Money talks in Hollywood, and the chorus is still rising in favor of Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Sweeping success wasn’t exactly unexpected, however. Much like its titular hero, if it was to survive, “Black Panther” had no alternative to greatness.
The top two all-time opening weekend winners in terms of box office numbers are both Star Wars movies (“The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” with more than $247 and $220 million respectively). Third is “Jurassic World,” fourth is Marvel’s “The Avengers” and fifth is “Black Panther,” closing a record-smashing first weekend with over $200 million in the United States alone.
In one stroke, Disney has solidified its place atop the entertainment pyramid (eight out of the top 10 biggest opening weekends of all time are Disney-owned properties) and blown away notions of genre fatigue for super-heroism on the big screen. Black Panther is officially a Marvel kingpin, a cultural phenomenon and the top-grossing film in history by a black director after just one weekend in the box office, a record previously held by “Straight Outta Compton” grossing just over $200 million over the entire length of its theater run worldwide. As of February 21, the “Black Panther” worldwide box office gross exceeds $440 million. In short, all hail the king.
Like many familiar Marvel characters, T’Challa and the Afro-futuristic nation of Wakanda are a product of the landmark creative relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Appearing in issue #52 of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, published in July of 1966, Black Panther was the first black character to have actual superpowers. The first time readers heard the name “Black Panther,” it was because he had mysteriously gifted the Fantastic Four a shiny new flying car. Suspicious of how “some refugee from a Tarzan movie” would have access to such technology, the team investigates.
What they find is a nation of futuristic technology firmly rooted in tribal customs, a marriage of myth and science fiction springing from then-popular notions of Africa – but reaching for the stars. It was far from perfect, and cringe-inducing by today’s standards, but in the ‘60s such inclusion and illustration of black excellence was unprecedented.
T’Challa and Wakanda challenged previous pop culture portrayals of Africa and its people. Black characters in comics were few and far between, and for every step forward there were two steps back. In a time when Africa was still viewed in popular culture as a primitive monolith, a “dark continent” filled with unexplored jungles and populated by warring tribes, T’Challa and the fictional Wakanda represented a significant departure.
The first title that Black Panther appeared in solo was “Jungle Action,” an often-criticized relic from Atlas Comics, the company that preceded Marvel.
In the Marvel’s Masterworks reprint collection of early “Black Panther” comics, Don McGregor writes that “Jungle Action” was “… a collection of jungle genre comics from the 1950s, mostly detailing white men and women saving Africans or being threatened by them. I voiced a lament that I thought it was a shame that in 1973 Marvel was printing these stories, and couldn’t we have a black African hero?”
After voicing his opinion, McGregor was assigned to write a story in “Jungle Action” featuring Black Panther. After re-introducing the character to readers in issue #5 (T’Challa had been largely relegated to side-character status as a member of the Avengers since 1968), a storyline called “Panther’s Rage” began.
To say that “Panther’s Rage” was revolutionary would be an understatement.
As an evolution of newspaper strips and editorial cartoons, comic books were intended to be disposable. Stories were compact, spanning less than twenty pages, and always began with a brief introduction to the characters and circumstances and wrapped up neatly by the last panel. As an easily digestible serial format clearly meant for younger audiences, comic books filled their niche with bright pops of color and action-packed splash pages.
Comics are a dynamic medium, combining the power of visual art with the clarity of literature, and McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” was the first example of what is now a common convention in comic book storytelling: the multi-issue story arc.
Running across 13 issues and two years of real-world time, “Panther’s Rage” was the first story told in a comic book that could be collected into what we know today as a graphic novel. The late Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Damage Control, Static and Icon, recognized the arc as one of the all-time greats.
“’The Panther’s Rage’ was everything a super-hero comic should be,” writes McDuffie in the third of his “To Be Continued” column series. “This overlooked and underrated classic is arguably the most tightly-written multi-part superhero epic ever. If you can get your hands on it … sit down and read the whole thing. It’s damn-near flawless, every issue, every scene, a functional, necessary part of the whole. Okay, now go back and read any individual issue. You’ll find in seamlessly integrated words and pictures; clearly introduced characters and situations; a concise (sometimes even transparent) recap; beautifully developed character relationships; at least one cool new villain; a stunning action set piece to test our hero’s skills and resolve; and a story that is always moving forward towards a definite and satisfying conclusion. That’s what we should all be delivering, every single month. Don and company did it in only 17 story pages per issue.”
In “Panther’s Rage,” McGregor explored and actualized the world and characters that Lee and Kirby had originally created. T’Challa was more than a hero or a vigilante, he was a king. The first solo outing for Black Panther asked tough questions of both its writers and readers: How would the citizens of an isolationist African country possessing technology far beyond the rest of the world react to a ruler who spent so much time away from home, and in fairly pale company? How do the responsibilities of super hero and international representative conflict with each other? How would the world react to an unseen, untouched African monarchy with technology far beyond their own? To test T’Challa, McGregor introduced complex villains with followers rather than faceless henchmen, worthy opponents who spoke as dissidents and moved with clear purpose. T’Challa had to prove his worth against both the natural forces of Wakanda, and the people he would claim to rule.
“Panther’s Rage” has Black Panther return home to a Wakanda in the process of tearing itself apart. A bloody coup led by Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in the movie, has sown distrust and violence across the land. Each issue concerns a battle with a specific threat, but connects with an overarching theme: the path Black Panther must take to fully regain his throne and restore peace.
The stories flit between action set-piece splash pages and emotional gut punches, from dynamic fights between a hero-king and those who would cause his people harm to the personal tragedy of a young boy whose father is murdered. Black Panther literally and figuratively battles foes foreign and domestic while bearing the weight of a nation on his shoulders. T’Challa has centuries of cultural momentum behind him, and insurmountable responsibility before him. His choice is clear, and unavoidable.
“Black Panther” isn’t an alter-ego for T’Challa, it’s an official title and signifier of office. As chief of the Panther tribe, and therefore de-facto leader of Wakanda, T’Challa must inherit and subsequently earn his mantle through training and trails. He carries the burden of legacy, and his character is defined by his royalty.
Wakanda thrives, defying the archetypal backdrop of a crime-ridden inner city or plantation bondage for black drama, intrigue and action. Wakanda possesses the resources and technology that would make it the envy – and perhaps ruler – of the world, but chooses a policy of non-interference that stands in stark contrast to European colonization. Masquerading as a poor third-world nation, Wakanda defines its own relationship with the world and flourishes because of it.
“Black Panther” is significant. The character, as the first black superhero and as a unique take on the consequence of power. The movie, as a record-breaking bankable blockbuster made by and primarily starring black people in a cinematic spectacle that connects with all people. Power, community, family, responsibility, loss and victory – “Black Panther” is a hero’s journey through a brave new world. “Black Panther” is about the cost of kingship and the pain of heroism. It takes the traditional Marvel tagline first heard in Spider-Man and adds an important footnote:
With great power, comes great responsibility. Great responsibility to lead, to create, to make the world a better place. Great responsibility to accept the past, and to brighten the future.