Meet Black Panther: The Marvel Cinematic Universe's New Breakout Hero

Marcus Errico
·Editor-in-Chief, Yahoo Entertainment
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Black Panther under fire in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (Image: Disney/Marvel)

“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.

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Panther joins Team Iron Man in ‘Civil War’ (Photo: Disney/Marvel)

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.

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Black Panther makes his Marvel debut in 1966 (Image: Marvel)

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.

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Vintage ‘Avengers’ reveals Panther’s origin (Image: Marvel)

Civil War offers a new take on that tale. T’Challa and T’Chaka (John Kani) are introduced as diplomats caught in a terrorist bombing. An aggrieved T’Challa sets out for revenge against the presumed perpetrator, the Winter Soldier. During the course of the film, Panther assumes a pivotal role, proving his ferocity and tenacity in battle, while also sussing out the real story behind the attacks.

“There’s a mystery. He should be unpredictable,” Boseman explained to Yahoo Movies. “There’s an embodiment of an animal spirit.”

The filmmakers decided to include Black Panther’s streamlined origin in Civil War rather than save it for the solo film, which will be directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed).

“Did we want to introduce Black Panther in this movie or leave it for the Black Panther movie? You get a lot of good stuff out of just plain old T’Challa,” co-screenwriter Christopher Markus explained to Yahoo of the decision-making process. “We were like, ‘Well, we have a guy who owns a superhero costume, let’s have him put it on.’ So it wasn’t so much that we didn’t want [Black Panther] — it’s how much of this are we going to burn off in one movie?’” Fellow scribe Stephen McFeely continued: “In retrospect, I think it’s a great idea. Black Panther was always going to do very well. But I think a lot of people will be very excited because he’s already been presented in a movie that they were going to see.”

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‘Black Panther’ concept art with original release date was November 2017 (Image: Disney/Marvel)

“Now you can jump past Black Panther’s origin story,” added Markus. “You need to know where the powers come from and all that stuff. But it would be great to hit the ground running with these things rather than, ‘A young boy was hit with a meteorite, and then 10 years later…’”

Aside from T’Challa, Civil War also introduces the character of Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman. Freeman has said that he will be appearing in future Marvel movies and Black Panther makes perfect sense: In the comics, Ross is a U.S. government official who becomes a key ally of T’Challa. We have also seen another potential Black Panther player in Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue, the sketchy guy who provides Vibranium to Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though spelled differently, Klaue could serve a similar adversarial role as Klaw in the comics, even though the movie version won’t be responsible for the death of T’Chaka.

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Andy Serkis as Klaue in ‘Age of Ultron’ (Photo: Disney/Marvel)

While T’Challa hones his cinematic chops, Marvel is busy building up his pop-culture profile. The publisher recruited MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) to write a new Black Panther comic, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, which debuted last month to much fanfare and blockbuster sales.

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The cover of the new Black Panther No. 1 (Image: Marvel)

Marvel’s corporate parent, Disney, has also been ramping up the merchandising, launching all sorts of Panther-themed toys, apparel, and collectibles.

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Black Panther merchandise (Photos: Disney Consumer Products)

As Coates said last month: “It really is an honor to be writing King T'Challa. Add to that the masterful performance by Chadwick Boseman as the ruler of Wakanda and it really feels like this is Black Panther’s time.”

Watch Chadwick Boseman explain Black Panther’s fighting style: