Once again it’s time for a superhero movie. And once again, non-nerds are left wondering, “Who is this Black Panther fellow anyway?”
Well, true believers, here’s what you need to know about King T-Challa if you’re intrigued by the trailers for “Black Panther,” coming soon — Thursday — to a theater near you. (And you really should see it; it’s quite good.)
1. He was the first black superhero. There were a few black comic book characters before him, but he was the first with superpowers, which include enhanced strength, agility, speed, instincts and super-acute senses. Plus he’s super-smart, a master martial artist and he’s crazy rich. Comics aficionados may disagree, but basically anything Iron Man, Captain America or Batman can do, Black Panther can do better.
2. He’s not just a superhero, he’s royalty. T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, a fictional African country, which viewers glimpsed in “Captain America: Civil War.” The Black Panther is a title handed down over thousands of years to the leader of the Wakandan Panther Clan, who communes with the panther god Bast.
3. A king created by the King. Black Panther was created by the King of Comics, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee. Kirby initially envisioned him as a flamboyant adventurer named “Coal Tiger.” Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four No. 52 in 1966, and the film does an amazing job of incorporating Kirby’s wackadoodle techno-futuristic designs with traditional African dress. Black Panther’s creation and popularity paved the way for other superheroes of African lineage including Marvel’s Falcon (who first appeared in 1969), Luke Cage (1972) and DC Comics’ John Stewart, who became a Green Lantern in 1971.
4. Black Panther pre-dates the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party of the 1960s arrived shortly after Black Panther’s first appearance. For a time, Marvel changed his name from Black Panther to Black Leopard to avoid connections to the group. The writers explained the change through the character: “The ... term has — political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself. Hence, the new name — a minor point, at best, since the panther is a leopard."
5. Where is Wakanda exactly? Well, first, Wakanda isn’t real. It’s a made-up, almost-utopian though slightly xenophobic country in Africa. Its five tribes have seen little contact with the outside world (be sure to arrive on time to the film for the prologue that explains the country’s history). It’s also the location of a vast ore of vibranium, the strongest metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wakandans have used the vibranium to help create the most technologically advanced society on the planet. In the comics, Wakanda’s location was always kind of nebulous. Director Ryan Coogler and his team settled on the eastern part of the continent below the Sahara desert.
6. His bad-ass bodyguards: The Dora Milajae (which translates to the “Adored Ones”) are a group of fierce women who protect the king. The best and brightest young girls from each tribe are trained to become the most feared and loyal soldiers in Wakanda. In the film, the Dora Milajae are led by Okoye (played by Danai Gurira, Michonne of “The Walking Dead”). The film is full of great examples of how women play strong roles in Wakandan life, including T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett); his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright in a star-making performance) and the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). (For more on T’Challa’s world, check out “Black Panther: The Ultimate Guide” by Stephen “Win” Wiacek.)
7. Legendary scribes. In addition to Kirby, the Black Panther comics have been written by some big names in comics and entertainment.
Reginald Hudlin — filmmaker (“House Party”), Oscar-nominated producer (“Django Unchained”) and former president of Black Entertainment Television — wrote Black Panther from 2005-08. During his time at BET, Hudlin made a Black Panther animated series. Ta-Nehesi Coates, former senior editor of “The Atlantic” and bestselling author of “Between the World and Me,” started writing the Black Panther series in 2016.
The most iconic story in T’Challa’s history, “Panther’s Rage” was written by Don McGregor, who greatly expanded the culture and kingdom of Kirby’s Wakanda and introduced Black Panther’s nemesis, Erik Killmonger (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan). The story also is considered among the first “graphic novels.” The first African-American to write the character was Christopher Priest, who revolutionized the character for modern audiences.
8. Big box office. “Black Panther” is on pace to have a huge weekend, but how huge will it be? The biggest February superhero opening ever is “Deadpool,” with $132 million. The biggest superhero opening of all time was “Avengers,” with $207 million. And Fandango says “Black Panther” is outpacing all superhero movies in advance ticket sales.
9. This wasn’t the first try at a Black Panther movie. Before he scored success with the 1998 superhero film “Blade,” Wesley Snipes tried to get Hollywood interested in a Black Panther movie. “I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes told the Hollywood Reporter. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”
10. Where does this film fit in the Marvel Universe and what’s next for Wakanda? This film takes place after “Captain America: Civil War,” and the very end of the credits to the film says it all: Black Panther will return in “Avengers: Infinity War,” opening May 4.