Wakanda Wednesday: How Black Panther was handled before Ryan Coogler

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Feb 14, 2018

With the major film release of Black Panther right around the corner, the excitement felt by new fans and Marvel-lifers has reached its peak. T'Challa's first solo foray into the Marvel blockbuster kingdom begs us to take into account not just the film's source material but previous renderings of the hero on screen.

Becoming a statement on Black representation both in front of and behind the camera, the sheer magnitude of the flick's reach and the implications of its reception stands to shape, at least in some minute manner, notions of Black fantasy; of encompassing world views like afrofuturism and afro-pessimism; of the consumptive habits and behaviors of Black moviegoers. With considerations for the multiple planes upon which visual media molds mainstream understandings of racial discourses in mind, T'Challa's onscreen past helps contextualize and complicate the film's imagining of the character going forward.

T'Challa's previous iterations target younger and therefore narrower audience than their mega-movie counterpart. Showing up in cartoons targeting kids and young teens, Black Panther appears in particular episodes as a supporting character that at once maintains his singular brilliance, tech know-how, and physical instincts while assimilating him into the superhero world outside Wakanda. From his first appearance in 1994's Fantastic Four animated TV series to T'Challa's inclusion in 2010's acclaimed The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (and later Avengers Assemble) and his own miniseries on BET, T'Challa's evolutions peaks to how creators make an outsider Black hero relatable to young, largely non-black audiences.

 

Replaying his origins in the 1960s Fantastic Four comic, Black Panther first escorts the crew to Wakanda in 1994. Instead of sending out a Wakandan ambassador in an advanced aircraft, as we mentioned in this series' first entry, T'Challa forces the Fantastic Four to Wakanda using a tractor-beam to engage with them in a hunt. He begins to beat them much in the same manner as the source material but, rather tellingly, falls just short given the quick wits of Mr. Fantastic. In the comic, the Fantastic Four are only freed because Johnny Storm's friend Wyatt Wingfoot is along for the ride, making for extra support T'Challa couldn't have accounted for. The TV show chalked the loss to T'Challa's hubris.

Although thankfully lacking in the original comic's explicit racialization like Ben Grimm comparing him to Tarzan and Mr. Fantastic's weird colonial fascination, the choice to make pride T'Challa's folly is a fascinating one. Instead of operating from a place of strength and graciousness when requesting the FF's help in stopping Klaw like in the comics, the show portrays the hero as particularly misguided and grasping for their help. This sort of jives against Black Panther's — and, more generally, Wakanda's — separatist world view. T'Challa routinely carries out missions alone, often vocally expressing his want to handle things by himself to heroes and other Wakandans.

The turn to make him a bit needier in the FF television series may be innocuous, but it speaks to a vision. In that particular moment in Clinton's America in which the Democratic Party effectively offed welfare, one might note that Black people were, indeed, seen as needy. National welfare policy and mainstream images portrayed Black women and Black people as welfare queens or plain lazy. It is admittedly easy to look back on the episode and conjure up meanings, but given the context of the era and the prevalence of those images, it bears interrogation.

Credit: Disney XD

Almost two decades and several one-off appearances later, Black Panther lands a recurring spot on 2010's The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. His origin story is retold early on in "The Man in the Ant Hill" and expounded upon in "Panther's Quest," in which he decides to join the show's titular superhero team. This version of T'Challa fully ingratiates himself into the team after they not only help him defeat Man-Ape (who here is behind his father T'Chaka's death) but also to claim the throne of Wakanda in the first place.

In this portrayal, T'Challa isn't necessarily at the mercy of the Avengers — simply by virtue of their relationship's superhero dynamic — but, again, we see a duty to Marvel's heroes based on an initial position of weakness. The Avengers help T'Challa deal with a number of enemies including the Klaw, HYDRA, and others, leaving the mystique and singularity of the Black Panther in the wake of camaraderie and a common enemy.

It's a strange plot point to think about — why would T'Challa, who's just captured the throne, then leave Wakanda altogether to fight alongside the Avengers? The motivations feel almost completely contradictory to the King who wanted to protect Wakanda at all costs in FF and the source material. T'Challa does break off from the group to protect Wakanda when the world is invaded by the Kree but he returns after Vision implores him to take on the world's responsibility again.

Credit: Disney XD

While the cartoons targeting kids seemed to entrench Black Panther within a set of assimilationist contradictions, his solo miniseries on BET's 2010 "Black Panther" series had a much darker tone centered in plights within Wakanda.

Most likely owing to its formatting as a motion comic that borrowed heavily from Reginald Hudlin (who'd become BET's President of Entertainment at the time) and John Romita Jr.'s 2005 run on the title, this story fleshed out T'Challa — the rituals, traditions, and isolationism contributing to his motivations — as a fully-formed character. The show paid particular adherence to Wakanda's appropriately condescending attitudes towards a Western world still preoccupied with material wealth of the few over the substandard conditions of the many. The show introduced T'Challa's sister, Shuri, to the world of moving pictures as a rambunctious princess who sees herself as every bit — or sometimes even more — deserving of the Black Panther mantle as her brother.

Over six episodes, the creators made note of the many threats Wakanda faces and the kind of attention running a country as both protector and king requires of T'Challa. We learn of the deep political machinations amidst jealous foes in the royal courts, of the powerful villains looking to take the country over, and of the gaps in romance T'Challa must fill with a deep love for family. The layers the show flips through over the course of its short time on air allowed for a much fuller picture to be painted while still alluding to the outer Marvel world.

 

Black Panther's silver screen history is riddled with duds for any purist or fan desiring a full embodiment of the character. No doubt, the FF and Avengers cartoons hold weight largely because of the sum of their parts, but Black Panther's introduction and roles on those shows are rather lacking. The 2018 film has quite a bit of ground to cover, but, thankfully, it seems Marvel has placed the reigns of storytelling in responsible hands. That it's a solo Black Panther movie promises a level of depth that leads to fully-formed characters more readily. With so many implications riding on its success, let's hope the film doesn't disappoint.