Meet Black Panther: Marvel’s New Breakout Hero
“We have a character — the Black Panther — that they’re going to do as movie. I think he’ll be very popular.”
That was what Stan Lee told me a year ago when talking about his roster of classic comic-book characters being adapted to the big screen. This week, Black Panther makes a spectacular entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War.
Played by Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up), Black Panther is the formidable alter ego of T’Challa, prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He is a compassionate diplomat with a righteous streak who inherits the mantle of the Panther from his father, King T’Chaka, and becomes a key ally of Iron Man in the confrontation between Avengers factions.
While Panther might be new to casual fans, the character is considered an iconic figure in comics history, who’s in the midst of a renaissance as he marks his 50th anniversary. With the hero playing such a key role in Civil War and with his own stand-alone film looming in February 2018, it’s worth taking a brief look at T’Challa’s curriculum vitae with insight from those who know him best.
Created by Lee and illustrator Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first mainstream black superhero, debuting before Falcon or Luke “Power Man” Cage. “I had some super characters before [that were black], but the Black Panther was the first one we devoted an entire book to,” Lee recalled. “He first appeared in Fantastic Four and then he became an Avenger. Then we gave him his own book.”
Billed, in typical Lee understatement, as the “surprise sensation of the century,” T’Challa made his Marvel premiere in issue 52 of Fantastic Four in July 1966. He immediately established himself as one of the great intellects in Marvel-dom, matching wits with fellow brain Mr. Fantastic by putting the superhero quartet through a series of tests before deeming them worthy.
The Panther would eventually split his time between his homeland of Wakanda and his work alongside the Avengers. At one point, Black Panther became Black Leopard to avoid confusion with the nascent political party, which launched five months after the Panther appeared on the scene. (The Black Panthers’ name was completely coincidental and not based on the character.) But the new moniker didn’t stick because, according to Lee, fans and writers preferred “Panther.”
Those early comic books teased out the hero’s origin. The hidden country of Wakanda is ruled by T’Chaka and is the sole source of the prized metal Vibranium, the super-stuff Captain America’s shield is made out of. The sinister Ulysses Klaw murders the king in an attempt to score the precious element, but is driven off by the teenaged T’Challa.
The heir passes a series of tests to become the new Black Panther, wearing the signature black costume with the ritual toothed necklace and gaining possession of a special herb that enhances his already preternatural cat-like abilities. Under T’Challa’s rule, Wakanda flourishes and becomes an advanced technological society.