Black Panther is the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featuring Chadwick Boseman in the title role of a man who is simultaneously a superhero, a king and a religious figurehead. The movie won’t just be an introduction to a new hero, but an introduction to a whole new world of the Marvel Universe, a fictional country with its own rich history and culture.
So before you head out to see Black Panther on Feb. 16, take a moment to brush up on T’Challa, king of Wakanda — the Black Panther himself.
Who is Black Panther?
There have been many Black Panthers, but the one who fights alongside the Avengers is T’Challa, the ruling king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Every king of Wakanda is also a Black Panther, and so T’Challa has inherited his role — protector of Wakanda and avatar of the Panther God — from a line that reaches back to prehistory.
That means he’s not just a superhero. He’s a political leader and a religious figurehead, the ruler of what is secretly the most technologically advanced country in the world. T’Challa wields the power of his country’s best science as well as the blessings of its goddess, and sometimes even the complete knowledge of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers. To the wider world, he is a superhero, but in Wakanda, he is the king who decided to end the country’s long seclusion.
As king, T’Challa has access to the military and technological might of Wakanda, including an array of advanced combat techniques and the technology in his suit. As himself, he has his own superhuman intellect. And as the chosen of the Panther God, Bast, the central deity of Wakanda’s state religion, he is permitted to eat her Heart-Shaped Herb without being poisoned by it. This gives him his enhanced strength, reflexes, senses and regenerative abilities — much like another Marvel superhero who is an avatar and protector for his country, Captain America.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther made his first appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. As a Marvel superhero, he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966, from the pens of that legendary Marvel Comics creative team, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Was he named after the Black Panthers?
Fantastic Four #52 predates the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party, the socialist and anti-fascist group that organized to unite African-Americans against police brutality and racial supremacy in American society and politics. Stan Lee has also denied that the name was inspired by either the 761st Tank Battalion, a predominantly African-American unit of the U.S. Army during World War II that was known as the “Black Panthers,” or the panther logo of the Black Panther Party’s antecedent group, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.
In 1972, Marvel attempted to switch to “the Black Leopard,” but it didn’t stick. “Black Panther” just sounds cooler.
But while the character’s name may not have been directly inspired by any specific element of African or African-American culture, Black Panther has since become a milestone himself. He is the first black superhero to appear in either the Marvel or DC Universes.
What’s the origin story of King T’Challa, the Black Panther?
T’Challa’s origin in the films is slightly different from in the comics. In Captain America: Civil War, his father T’Chaka was killed as part of a plot to discredit and divide the Avengers, and it seems as though T’Challa became the Black Panther before he inherited the throne.
In the world of Marvel’s comics, however, we know quite a bit more.
T’Challa is the latest in a line of Wakandan kings stretching back centuries, born to King T’Chaka and Queen N’Yami, T’Chaka’s first wife and the chief scientist of Wakanda. Unfortunately, N’Yami succumbed to an illness and died only days after T’Challa’s birth.
When T’Challa was still a young boy, T’Chaka remarried to a woman named Ramonda, who, though she was born in South Africa, is one of the rare non-Wakandans to have peacefully discovered the country. Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett in Black Panther) has been a mother to T’Challa in everything but blood, and is the mother of his half-sister, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is second in line to the throne.
T’Challa became king through tragedy, when the scientist Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “claw”) killed T’Chaka in battle. But T’Challa’s ongoing reign eclipsed the tragedy of its beginnings when, under his leadership, Wakanda revealed its existence to the world and took its place among the rest of Earth’s nations.
“T’Challa is a character that stands at the crossroads between tradition and modernity,” writer Evan Narcisse told me over the phone. Narcisse has recently taken up the task of retelling T’Challa’s early history in a six-issue miniseries entitled Rise of the Black Panther. “Wakanda’s history is about being unconquered — about black excellence uninterrupted by white colonialism — and he has to decide how to move that tradition forward, and in order to move that tradition forward he has to break with tradition.”
The core themes of T’Challa’s character are within that dilemma — tradition versus change, and old ways versus new ways.
“How do I acknowledge the modern world,” Narcisse puts it, “while at the same time preserving the history that got me here?”
What makes Wakanda so special?
The history that got T’Challa here is that of Wakanda, an African nation that has never been conquered by outsiders. Whether other tribes, European colonists, Nazis or mad scientists, Wakanda has remained its own.
(Wakanda is also special because of a unique natural resource, but more on that later.)
This means that Wakanda’s culture — its arts and philosophies, its design aesthetic, and even the focus of its scientific efforts — are largely uninfluenced by foreign cultures. To many fans, and to many creators, Wakanda represents a dream of an Africa undisturbed by European colonization and European cultural dominance.
And that makes Black Panther stories a part of the genre of Afrofuturism.
What is Afrofuturism?
“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future — or alternate realities — which references African cultures or cultures in the African diaspora,” writer and filmmaker Ytash Womack told me in a phone interview. “It is [an] intersection between black culture, the imagination, liberation, technology and mysticism. You see it a lot in art, artistic visions, artistic aesthetics; but it’s also a way of looking at the world as well.”
Womack is the author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, and the director of the Afrofuturist short film “A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago.” She told me that the term “Afrofuturism” was coined relatively recently, in the 1990s. The work of many artists — from musicians like Sun Ra and the Arkestra and Parliament-Funkadelic to writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel L. Delaney — has been sort of grandfathered into the genre since. (Contemporary Afrofuturist creators include Janelle Monáe and N.K. Jemisin.)
So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were not thinking of Afrofuturism when they came up with Black Panther. But their character has become a part of the subgenre because of how he has evolved over time, through the work of Black Panther artists and writers after them.
T’Challa is part of a line of heroes stretching back — and, should he one day have children — forward in time. And there have even been times in Marvel continuity when he has been able to directly draw on the power of his ancestors, through a connection to the spirits of all the Black Panthers who came before him.
“One of the things that makes [Afrofuturism] different from other science fiction traditions is that there’s an understanding that the future, the past and present are all part of the same thing,” said Womack. “The future isn’t just seen as this space way out there and the past isn’t way in the distance.”
Black Panther’s connection to the feminine is also central to his place in the Afrofuturism pantheon, according to Womack. Over time, T’Challa has become supported by a solid cast of female characters — and not just one who serves a female panther god. He relies on Wakanda’s Queen Mother, Ramonda, and also his half-sister Shuri, who even served as Wakanda’s queen and its Black Panther for a while. And T’Challa is always attended to by his bodyguards, the Dora Milaje (more on them later).
Womack also pointed out that T’Challa is unusual for a superhero in that he has an obligation — not just a self-appointed responsibility — to a community.
“That’s very Afrofuturist,” she said, “in the sense that there’s this intersection of community. [Then] you have this balance of masculinity and femininity that’s embraced and encouraged, and then you have this time dynamic where the future, past and present is overlapping a bit.”
“Afrofuturism,” Womack explained, “is a reminder that people of the African continent and diaspora have contributed to ideas around the future — ideas around space and time in history — and that they continue to do so today. So we are very much a part of that story in the past, and we are a part of that story in the future, and we’re part of that story today.”
What is vibranium?
A great part of Wakanda’s story is its technology. The country has made huge advances in methods of propulsion, communication, weaponry and medicine — and, of course, Wakanda’s cloaking technology has allowed it to hide all of that from the outside world for as long as it desired. It is the most technologically advanced human society in the Marvel Universe.
Wakanda’s technological prowess comes from its land. In the distant past, the country was the site of a massive meteorite strike, and the resting place of that meteorite, the Great Mound, is now the site of a massive vibranium mine. Vibranium’s properties allow it to completely absorb vibrations — from the impact of bullets to sound itself. Harnessing vibranium launched Wakanda’s technological progress decades ahead of the rest of the world.
The presence of so much of a rare substance in Wakanda is one of the reasons that the country has kept itself hidden for so long, so that it wouldn’t have to fend off invading armies all of the time. When Wakandans did leave — often to study the sciences and return with what they had learned — they swore themselves to secrecy about their origins.
It was rare, but not unheard of, for outsiders to discover Wakanda with noble intentions. T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda, is one. And T’Challa’s grandfather, Azzuri the Wise, once became so impressed by the valor and integrity of an outsider that he gave him the rarest of gifts: a piece of pure vibranium. That vibranium served the outsider well, after he had it fashioned into an incredibly durable shield.
Who are the Dora Milaje?
A relatively recent addition to the Black Panther mythos, the Dora Milaje (pronounced DOOR-uh meh-LAH-shay) were created by Priest (a comics writer who has also been credited under the names “Christopher Priest” and “Jim Owsley”) for his 1998 ongoing series Black Panther. They are a highly trained, all-female group of warriors who are sworn to protect the king of Wakanda.
The Dora Milaje were apparently created as a way of keeping peace within Wakanda — each village would send its most promising young candidate to the capital to become a trained fighter among the king’s retinue. Originally, they were also considered his “concomitants,” meaning that he was expected to choose one of them to become his wife.
Obviously, neither T’Chaka nor T’Challa obeyed that particular stricture. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, the most recent writer to take on Black Panther at Marvel, has been working to change that particular aspect of the concept.
“The Dora Milaje are raised to be the bodyguards for Black Panther, for the king of Wakanda, but depending on whose rendition you’re looking at, they’re also raised to potentially become his wife,” he told Vice in 2016. “Given what I know of men in the real world and what I know of men throughout history, that’s a situation that’s ripe for abuse. So it occurred to me that some of the Dora Milaje might have issues with that.”
In Coates’ Black Panther, two of the Dora Milaje, Ayo and Aneka, fall in love with each other, instead of their king. They grow disillusioned with T’Challa’s focus on more global and cosmopolitan concerns, and defect from the Dora Milaje in order to become avenging vigilantes on behalf of marginalized and abused women in the Wakandan countryside. Eventually, of course, they find themselves allied with their king again, but on a somewhat more equal footing.
Ayo, played by Florence Kasumba, made a very memorable appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and she will be appearing again in Black Panther. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) are also playing Dora Milaje by the names of Nakia and Okoye, respectively.
Who are Black Panther’s villains, Ulysses Klaue and Erik Killmonger?
Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther) has a long history with more than one Black Panther. While searching for a steady source of ultra-rare vibranium to fuel his mad science, Klaue discovered Wakanda and attempted to take its mines by force. He and his strike team were eventually routed by Wakandan troops, but not before Klaue had killed the Black Panther — T’Chaka, that is — whose son T’Challa had taken up Klaue’s own sonic weapon and turned it on its creator in revenge.
Klaue escaped with his life, but T’Challa had blasted away his right hand. So he did what any self-respecting supervillain would: He replaced it with another powerful sonic weapon, capable of translating sound into physical force, and started calling himself Klaw. (And even later than that he became a being of pure sound, but you probably don’t have to worry about that.)
But Klaue appears to be something of a minor villain in Black Panther, while the main show is all about Erik Killmonger. In the comics, Killmonger is a Wakandan native who grew up in exile because of his father’s support of Ulysses Klaue. Killmonger believes that T’Challa has allowed Wakanda to come under the corrupting influence of outside cultures, particularly white ones, and seeks to take the throne for himself, in order to guide the country back to his ideal traditions.
It seems like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger will have similar goals, but not necessarily similar motives. Entertainment Weekly described the character as “a Wakandan exile who seeks to overthrow the new king.”
“The best way to describe him and T’Challa’s relationship is Magneto and Professor X,” Jordan told MTV News in 2017. “He has his eyes on the throne, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”
OK, so, one day every year, any Wakandan citizen can challenge the Black Panther to single combat, and if they win, they become ruler of Wakanda. So every year, T’Challa spends a whole day fighting and beats everybody, every time.
This seems like an uncertain way to run a government, but it sure is a heck of a way to write a comic book.