There was no way to foresee, back in 1966 when Marvel Comics writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced T’Challa, king of Wakanda, in an issue of “Fantastic Four,” that we would arrive at this moment.
When Black Lives are supposed to Matter. When the sociopolitical landscape is as hostile as it’s been in 50 years. When Twitter is pleading with President Trump to not start a nuclear war before “Black Panther” opens.
Because “Black Panther” is opening. Because Marvel spent a king’s ransom and gathered an all-killer-no-filler filmmaking squad — led by director Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and pretty much every working black actor not in a “Star Wars” movie — to bring it to the screen. Because for the first time since “Blade,” which kicked off a trilogy in 1998, a black comic-book hero is at the center of the drama. Because a culture has been waiting.
Times have, indeed, changed in the 50-odd years since Lee and Kirby gave their superhero the same name as Bobby Seale and Huey Newton’s revolutionary Black Power organization. But just as being a person of color in today’s America can itself be a political act, it’s impossible to divorce the writing of “Black Panther” — either on-screen or in comics — from the tenor of a nation.
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“Obviously, we’re all aware of what’s going on in our country,” says Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote the “Black Panther” screenplay with Coogler after participating in Marvel’s in-house writers program. “But I think if you ask many black people, they’ll say that things haven’t changed nearly as much as folks may think. There may be a broader awareness of some of the conditions, but I don’t really think that there’s been some dramatic shift. For all of us working on the project, we just kept our heads down and tried to pour our hearts into the work.”
And yet, those real-world elements can be hard to ignore when putting pen to paper, says Evan Narcisse, co-writer of “Rise of Black Panther” for Marvel Comics. “The coarsening of the American political discourse is going hand in hand with legislation and rhetoric designed to destabilize and disenfranchise black people and other populations,” he maintains. “What Wakanda says is ‘No, we won’t let this happen.’ What T’Challa says is that they can kill our family, but we still have strength, tradition, ingenuity and cunning to survive and better ourselves and the world.”
It’s worth noting that at a time when women around the world are finding their voice and summoning their power, we get “Black Panther,” which gives its king an honor guard made entirely of female warriors. It’s worth noting that the scientific wizards of Wakanda have given T’Challa a suit of armor — arguably superior to Tony Stark’s — that can absorb and redirect kinetic energy. In other words, shooting at this black man only makes him stronger.
|“Fantastic Four” #52 (below left) featured the first appearance of Black Panther; top covers illustrate Christopher Priest’s late-1990s run; bottom two pair with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent work, including “Rise of the Black Panther,” co-written by Evan Narcisse.
Courtesy of Marvel
There’s an intersectionality at play in “Black Panther” that is both of the moment and supersedes it. “I think if this movie had come out and we’d had none of the racial thing we have in this country, it’d still be an important movie,” says executive producer Nate Moore, who has also worked on Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War.” “We’re at an interesting point, both domestically and internationally, where the notion of outsiders and borders is more relevant than it’s been in a long time.”
Too often the stories Hollywood studios choose to tell about black people are rooted in pain, in suffering, in injustice. Perhaps you’ve seen them: “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma,” “Hidden Figures,” “The Help” and “Amistad,” to name a few. There may be triumph by the third reel, but the often-historical premise is “Look how bad it was.” “Black Panther” is about that rare thing — black glory — and it’s something those who write “Panther” tales keep in mind.
“On a fundamental level, one of the amazing things about Wakanda is that it’s an African nation that is wholly self-determinant,” says Cole. “It’s never been conquered. It’s never been colonized or overrun. It decides what it is. We’re at a time when people of color are asserting and affirming their own self-determination. I think that disruption of the kind of prevailing paradigm that we’ve been living under is really resonating with our movie.”
Narcisse also sees the value in presenting to the world an African community that has never been forced to endure those familiar cinematic wounds. “Wakanda is the dream of an uninterrupted chain of black excellence,” he says. “‘Black Panther’ stories always need to keep the unbroken thread of history somewhere in the mix. T’Challa is an inheritor of an incredible legacy, and if he ever fails, that legacy dies.”
Legacy and history: For “Black Panther,” they are more than, as Lin-Manuel Miranda would say, planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. No, the legacy of those who’ve written T’Challa is marked in the evolution of the character over the decades. There have been a handful of writers who’ve truly gotten to place their stamp on the comic-book series: Lee and Kirby, Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and now Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“Those first Lee-Kirby stories in ‘Fantastic Four’ establish so much,” Narcisse says. “T’Challa’s a planner and a bit of a trickster. More foundationally, those stories did the simple yet necessary work of showing a black character could be as cool and heroic as a white one, a rarity for those times.
“McGregor gave T’Challa a soul,” Narcisse continues. “His stories were all heartache and duty and philosophical pondering. His T’Challa felt exceedingly compassionate, torn and conflicted by what he wanted and what he had to do. The idea of Wakanda as hostile to outsiders started there, mingled with a bit of Dark Continent sci-fi strangeness.”
Priest was the first African-American writer to tackle “Black Panther,” and with that change, says Narcisse, came a new attitude: “Priest made him a badass. He subverted the vanilla nobility that had accreted around T’Challa. The arch, purple dialogue was replaced by terse commands and threats, along with the revelation that we really never knew this guy at all.” Moore concurs: “There’s a tragic nobility to ‘Panther’ in the Priest run. He’s always forced to make decisions that are bad for him but serve the greater good.”
Then came Hollywood screenwriter and director Hudlin (“Marshall,” “House Party”), who smoothed out some of the rougher edges. “He made him relatable,” Narcisse notes, “a smooth cousin who did cool shit.”
But Coates leans into T’Challa the man and goes for a depth that his forebears didn’t plumb. “Ta-Nehisi has made him more well-adjusted psychologically,” says Narcisse. “This last T’Challa doesn’t agonize as much as he used to, but he still has to consider the fact that being a king may not be the best thing for him or for Wakanda.”
Coates was the man who was writing “Black Panther” during the transition from President Obama (whom he’d chronicled extensively for The Atlantic) to President Trump. As fitting as it might’ve been to have the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie about a black hero in theaters while the first black commander in chief was in office, Narcisse feels it wouldn’t have conjured the same kind of pop-cultural moment. “The fractious atmosphere — Charlottesville, ‘s—hole’ — nowadays harks back to the ways black folks and black spaces were demonized during slavery and Jim Crow,” he says. “Pre-Trump, the illusion of progress would’ve lessened the emotional impact of the Black Panther’s ascendancy.”
And yet there is an audience that will see the movie who won’t come to it with President Trump on their mind: children — boys and girls who’ve seldom seen themselves on-screen like this before.
Kings and queens, spies and scientists: “Black Panther” gives us a character diaspora that most popular fiction never aims for, let alone achieves. That was a constant flame simmering under the entire filmmaking team.
“As a kid, I played a lot of make-believe, and I would change every character I was playing with so that it was black,” recalls Cole. “Instead of James Bond it was James Black. Instead of Batman, it was Blackman. Now, little brown kids potentially don’t have to do that, and that’s amazing. That’s what the movie has meant to me. It’s the movie I wish I’d had to look up to when I was a kid.”