With the quality, production value, and fan base of superhero films constantly increasing, it’s no surprise that 2017 was a banner year for the genre. Considering the sheer volume of DC and Marvel productions last year, it’s also no surprise that their films accounted for half of the top ten highest box office grosses. And 2018 looks like it’s going to be just about as busy, with Marvel kicking the year off with their much anticipated Black Panther.
A major player in the Marvel comics, Black Panther AKA King T’Challa of Wakanda only recently made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016), played by Chadwick Boseman, but has more than deserved a solo film for some time now. The character was the first mainstream black superhero, predating Luke Cage and Falcon in the comics by several years, but unfortunately took a lot longer to become realized as a fully developed character for a number of reasons.
For as long as the comics have been around, the medium has almost always been viewed as “problematic” in one way or another. Dr. Fredric Wertham was hardly the first to tout the negative impact of comics on young, impressionable minds, although his novel, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), is still one of the most widely recognized examples.
Being a black superhero during the racially turbulent 60s and blaxploitation of the 70s, it’s easy to see how the Black Panther might not have always been handled particularly well. Over the years, various writing teams have done better than others, but it’s especially obvious that when the character was first introduced, Marvel wasn’t quite sure what to do with him yet. Despite the obvious pandering and unfortunately patronizing tone of the early years, T’Challa is an incredibly important character and has been an integral part of pretty much every major Marvel comic crossover event.
Although his first appearance came in Fantastic Four #52 (1966), the character has gone through a number of iterations and it wasn’t until more recently that the character really became recognizable as the character we know today.
Introduced as an African chieftain with access to incredible technology, the Black Panther lures the Fantastic Four to Wakanda in order to test himself against them; his logic being that if he can defeat them, he’ll be able to defeat Ulysses Klaue AKA Klaw, the man who killed his father. Luckily for him, Klaw chooses that exact moment to return to attack Wakanda and the Fantastic Four are more than willing to help fight him off, despite having just been attacked themselves hours prior.
In the comics, Klaw is a Nazi physicist who becomes an immortal entity composed of solidified sound after his confrontation with T’Challa and the Fantastic Four. Played by Andy Serkis in the MCU, Klaue is a black-market arms dealer operating out of South Africa. As one of Black Panther’s greatest foes, it makes sense that they’d want to incorporate him, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing him become living sound anytime soon. However, he did replace his hand with a sonic device after losing the original in a confrontation with Ultron, so we’ll have to see where that goes.
After this confrontation, Black Panther spends some time helping the Avengers, joining the team in 1968 and working with them to keep the world safe.
During this time, the vast majority of T’Challa’s storylines have to do directly with his own personal struggle between being the king of his own isolated nation and wanting to step up as the hero that the rest of the world needs him to be.
Jungle Action #5 (1973) was a reprint of a Black Panther focused issue of the Avengers (#62), making issue #6 technically the start of Black Panther’s first solo series. In addition to being the first true in-depth exploration of T’Challa’s burden as king of Wakanda, this run of the series is also considered by many to be Marvel’s first real graphic novel–Panther’s Rage.
This struggle of responsibility is one that has defined the character over the years. Christopher Priest’s 1998 run of the series revitalized the character and made T’Challa an essential member of the current comics era, setting him up as a respected member of the superhero community. Documented by Everett K. Ross (another name viewers will recognize from the MCU), Priest’s story really puts into perspective T’Challa’s difficulties of not only being responsible for his own country but feeling obligated to step in and help wherever he can as Black Panther.
The Captain America, Black Panther join mini-series, Flags of our Fathers, for example, does a great job exploring the weight of the Black Panther mantle–of being both being a statesman and superhero–and the expectations that go with it by showing how T’Challa’s father carried the mantel back during World War II.
Black Panther’s opinions and decisions have often influenced major Marvel events. For example, T’Challa refused to get involved in the original Civil War event until much later, going so far as to walk out on the discussions and claiming Wakanda as independent from the conflict. Naturally, as the political confrontation became a global brawl, T’Challa was forced to drop his position of neutrality and choose a side to support.
Additionally, while Civil War saw the marriage of Black Panther to X-Men’s Storm, Ororo Munroe, it was X-Men Vs Avengers that tore them apart. With their loyalties being pulled in too many directions, a bitter T’Challa annulled their marriage. While many fans have had mixed feelings about this entire relationship, the couple did have their moments. Dwayne McDuffie’s run on The New Fantastic Four has Storm and Black Panther filling in for Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic and actually gives the couple some much-needed passion, demonstrated by witty banter and mutual respect for the other. It might be the best example of what this couple could have been had they been given the chance.
More recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s current run of the series begins with civil war in Wakanda, showing the unrest of the people and the trouble that T’Challa is going to have in winning back the trust of his people. As the Wakanda that Coates creates is likely the closest comparison to the one we will be introduced to in the film, this is probably the series that will have the most influence on the current MCU in general. A somewhat recent development in the plot has also reintroduced Klaw as one of the Black Panther’s main antagonists beginning with issue #166, which is a good starting place for anyone who wants a more modern look at the character.
However, it’s the Rise of the Black Panther mini-series written by Evan Narcisse that quite possibly provides one of the clearest, most concise introductions to the character yet:
Since time immemorial, a lineage of fierce warrior kings have protected the African country of Wakanda. Theirs was the title of Black Panther, a mantle of spiritual and political leadership handed down for generations.
Thanks to the Black Panthers, the country has remained hidden, uncolonized and unconquered for untold centuries. Wakanda is home to secret technological advancements and contains the Great Sacred Mound of Vibranium, a source of a rare, ultra-durable metal that absorbs energy and vibration.
Many have sought to conquer Wakanda. All have failed. No king has ever died at the hands of outsiders…
The mini-series relies heavily on pre-existing comics lore, rather than what the MCU has established, but still manages to provide a fair amount of neutral context to bring readers up to speed. In the first issue alone, it sets up events in Wakanda from WWII until the present, following first T’Challa’s grandfather and then his father as they carry the mantle of King and Black Panther, just as T’Challa will one day do.
The focus of the series is likely going to be on T’Challa’s formative years, taking us through the pain of losing his family and the struggles that come with trying to be a good king, a good Avenger, and a good man.
Wakanda is a rich untapped resource for the MCU, and we’re not just talking about Vibranium, here–which comes from Wakanda and is often touted as the reason for the city’s overwhelming technological superiority. Black Panther has every opportunity to be as unique to the MCU as Guardians of the Galaxy, taking place in a completely new setting and introducing a whole new set of characters and motivations. As we’ve already seen T’Challa in the Avengers: Infinity War trailer, it looks like Marvel will continue to keep Wakanda relevant going forward.
Catch Black Panther in theaters February 16th.