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T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft in What If...? Image: Marvel Studios

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What If...? takes Black Panther to space in a twist on the comics

Long live the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda

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This week’s What If...? is a question many fans have been waiting for from the moment it was revealed in trailers for Marvel’s the animated Disney Plus series. What if T’Challa was kidnapped and raised in space, instead of Peter Quill? What if Black Panther became Star-Lord?

But the episode isn’t the first time that the character has had a starring role to play in the Marvel Comics galaxy — after all, if Wakanda has so much advanced technology, why wouldn’t they have a space program?

But on top of just being a cool idea, the story of how Black Panther went to space in Marvel Comics is one of his most consequential recent adventures, the final arc of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on Black Panther.

Meet the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda

The Black Panther points the way forward, on a background of a snarling panther, Wakandan flags, and spaceships zooming through space, on a variant cover of Black Panther #1, Marvel Comics (2018). Image: Yasmine Putri/Marvel Comics

The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda is a treatise on what it means to remember and what happens when societies forget.

Coates introduced the Empire in the final arcs of his Black Panther series, in an intimate, mysterious way. A nameless man we (rightly) assume to be T’Challa awakens from a dream, unaware of where or who he is. His only fleeting memories are of a white haired woman he feels he must return to. He wakes up in chains, enslaved by masters both Wakandan and alien, in an unfamiliar sector of the galaxy. Though missing memories, his survival instincts are intact; he breaks out of bondage and links with rebels (because if there’s one thing space always has, it’s rebels); people freed from bondage who seek to free others.

Our enslaved refugee turns into a one man wrecking crew, destabilizing this evil regime and attracting the attention of its ruling head, the megalomaniac N’Jadaka (yes, his name is meant to remind you of that N’Jadaka, but they’re not the same person. At least not yet). Eventually, through a combination of science and spirituality (another theme of Coates’ run), T’Challa is reunited with his memories.

We learn that T’Challa ventured into space to find Wakandan scientists — members of an expedition of Wakanda’s nascent space program — who never returned. Those scientists didn’t just get lost; they ended up in a temporal loop and were transplanted two thousand years in the past. Their advanced technology allowed them to not just survive, but to thrive. But what is technology without morality?

Untethered from the constraints of Wakanda’s spirituality; drunk with arrogance as their technology bought them grandeur over the alien races they encountered, these wayward Wakandans created a warped version of their society. Removed from the morals that guided decisions, removed from the memory of home, those scientists replicated the worst colonial and imperialist sins of Earth. Wakanda in exile became a slave-hoarding empire, spanning five galaxies.

Storm and Black Panther discuss their own naivete in recognizing that a society was built on slavery — even despite their skin color and mutant status, in Black Panther #18, Marvel Comics (2019).
Storm and T’Challa discuss their own naiveté in failing to recognize imperialism, she in America, he in the Intergalactic Empire, in Black Panther.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chris Sprouse/Marvel Comics

Wakanda, as the product of (largely) American writers influenced by the Black American cultural subconscious, is a great “What if...?” in and of itself: What if Black Americans were not taken, or Black peoples not colonized; what if the African diaspora was fully empowered instead of violently, unfairly, purposefully left memoryless? If Wakanda is the dream, the International Empire of Wakanda is the mirrored nightmare.

Coates, the architect of the Intergalactic Empire, has written extensively about the plunder of the American empire (and, notably, in his book The Water Dancer, about the power of memory). His reaction to that American experimentation — the physical, fiscal, emotional scars of surviving America — clearly shaped the operations of this Empire.

So when you read about slaves — the conquered, the rebellious, those who might one day become a threat — who had their memories forcefully taken from them to keep them docile, obedient, and lost, you poignantly empathize with a real, all too familiar pain. For if they have no concept of the table their ancestors prepared for them, then they will not fight against their circumstances.

T’Challa eventually returned home to engage in a final fight that joyously brought most of the Black Marvel family (sorry Everrett!) together for a fight for the ages (Black Panther #24, the penultimate comic in this run). Raucous and joyous, it was then that Coates had Wakanda expressly transcend the idea of simply being a place in Marvel Comics’ Earth; T’Challa reframed Wakanda as a mindset, an ideology, a state of being. A memory.

And after that battle, a victorious T’Challa now found himself in charge of an empire on the scale of the Shi’ar or the Kree/Skrull. He freed people from bondage, but winning the battle was always the easy part: Growing and maintaining that freedom was the challenge that lay ahead.

Coates’ run was well thought out, if imperfectly executed; though cohesive as a complete work, it is sometimes meandering as individual issues. Still, it is absolutely worth a read, and the story of the Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda is absolutely worth maintaining.

In Marvel Comics today, T’Challa commands the most powerful army on Earth; those who once fashioned themselves peers and rivals (other national figureheads like Doctor Doom and Namor) can no longer claim to be either. His Kingdom is indebted to several high ranking mutants, including a certain Regent of Arakko, err, Mars. What does this mean going forward? Maybe everything; maybe nothing.

Coates has passed the torch to acclaimed writer John Ridley. Under Ridley, the Empire could still exist, or it could fade into the background, a memory of what could have been, forgotten out of convenience or editorial mandate. We’ll find out when his Black Panther #1, drawn by Juann Cabal, hits shelves in November.

But what about the MCU?

Shuri, T’Chaka, and Ramonda, the royal family of Wakanda in What If...? Image: Marvel Studios

If Wakanda went to space in What If...? does that mean the country can’t go to space in a future Marvel movie?

“[Black Panther characters] can definitely still go to space in the movies, no doubt about it,” the show’s executive producer Brad Winderbaum told Polygon over Zoom. “We have always had a bit of a philosophy about [using up mythology] when we did any of our projects at the studio, which is: Don’t save anything for the sequel, because we might not ever see it. So if you have a good idea, and you’re making a movie, that’s the time to use it.

“We’ve learned that even with that philosophy, we don’t run out. There’s always new terrain, there are always new frontiers. There’s always new voices to be heard, and storytellers to take us in unexpected directions.”