When Black Panther burst onto screens in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he became an instant fan favourite. With his distinctive costume and unique, formidable fighting style, the superhero alter-ego of T’Challa of Wakanda won the hearts of the audience, first with his determination to avenge the death of his father – King T’Chaka – and then, with the mercy he showed the perpetrator.
So, when Marvel announced that the iconic character would be starring in his own movie, the news was met with celebration. But – with a 50-year history of addressing themes ranging from apartheid and colonization, to sexual politics and familial rivalries – there’s far more to Black Panther than we’ve seen so far.
As we gear up for more from the promotional campaign, we’ve decided to put together a handy guide detailing everything you need to know about the King of Wakanda ahead of his solo outing hitting theaters in February. Take a look and if you think we missed anything important, be sure to leave a comment letting us know.
In The Comics Books
Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966, and was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The character was the first black superhero in mainstream comic books in the United States. He hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is home to a number of tribes. The title of Black Panther is given to the chief of those Wakandan tribes – and it’s therefore a mantle that is both inherited, and earned.
The Black Panther identity is achieved by eating a heart-shaped herb that’s unique to Wakanda and creates a connection between the consumer and the Wakandan deity – the Panther God. This provides enhanced powers and abilities, including speed, strength, agility, stamina, healing and highly acute senses. When T’Challa is Black Panther, he also has use of a suit made from material combined with Vibranium – which makes him almost impervious to damage.
T’Chaka was King of Wakanda, and holder of the Black Panther title. He was murdered, though, by Ulysses Klaw, while the villain attempted to exploit the Wakandan nation for a specific, unique resource. In generations past, the substance known as Vibranium was deposited in Wakanda by a crashing meteorite, and it’s this substance that led to the nation of Wakanda being both advanced, and necessarily hidden from the rest of the world.
Vibranium is a mineral that absorbs energy and becomes stronger as a result – which is why this substance was used to make Captain America’s shield. Ulysses Klaw sought the material for nefarious purposes, though, and killed King T’Chaka to get it. This left his son, T’Challa – one of the most intelligent people on the planet – to become the new leader of Wakanda, and holder of the Black Panther title.
But, since the title must also be earned, T’Challa’s uncle – S’yan – filled the role while T’Challa undertook his trials and rites of passage. It was during this process that T’Challa met and became enamoured of Ororo Munroe – also known as Storm of the X-Men.
Their relationship was complicated and ultimately ended by T’Challa’s determination to assume the Black Panther mantle and avenge his father’s death, and the young man becomes involved with, variously, the work of Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. When he finally returns to Wakanda, he finds a nation on the verge of civil war, and the villainous Erik Killmonger trying to seize power. T’Challa successfully defeats him though and sets forth on decades of excellent storylines.
Over the years, Black Panther has created a productive alliance with the U.S.; married and divorced Storm; defended against alien invasion; temporarily stood in for Daredevil as Guardian of Hell’s Kitchen; handed the Black Panther mantle to his sister, Shuri, after suffering grave injury; connected with a different Wakandan deity, and served as his sister’s second-in-command; thwarted incursions from other dimensions; and allied with Captain America during his anti-registration protests. Each of these plot developments have served to cement the status of T’Challa and Black Panther as iconic characters – repeatedly delivering groundbreaking elements and progressions.
One of the most notable elements of the Black Panther story is its inclusion of women, as it’s one of the only titles in comic books to routinely feature female characters that equal the headline star. For example, when T’Challa first falls in love and marries, it’s to Storm, who’s a bona fide superhero in her own right. She has her own life and her own priorities, and sometimes, those are at odds with those of T’Challa. She also has her own formidable set of powers, though, and often employs them to help Black Panther in his battles.
Then, there’s T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. When T’Challa is unable to execute the functions of Wakandan King, due to severe injury, Shuri becomes Wakandan leader. She continues to serve and protect her nation as Head of State, while her brother is recovering, and later, travelling. Like her older sibling, Shuri is already highly trained in martial arts by the time she consumes the heart-shaped herb that bestows upon her the powers of the Black Panther. She later acquires further abilities, though, including the power to transform into animals, and a super-flexibility that also allows her body to become almost impenetrable to projectiles, such as bullets and blades.
Shuri is by no means a token Wakandan woman, though. While she’s certainly a powerful character, she’s also surrounded by a group of characters that are among the elements that make the Black Panther comic books so iconic: The Dora Milaje.
The Dora Milaje
The Dora Milaje is essentially the Wakandan Special Forces, and it’s an exclusively female team. They protect T’Challa/Black Panther and the nation from would-be aggressors. The team first appeared in Black Panther Vol. 3 #1 and was created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira. T’Challa used the idea of the Dora Milaje to promote peace among the Wakandan tribes, by selecting women from each rival tribe to serve in his personal guard. The Dora Milaje also function as ceremonial “wives-in-training.”
Each of the Dora Milaje have fascinating stories of their own. Two of them – Aneka and Ayo – branched off to become a vigilante double-act known as Midnight Angels. This was after Ayo liberated Aneka from jail, where she was incarcerated for the murder of an abusive man, who was a Chieftan in her home village. Wakandan Mutate Nakia was obsessed with T’Challa, and plotted to kill his girlfriend. This caused T’Challa to banish her, whereupon she was captured and tortured by villains. This led her to become the villainous Malice, allied with Erik Killmonger.
Okoye was a more traditional Dora Milaje – speaking only to the King in a dialect little known in Wakanda. This allowed the King to communicate with his “wives” with intense privacy. Queen Divine Justice is a Wakandan tribeswoman, but was raised in Chicago. Her connection with the U.S. provides common ground between the Dora Milaje and T’Challa, who has himself spent a great deal of time in America.
While the fact that the Dora Milaje are partly ceremonial “wives-in-training” has given rise to accusations of sexism, the case of these women is not so cut and dried. Firstly, the point of the fictional nation of Wakanda is that it cannot be compared to western nations, such as the U.S. As a sovereign nation, it has an entirely different social structure – one that’s based upon tribal systems, rather than the monogamous relationships seen within nuclear family units that are familiar to western audiences. Secondly, the women of the Dora Milaje are a distinct group of highly skilled heroes and villains – each with their own motivations and desires.
Most importantly, in a comic book series that’s essentially centred on the male character of T’Challa, the Dora Milaje allows for numerous women to be involved – all of whom are fully realized and well-written, with complex arcs of their own, and all of whom are women of colour.
On The Big Screen
A Black Panther film has been in the works since Wesley Snipes expressed his interest in the property in 1992. Marvel continued to return to the idea throughout the years just prior to the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, and even commissioned the writing of a script during 2011. But, it’s taken a full decade, and 17 other films since Iron Man, to actually bring the project to fruition.
The pic is directed by Ryan Coogler, with a script that he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, and Chadwick Boseman is in the title role. As with every other movie in the MCU franchise, Black Panther will make some alterations to plot and character, in order to fit the movie in with the overall arc of the series. As such, specifically, the character of Nakia (played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o) will not necessarily be the obsessive Dora Milaje that’s seen in the comic books before her turn to villainy as Malice, but will rather be more of an international spy – working in service of Wakanda and King T’Challa to provide the national leader with an idea of global context.
The character of M’Baku (played by Winston Duke) will also be a little different. In the comic books, he’s referred to as ‘Man-Ape,’ and is a protestor of T’Challa’s rule. This ‘Man-Ape’ moniker will be removed, in favour of connections to gorilla deities in his position as leader of the Jabari tribe of the Wakandan mountains. Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) will also appear slightly changed as, although he’s still a smuggler and gangster trying to loot the nation of Vibranium, he’s not the man who killed T’Challa’s father – an event we saw in Captain America: Civil War. The character of Okoye (played by Danai Gurira), meanwhile, will be depicted as the Head of the Dora Milaje, while Princess Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) will be just that – a princess.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Michael B. Jordan as the villainous Erik Killmonger, Martin Freeman as Joint Counter Terrorism Center operative Everett K. Ross, Daniel Kaluuya as friend and confidante of T’Challa – W’kabi, Angela Bassett as Ramonda who’s mother to T’Challa, and Forest Whitaker as spiritual leader and keeper of the heart-shaped herb – Zuri. In addition, Florence Kasumba will reprise her role as Ayo, and Sterling K. Brown will join the cast as N’jobu – a mysterious figure from T’Challa’s past.
The details of the plot, unsurprisingly, remain a closely guarded secret, but we do know two things. Firstly, the film will see T’Challa return to Wakanda to find it under threat from Erik Killmonger – partly reflective of that same storyline in the comic books. Secondly, it seems that the events of Black Panther will lead directly into Avengers: Infinity War. So, could it be that T’Challa is faced with fending off a coup led by Killmonger, only to find that the looting of Ulysses Klaw has drawn the attention of Thanos, wishing to do the same?
It’s clear from the trailer that the action will be thrilling, with camera work that’s groundbreaking. It’s also clear that the story will fully involve several female characters in a valuable way, rather than having them there to simply facilitate male heroism. This is one of the main reasons why Black Panther is so highly anticipated – it’s breaking Marvel’s own mold to lead the franchise into a new phase entirely.
Hopefully, that new phase will continue to feature excellent women in powerful roles, as well as providing opportunities for directors and writers of colour to contribute to one of the most famous film franchises of all-time. We’ll soon see if that’s true, after Black Panther is released on February 16th, 2018.