This article contains spoilers and addresses the plot in Captain America: Civil War.
At Howard University's commencement on May 7, the leader of the free world talked about a superhero. President Barack Obama spoke about the possibilities awaiting the class of 2016 — running a company, changing politics, or becoming a boundary-breaking musician like Prince — and he also mentioned Marvel's Black Panther.
"You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of Black Panther," he told the graduates. "Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both."
The president name-checking Black Panther, a.k.a. T'Challa, is a pinnacle for the hero, a moment that signifies that the character has finally arrived.
Obama was referring to Coates's collaboration with artist Brian Stelfreeze for a new, stellar Black Panther comic book that Marvel released last month. This past weekend, Marvel introduced comic fans to a live-action version of the character played by Chadwick Boseman in Captain America: Civil War. And in 2018, Black Panther will star in his own solo movie before joining up with the Avengers in the epic two-part Infinity War.
But what's even more exciting than Black Panther entering the cultural consciousness is the feeling that the people behind the latest incarnations of the character have gotten him right. That his depiction in Civil War — lauded by critics and fans alike — has finally brought to life a character who is respected, challenging, and integral to the Marvel universe.
Here's what Civil War did so well.
Black Panther is a force to be reckoned with
Black Panther, a.k.a. T'Challa, plays an important role in Civil War's most gasp-inducing sequences. He's chasing after Bucky Barnes during the freeway pursuit and outrunning cars. He's going toe to toe with Bucky during the gigantic airport fight scene. He's also in the movie's final scene and apprehends the film's real villain.
Black Panther is undoubtedly an important powerhouse, since he can go up against the Winter Soldier.
But Civil War also contains a smaller scene that gets this point across with more impact. Bucky, who has been mind-controlled by Hydra, escapes his containment unit in Berlin, and Tony Stark/Iron Man, Sharon Carter, and Black Widow all set out to try to slow him down. One by one, Bucky swats them away like flies. Then Black Panther shows up — he doesn't have his armor, but he still goes punch for punch with Bucky before Bucky ultimately runs away.
Black Panther isn't a demigod like Thor or a megaton powerhouse like the Hulk, but he can more than hold his own in combat.
The way Civil War hints at Black Panther's strength and endurance reminded me of a scene in 2008's Black Panther No. 39, a tie-in to a crossover event called Secret Invasion. Earth is under attack by the Skrulls, a powerful group of aliens with the power to shape shift; some of them can even mimic superpowers. They're big, they're bad, and they're possibly unstoppable. And they have their sights on Wakanda, the fictional African country Black Panther calls home.
The only thing standing in their way is Black Panther, his wife, Storm (yes, of X-Men fame; Storm is now Black Panther's ex-wife — comic book relationships are complicated), and the Wakandan warriors. They must hold the line. And when the battle begins, Black Panther comes face to face with a juiced-up Skrull who flashes various superpowers (Wolverine's claws, Luke Cage's unbreakable skin, Danny Rand's Iron Fist).
The Skrull says he's been training all his life to kill Black Panther, to which Black Panther coolly replies, "I have trained my entire life to face the unknown."
Many other fighters in the Marvel Universe wouldn't stand a chance against this Skrull. The fight continues in the next issue, Black Panther No. 40, where Black Panther studies the Skrull's fighting style, notes his weaknesses, and starts breaking him down like a chef butchering a chicken.
In a story written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Jefte Palo, we get to see Black Panther beat the odds that are stacked against him and observe how he reacts when he's backed into a corner. We also get to see what he does when a powerful enemy standing in front of him seems to be the path of least resistance. And the primary lesson is that you don't fuck with Black Panther.
Black Panther is his own man
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther; the character first appeared in 1966 in an issue of The Fantastic Four (No. 52). In an interview with the Comics Journal, Kirby said he created the character because no other comics creators were incorporating black characters into their stories and he felt a responsibility to do so:
How did you come up with the Black Panther?
KIRBY: I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences. Remember, in my day, drawing an Asian was drawing Fu Manchu — that’s the only Asian they knew. The Asians were wily…
Granted, the language Kirby used to describe the diversity, representation and inclusion he was weaving into his stories was a bit blunt. But what he was getting at with the idea of representation (and the lack of it he'd observed) is something that comic books are still striving for and struggling with today.
With Black Panther, we've seen the comic industry's fluctuating commitment to representation and diversity play out in the form of stops and starts for both the character and his solo books (the sales of his books weren't the most spectacular). And though some components of Black Panther's mythology are very strong and the character is now an integral part of the Marvel universe, there were times when nobody seemed to know what to do with him. He was essentially limited to guest-star status, a special friend who would help out the Avengers in a pinch.
The rise of the Black Panther we know today started around 1998, when he got his own series with Christopher Priest and artist Mark Teixeira (though even his journey from then to now hasn't been without speed bumps). Priest and Texeira fleshed out his special skills — he's a master strategist and tactician — but more importantly, they established and crystallized his motivation: that he must protect Wakanda at all costs.
Black Panther will do anything to keep Wakanda safe. This includes forging alliances that might be unseemly or manipulating friends. Black Panther's only loyalty is to his country.
In Black Panther No. 8 (drawn by Joe Jusko), we see Black Panther join the Avengers for the first time — not because he wants to save the world, but because he's suspicious of them:
The issue offers a complex look into the mind of Black Panther, and it shatters the relationship he has with the other Avengers. They couldn't fully trust him, and he couldn't fully trust them:
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. In more recent stories (see: New Avengers), Black Panther is cast as a voice of reason. He provides a different viewpoint for many of his Avenger pals, and is seen as a safeguard against groupthink. (He also plays this role when he's asked to join the Illuminati, a cabal of powerful superheroes.)
As the king of Wakanda, Black Panther/T'Challa has much more at stake than the rest of the Avengers. He has to protect his country. He believes (rightly) that every action the Avengers take can affect him by association (see: the 2012 Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, when Namor floods Wakanda because he believes the Avengers are hiding someone valuable there).
In Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther's motivations aren't as spelled out as they are in the comic books, and though he still fights on Tony Stark/Iron Man's team, whether he's officially joined the Avengers is unclear. All he really wants to do is avenge his father, who was killed in the attack on the United Nations, which means going after Bucky, who he believes detonated the bomb. And if you look at each fight scene in Civil War, Black Panther is going after Bucky right off the bat every single time.
When he finds out his father's true killer, T'Challa/Black Panther drops his beef with Bucky and turns in Zemo, the film's true villain, to the authorities. In Civil War's mid-credits scene, when T'Challa offers Bucky his cryogenic refuge, we begin to understand that while T'Challa/Black Panther did fight on Tony Stark/Ironman's side, he didn't exactly sign an unconditional contract of fealty, and is still a man who acts independently and is capable of making his own decisions .
Black Panther is a man of his country and of tradition
In one of Civil War's quieter scenes, T'Challa/Black Panther talks to Natasha Romanov/Black Widow about the death of his father and explains to her that in Wakanda, death is not the end of someone's being.
"In my culture, death is not the end. It's more of a stepping-off point," he tells her. "You reach out with both hands, and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into the green veld where you can run forever."
It's a nifty callback to the mythology of the character — the notion that "the Black Panther" is not a person but a mantle worn by someone worthy or a title that someone earns (Bast is the panther god and patron god of Wakanda in the Marvel Universe). Though writer Reginald Hudlin and artist John Romita Jr., who expressed this idea during their run on Black Panther in 2005, aren't considered as iconic a pairing (and some consider Hudlin's dialogue dodgy) as the Priest/Teixeira collaboration, they really drove home the theme of identity and what the Black Panther means.
Hudlin and Romita begin with an arc that asks, "Who is Black Panther?" and focuses on Black Panther's role as a protector. Wakanda has historically been a place that outsiders have wanted to conquer, but the Black Panther and the Wakandans have resisted those forces again and again. Hudlin and Romita tell this story by connecting the present and the past, showing the greed of humanity and the need for the Black Panther to protect it:
Pop culture is rife with depictions of Africa that paint the continent as a war-torn, savage place. But in Black Panther, Wakanda is a place of pride. Wakanda is a place that's desired, that's protected and resists colonization. Black Panther embodies it. And we get to see a little bit of this Wakandan legacy in Civil War's post-credits scene, where Black Panther/T'Challa tells Captain America that he challenges anyone to try to invade it.
It's a powerful scene — T'Challa daring anyone to fight him on his home turf. In terms of the cinematic universe, we don't really know what's going on there. But in the Black Panther comic today, the tie between T'Challa and Wakanda is as pertinent as ever.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates and Stelfreeze's current Black Panther run, the pair explores Black Panther's connection to Wakanda — and his responsibility to protect the country — in political and social spheres.
Coates and Stelfreeze's Black Panther is ruling a country in turmoil. He hasn't done a stellar job of keeping it safe (recently). Wakanda is supposed to be exceptional, the technological zenith of the world, but Coates and Stelfreeze present the experience of living in it as anything but. And it weighs on Black Panther/T'Challa:
"Wakandan identity held that this is a nation that has never been conquered," Coates says in a Marvel video about his comic. "First job of the king is to protect the nation. And when the king can no longer protect the nation, what is the king?"
Coates and Stelfreeze's comic is one of the best out there today, giving both the character and his home nation a political depth and personal texture that's riveting. The pride T'Challa has in his home country is made clear in the movie. And hopefully Marvel will explore it even further in Black Panther's solo movie.
The one thing about Black Panther we didn't get to see in Civil War
If there's one element of Black Panther that's missing from Captain America: Civil War, it's his intelligence and analytical skills. Black Panther is one of the smartest people in the Marvel universe, and it's a testament to his battlefield strategy that his country has never been conquered.
In the Skrull fight I mentioned above, we get a glimpse of his fighting skills. He analyzes the Skrull's moves and beats him even though the Skrull is blessed with an amalgam of superpowers. And in that same arc, when the Skrulls descend upon Wakanda they're greeted by this, a garden of Skrull heads:
Black Panther also plays a pivotal role in Marvel's recent Secret Wars crossover, outsmarting Doctor Doom and allowing his teammate Reed Richards to take Doom down:
Essentially, no one ever has the upper hand against Black Panther. And once they start to believe they do, it's all downhill from there.
Even though we don't get to see this side of Black Panther in Civil War, the movie is efficient enough to convey the core characteristics of his existence. I didn't keep an official tally of the character's Civil War screen time, but he's only in the movie for maybe 15 minutes or so. Still, Boseman manages to communicate T'Challa's tenacity, his logic, and his toughness. I can only imagine and hope that Black Panther's upcoming solo movie will give us even more of the rich history and spirit that Marvel and his several writers and artists have instilled in the character over the years.