Transcending Race: The Importance Of Marvel's Black Panther
If you’ve had any online presence in comic book nerd circles over the last three years you’ve probably run across something about Black Panther. The hype train around this character has been picking up steam ever since Marvel first announced he’d be in Captain America Civil War. Now that the trailer for Black Panther’s solo movie dropped you can bet that the excitement just spiked in the hearts and minds of millions of hardcore and casual fans alike. Why is Black Panther so important to fans and why is Black Panther important to Marvel Studios?
Let’s start with the latter question about why he’s important to Marvel. Aside from all of the obvious financial reasons that accompany every other Marvel studios blockbuster, this one comes with more risk. The general school of thought is that movies with a cast that’s more than 70 percent black just won’t sell and that white movie goers have a hard time relating. Not only is this movie’s cast primarily black it also takes place in Africa, which at one point was believed to be a difficult sell even in Black Panther comics. Marvel has also gotten a lot of flack over its attempts at diversity in comics which I have written about here . Most believe that those efforts have largely been a failure due to sales, and Marvel has basically acknowledged that argument by blaming diversity for the downward turn in sales as well. Black Panther is their first major attempt at diversity on the big screen. If the movie does well financially and has a good critical reception it could at least in some small way vindicate their diversity efforts. At the very least they’ll get a return on this investment, which is pretty much what any movie studio wants. They’ve taken a big risk and now they’ll want big rewards, so it is an important endeavor that they want to see succeed, maybe even more so than some other films. There’s no turning back because now they are committed.
Why it’s important to the fans?
There are a TON of reasons why BP is important so I’ll try to keep it simple.
2. He’s cool
4. He’s cool
5. Representation because of race
6. He’s cool
Joking (kind of) but seriously, obviously race is going to come up and be talked about from every side, and I believe in dealing with something head on. Black Panther was the first mainstream black superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, unrelated to, but in the same year the Black Panther party for self defense was founded in 1966. He was a mainstay in the Avengers for a while had a brief solo series (Jungle Action) in the late 70’s and had sporadic appearances until Priest breathed new life into the character in 1998.
In those many appearances, Black Panther unintentionally served as a symbolic representation of the journey of the African American in this country. Here is an African king who comes to America, fights for justice in a land that isn’t his own, and who is often reminded that his struggles are different from the others around him. He has never been a character that has focused on race but he has never shied away from confronting it. His concerns have always been above the concerns of the average individual as he is a king of an entire nation, but race has been something that even the most noble, rich, and powerful people of color have had to step down to deal with. The Panther, for all his attempts to rise above it can never fully escape the reality of the world outside of his homeland.
In his first appearance, T’Challa challenges the Fantastic Four to test himself after his father was murdered by invaders who wanted to take their most valuable resource. Sound familiar?
The Panther once changed his name to avoid confusion with the Black Panther Party in America. Soon after he was arrested for basically being black, demonstrating that anywhere he goes there’s going to be someone who still only sees him as a black man and not a hero or king.
He was attacked unjustly by police officers after he fought off a couple of thugs. This isn't attack on cops and not all cops are bad so don't contact me complaining. This is just what happened in the comic.
He once fought the Ku Klux Klan. He was even burned on a cross. Think about the symbolism of that…the Black Panther…was burned…on…a freaking…cross.
He once fought the Panther God because the Panther God felt he wasn’t doing enough to help those who suffered under Apartheid.
Had to deal with the fallout of being in an interracial relationship in college…mainly from militant African Americans.
He’s had to deal with African Americans feeling he doesn’t make an effort to represent them (irony).
He met Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, they were both Skrulls, but still, they had fully adopted the identities.
Panther, in so many ways is everything anyone would want to be; rich, powerful, smart, and just. He stands for something beyond just race; he’s the ideal of what we believe our potential could be. Yet, at the end of the day, he still had to face the brutal reminders of the reality of race in this world. Even with that he never stops trying to overcome and never stops trying to be more. But he has become a reluctant champion, but a champion all the same.
On a personal note, as a black kid growing up in the 80’s and 90’s there weren’t many black heroes to look up to. Panther was around but regulated to the background at the time. As I mentioned before, his appearances were sporadic. Cyborg was on super friends on occasion but didn’t do much and there was Luke Cage in the comics who I liked, but that was later on when I discovered him and none of them were mainstream. I wanted a character that looked like me. If everyone looks like you do, you don’t know what it’s like to not see yourself reflected in what you love. So I’m happy that his film happening and that Marvel has been bold about the direction. So this movie will be important to Marvel and fans.
So just as the Black Panther character in the comics has been trying to transcend race, the Black Panther movie will attempt to transcend race while not shying away from it. Its creators undoubtedly want the movie to be entertaining and fun with everything else being secondary, but just like in the comics, the issue of race will be debated and discussed attempting to pull it down. If the film is anywhere near as resilient, smart, and capable as Black Panther is in the comics then it should be able to handle the pressure.