Captain America: Civil War features two major additions to the spandex-clad carnival of Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes, and the movie doesn’t dwell much on their origins or superpowers. One of them doesn’t really require such explanations, because he’s Spider-Man, and who doesn’t already get Spider-Man’s spiel at this point? But you might leave with more questions than answers when it comes to the other guy: T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, handsomely played by Chadwick Boseman.
He’s a man of few words and his background is kept deliberately vague in the film. But he has a long history in the world of Marvel Comics, so if you need some clarification on who he is and why you should care, we’ve answered a handful of potentially burning questions. Some of the explanations might not end up panning out for the movie version of Black Panther, so consider these educated guesses. Very mild spoilers below.
Can you give me a quick rundown of Black Panther’s whole deal?
Sure. His name is T’Challa (one name, like Madonna) and he’s the king of an African nation called Wakanda. He’s also the current holder of the title of “Black Panther,” a mantle bestowed on Wakanda’s greatest warrior in every generation. He’s a genius-level intellect, a highly skilled hand-to-hand fighter, and a slightly haughty dude.
What are his powers?
The most important are that that he’s an incredibly fit and well-trained combatant, he’s blindingly intelligent, and he has access to technology like a bulletproof catsuit made of an extremely rare mineral called vibranium. In that way, he’s kinda like a Marvel version of Batman. But in the comics he’s not exactly like Batman, because he technically has some superpowers: He can commune with an ancient panther god (yeah, that power hasn't aged so well) and every Black Panther is initiated into his role by eating a heart-shaped herb (stick with me here) that gives him superhuman strength, speed, senses, and endurance. We don’t get any mention of these abilities in Civil War, but he does seem to be able to run as fast as the Super-Soldier-Serum-enhanced Captain America, so it’s possible that he’s augmented in one way or another.
What the hell is Wakanda?
It doesn’t really exist, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a small country in East Africa, right near Uganda. It’s extremely technologically advanced and has never been conquered by a European power. It’s also very wealthy, possessing a huge natural deposit of the aforementioned vibranium, which can be fashioned into near-indestructible tools (Captain America’s shield being one of them). It’s somewhat reclusive, but isn’t a North Korea-esque hermit state. Its system of government is a hereditary monarchy, one that’s generally depicted as benevolent. T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, is the king at the beginning of the movie, but dies early on.
What’s Black Panther’s motivation for being a hero?
First and foremost, he has a duty to protect the people of Wakanda. But beyond that, he’s just a generally good fellow who doesn’t cotton to injustice. In the movie, he’s pretty angry about his dad getting killed, but it’s implied that he was already suiting up and fighting evil well before that.
Does he have anything to do with the Black Panther Party?
Absolutely not. In a bizarre coincidence, the character debuted just a few months before the declaration of the Black Panther Party in 1966. In fact, for a brief period in the 1970s, Marvel changed the character’s name to “Black Leopard” to avoid confusion, but quickly went back to the original moniker. It’s just one of those weird historical overlaps with zero real significance, like all that stuff about Lincoln and Kennedy.
Is he mega-famous? Am I an idiot for not knowing much about him?
You’re definitely not an idiot, as he’s never become a household name like, say, Captain America or the Hulk. Other than starring in on obscure and short-lived BET cartoon, he hasn’t had much exposure outside the printed page. Even within the world of comics, he’s been a B- or C-tier character for most of his existence — beloved, but rarely the talk of the town.
That said, he has a long and vital history: He was the first black superhero in mainstream comics, he’s been the subject of some highly political stories (for more on that, read Evan Narcisse’s excellent rundown at Kotaku), and he has a devoted and vocal fan base.
Why are people so psyched about him being in this movie?
One reason is that he’s just a fun character, so people are happy to see him get his first appearance on the big screen. But identity politics also come into play here. Although the MCU has a handful of black characters, none of them have been the leads of their own solo outings. When Marvel announced in 2014 that Black Panther was entering the MCU and getting his own movie, it was a big step forward in terms of representation for people of color in this multi-billion-dollar franchise. After years of waiting, people are finally getting to see a person of color who will soon head up his own big-budget Marvel epic.
Solo movie! No kidding! When does it come out and who’s directing it?
It’s currently slated to come out in February of 2018 and Creed director Ryan Coogler is helming it.
Is he gonna be an actual member of the Avengers?
He has been in the comics, but the ending of Civil War suggests he’s more interested in tending to business in Wakanda than joining an American super-crew.
If I wanted to read some good Black Panther comics, where should I start?
Read this collection of the first 17 issues of writer Christopher Priest’s long run with the character, which began in the late 1990s. It’s funny, thrilling, and packs a political punch. If you want something more recent but a little hard for a novice to follow, check out the beginning of writer Jonathan Hickman’s run on the series New Avengers, which prominently features T’Challa. And if you want to read the most talked-about series in comics today, buy the just-released first issue of the newest Black Panther series, which is being written by none other than journalist and MacArthur genius grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates (but read our primer on it first).