Let’s face it: This, to quote former Veep Joe Biden, is a big effin’ deal.
Black Panther, the motion picture, is by all accounts a watershed event soon to be upon us, starting Thursday night with early screenings. He is the very first mainstream black superhero ever to appear in and receive his own comic book series. His story arcs have tackled xenophobia, white supremacy, apartheid, geopolitics and everything in between.
And while Stan “the man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby deserve all credit due for his creation—and his debut in Fantastic Four No. 52 (in July 1966, roughly three months before the Black Panther Party officially adopted its name)—it was the writers in later decades who really seemed to shape the man and the mythology we see on the screen. Writers like Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and, most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates have greatly influenced the character of the last few decades in the books and what we see on film.
But this is an event worth remarking on because it is a first in so many aspects. It is the first big-budget superhero film from a major studio to star and feature a predominantly black cast, a black director, black screenwriters, a black executive producer and a black wardrobe designer.
Now, it’s a given that most of the film-viewing world’s introduction to the warrior-king named T’Challa was through 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. He was arguably the breakout character of that film, leading many to remark, “Whoa, who is that guy?” upon his debut. But this wasn’t the first Marvel movie reference to the Panther.
Interestingly enough, the existence of the Panther was hinted at as far back as 2010’s Iron Man 2, where his fictional homeland of Wakanda was shown on a map as a place Nick Fury was surveilling. It has also been confirmed that T’Challa has been the current Panther since at least 2008.
But Civil War was when eagle-eyed fans understandably started asking, “So what’s up with that movie though?” to which Marvel came back with the highly suspect response at the time that could be summed up as, “Ummm ... well, we don’t have the technology to create an accurate Wakanda right now ... but let us know what you think of Thor’s majestic otherworldly realm of Asgard, the Kree homeworld, and Neverwhere in Guardians of the Galaxy!”
But I digress.
After his Civil War appearance was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, Marvel Studios finally green-lighted a Black Panther film.
T’Challa and Wakanda’s mythology are potent symbols on multiple levels.
In T’Challa, you have essentially the ultimate overachiever ruling a veritable nation of overachievers. Here is a man who can trace his lineage back to 10 millennia of warrior kings and queens.
Wakanda itself has a proud legacy based on its being not only the sole place on Earth where the fictional metal vibranium (the substance Captain America’s shield is composed of) can be found, but also a society that has blended nature and technology to such an advanced stage, it is centuries ahead of anywhere else on the planet. This is in no small part due to Wakanda’s never knowing the horrors of colonialism. It’s literally a nation of the unconquered.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying by nearly everyone. Rival African nations, Belgian slave traders and honest-to-goodness extraterrestrial invaders (the intergalactic Skrull Empire and emissaries of the Mad Titan, Thanos, no less) all tried, and failed, in the comics to take over the African nation.
But, ultimately, with Black Panther the character, the thing that most strongly resonates for me is the idea that this is a superhero who is self-empowered. Even in his first cinematic appearance in Captain America: Civil War, you never get the sense that he is getting swept up in the other characters’ stories. It’s very clear that he has his own agenda.
Also, as much as characters like James Rhodes (War Machine) and Sam Wilson (the Falcon) are satisfactory heroes in their own right, they seem mainly there to support Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, respectively. Also, their particular gimmicks are bestowed upon them through technology—technology of which neither is the creator.
Which means that if they lose their gadgets, they are essentially powerless.
Interestingly, Sam “the Falcon” Wilson in the Ultimate Marvel series of books, which the Marvel Cinematic Universe was heavily influenced by, was the creator of the flight harness that gives him the ability to fly. However, for some reason, they decided not to include this as part of the character’s backstory in the films.
Compare this with Black Panther’s powers: He was a peak-level human mentally and physically before any enhancements. He possesses elite Olympic athletic abilities and has multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. from Oxford in physics. He is considered to be one of the most brilliant minds on Earth. The Black Panther title is a rank of office. The habit he wears is a mark of status as the protector and spiritual leader of Wakanda and the Panther Cult.
After undergoing the trials that all Black Panthers must overcome, he earns the right to consume a heart-shaped herb indigenous to Wakanda that further enhances his already formidable abilities to superhuman levels. The herb is roughly analogous to the super soldier serum that is responsible for Captain America’s powers. This plant, however, is toxic to anyone who is not a member of the royal bloodline. So if you aren’t genetically related to Bashenga, the first leader of the Panther Cult 10,000 years ago, you will suffer potentially lethal side effects and no benefit from eating the plant. (It has recently been revealed that Bashenga is the second being in history to hold the Black Panther title and is predated by another in 1,000,000. Don’t ask. It gets even weirder.)
How weird will the movie get? It’s delving into the realm of utopian Afrofuturism, something we’ve never really seen on this scale in a motion picture. In fact, it’s pretty likely that Black Panther, the film, will be sui generis, completely unlike anything we’ve seen on film before (and quite a few reviews bear this out).
So don’t be ashamed to get hyped, get your tickets and get somewhat initiated into the Panther Cult via this filmgoing experience—something I’ve been into since childhood (and not just because my last name almost spells “panther”). Because for comic readers like me, the reality of Black Panther and Wakanda getting their due in a multimillion-dollar sci-fi spectacular is the culmination of a lifelong dream that has me saying, “Long live the king,” but also, long live this dream of black excellence personified.
Jada Prather is an educator, artist and illustrator based in Washington, D.C., by way of New York City. Follow him on Twitter.