of a good scientific advisor/editor would have come in handy at such points.


On a less serious, but nevertheless distracting and disappointing note, The Wakanda Files also suffers from a lack of basic editing. In Chapter 1, the head of the German super-soldier program is found writing, “I need resources. I need men” (p. 12). Two pages later, the head of the American super-soldier program writes, “We need resources. We need men” (p. 14). In Chapter 2, SHIELD agent Phil Coulson recommends copying Asgardian tech because “we’ll want to fight fire with fire” (p. 95). Two pages later, he also recommends copying Asgardian tech because “we’ll want to fight fire with fire” (p. 97). Proofreading mistakes appear in every section. Benjamin writes “burying the lead” as opposed to “the lede” (p. 142), for instance, and invents the new English expression “of which I’m familiar” (pp. 123, 146). In short, the timing of The Wakanda Files seems wise from a sales point of view - hot on the heels of the movies and ready for holiday sales - but a less derivative and more precise approach could have provided fans and students of comics culture with a more enjoyable read while enriching the backstory of the MCU.


*editor’s note – Ricker’s review was written from an advance copy pdf. His comments with page citations have been checked and confirmed against the final text. The finished book also comes with a small ultraviolet light designed as Wakandan technology with which the reader can find concealed messages. The plastic slipcase is necessary to hold the light together with the book. A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 22:2.

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