Marvel movies are a lot of things (and, as of yesterday, a lot of movies) but in all that costumed heroism there’s something missing: a little something of substance. Think of Terminator 2 and the caution sign it painted around advancements in computer tech. Or The Matrix, which took a similar thought and spackled on large globs of Jesus and Alice in Wonderland.
Now try Thor: The Dark World. Iron Man? Guardians of the Galaxy? All of them pack it on when it comes to fun and excitement, but nobody’s going to be writing any scholarly papers on them in 15 or 20 years. Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes the grade, announcing its stance on drone warfare and government intrusion, then masking that stance in auto-firing killcruisers, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Think about how much The Winter Soldier’s politicisms stand out amongst its MCU peers. It’s more than noticeable.
Technically, if Marvel wanted to up their intellectual game, they could do it with any hero in any franchise. Tony Stark could take up his comic counterpart’s drinking habits and make us ponder alcoholism; Captain Marvel could meet up with Gamora and form the outer space version of NOW. But yesterday, the studio finally marked in Black Panther on the roster with permanent ink (and a star in Chadwick Boseman), and there’s no better superhero to get us thinking about real-life strife than Black Panther.
Like Captain America, Black Panther (real name T’Challa) is as nationalist as a superhero can be. He’s the king, patron saint and public face of his entire nation, the totally made-up African country of Wakanda. He may have colleagues, friends and a wife (who, due to her status as the X-Men’s Storm, won’t be appearing in the MCU anytime soon), but his heart beats for Wakanda. He fights for Wakanda. His decisions all revolve around it. That damn Wakanda is the underlying motivation for every step and every breath and every Panther punch T’Challa throws.
Which means that every time Black Panther steps outside his national borders or duels any non-Wakandan in deadly combat, his conflicts become conflicts of ideology and national identity – not just two dudes in spandex throwing down. It’s the African national vs the white villain who’s come to plunder his homeland. Or, the rigidly patriotic African who gels and/or brawls with heroes from a vastly different culture. Even that time Daredevil quit being Daredevil and Black Panther said “yeah, I could fill in for a few issues,” T’Challa couldn’t help but symbolize the immigrant experience in New York, even while fighting a mobster with energy powers. Oh, and the entire time, his internal monologue was crying Wakanda Wakanda Wakanda Wakanda.
Marvel’s already confirmed two Phase 3 films that’ll feature heavy doses of Black Panther, along with five contracted appearances so far (you can bet two of those will likely be the Avengers 3 duo). From the two confirmed titles – Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther — we know T’Challa’s adventures will be all about his homeland and its international relations. It also helps that Kevin Feige said that, explicitly, when announcing Black Panther to the world: “it’s all about how this isolationist country meets the world. Maybe it goes well, maybe it doesn’t.”
So let’s dig into this a little further by following Marvel’s Black Panther to-do list for the next few years: patiently explaining what Wakanda is to a mass audience that (for the most part) has no idea it exists, and then thinking up ways to link it into the current and future MCU in terms of story and potential Marvel politics.
Let’s start with a basic primer on all things Wakanda.
A small, landlocked nation in East Africa, located in a chunk of map space Marvel invented between Uganda, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, Wakanda was like any other African country until the arrival of its most treasured natural resource: Vibranium. A meteor of the stuff crashed into Wakandan soil, and overnight the place was filthy, stinking rich – bloated with the most precious metal (and likely, the most precious resource, period) on Earth. It’s the same near-indestructible metal that forms Captain America’s shield and is weaved into mesh to form the Panther’s skintight catsuit.
The Wakandans didn’t squander this gift as instead, T’Chaka (at the time, the king of Wakanda and father to T’Challa) sold a tiny fraction of his country’s ore to give his people a world-class education, then promptly used that education to build Wakanda upward and inward, until it was the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth. And also the arbiter of a strict “get off my lawn” brand of foreign policy. The Wakandan government is entirely peaceful, but they don’t cotton to strangers and they will not abide by any non-Wakandans setting foot within their borders unless given an open invitation. We can attribute much of that to the constant attempts by greed-mongers and supervillains to snatch up that Vibranium by any means necessary.
What Wakanda looks like is entirely open to interpretation. Depending on the comic you pick up, it could be a savage land where each patch of underbrush hides a ferocious rhino tensing up to charge (leading to a fabulous full-page spread of Black Panther somersaulting across flailing horns). Or it could be a super-modern, tech-based hub of industry – Africa’s answer to Dubai or South Korea. Or both! Build a shiny new control tower for your future-tech air force, and staff it with men and women in ancient African ceremonial garb, and it’s all Wakanda, bafflingly.
Both Wakanda and the hero who loves it so debuted in the pages of 1966’s “Fantastic Four #52.” In the comic T’Challa invited the Fantastic Four to Wakanda, stalked them in the underbrush like a jungle cat, then happily announced that he wasn’t actually trying to kill them and all that stalking was an elaborate test of their mettle. He’s lightened up a little bit since then.
Now, for the first official MCU appearance of Wakanda and its native panther.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Which doesn’t actually have any Panther in it, but it does have Wakanda, officially, as spoken from the mouth of Kevin Feige himself. And while it’s impossible to say definitively what role Wakanda will play, there’s enough concrete evidence out there to point in one glaringly obvious direction:
Ultron’s making a pit stop in the Wakandan heartland to give himself a Vibranium upgrade.
Here’s what we know, for sure. Ultron’s M.O. is all about rebuilding and rebooting, endlessly forging ahead with a new body or a new OS. To that end, that first Age of Ultron trailer holds a single a shot of a robot hand, freshly coated in molten metal. Also, there’s not much out there that can destroy Vibranium besides Vibranium, so a Wakandan-minted Ultron would handily explain those cracked chunks of Cap’s shield.
Full disclosure: I am not Kevin Feige. What’s stated above is not a fact. But as far as educated guesses go, that’s about as educated as it gets right now.
Also, some online are starting to claim that Andy Serkis’s character is the longtime Black Panther nemesis Ulysses Klaw. While no one can deny that the resemblance is eerily perfect, that one might have too much rumor in it for now. When all we can confirm is Wakanda, Vibranium is a far surer inclusion than any one Black Panther baddie.
As far as our international politics go, what does this mean for Wakanda and the greater Marvel Universe? Well, if Ultron really is busting through the heavily protected Wakandan border to strip away the resource their entire economy is based around, Wakanda might not be too fond of anyone with ties to Ultron. Like Tony Stark or any of his Avenger clan. Expect the country’s anti-outsider stance to worsen and public opinion of superheroes to plummet. All of which will make the US look very, very poor in Wakandan eyes – an opinion that will probably bleed into the next major global conflict.
And guess what? There’s one of those in the works just two movies later.
Walt Disney Studios
Captain America: Civil War
We know even less about the next Captain America outing than we do Age of Ultron, but two chunks of yesterday’s Marvel conference can point us in a general direction.
Chunk One: The live-action Marvel Civil War differs from its comic counterpart in one key factor (at least) – it’s not so much about the secret identities. The original comic run totally was as it featured Iron Man telling superheroes to register their identities and powers with the feds, and Captain America standing up for our heroes hidden behind masks. Well, given how few MCU heroes actually wear masks and keep their identity secret (which right now would be… no one?) Feige & co have found a different moral quandary to piss off every single Avenger.
“Something happens, perhaps it’s cumulative from things that have happened in other movies leading up to this film, it’s made the governments of the world say, ‘We need to have some oversight on these guys, they need to report to somebody.’”
Chunk Two: At yesterday’s event, Marvel brought Boseman onto the stage to hang out with all the other Avengers and give people a chance to squeal until they run low on oxygen. And while standing in between Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., Boseman was asked (by Downey) to pick a side. To which our future Panther replied: “Iron Man, Cap, as much as I respect you both, Black Panther is kind of his own guy.” It’s basic superhero press event banter, but it reinforces something we should expect – that Black Panther/Wakanda really want no part in this superhero squabble.
Now, in the original comic, Wakanda stayed neutral until the very end (at which point they sided with Cap), and that’s a likely outcome for the Wakandan government in Civil War. But who knows? Perhaps having a killer robot tear through their cozy little corner of Africa and slurp up all their precious Vibranium has Wakanda erring on the side of more superhero oversight. Or maybe they’ll side against Iron Man out of pure spite.
All of which leads us to Black Panther. And what’s inside Black Panther? An African hero in an African nation that’s suffered horrifically (albeit indirectly) from American-made robots and American-made conflicts. A hero whose internal monologue is balancing his nation’s needs with his ties to a superhero community that’s almost entirely based in the USA.
So long as Wakanda has a role to play in our upcoming superhero brouhahas, Marvel will ensure that Black Panther’s got a reason to stick around. Which means actual political viewpoints in Black Panther and future MCU films to follow. Global politics. Not even ones as semi-subtle as Winter Soldier’s; actual scenes of Black Panther musing “hmmm, what’s best for Wakanda, and what do those folks in the US really think about us in Africa?” (at this point he would likely turn, look directly into the camera and point at US audiences, his finger poking into each collective eye with 3D IMAX).
Obviously, part of the point of Wakanda is that it’s not really in the rest of Africa. It’s a first world country hunkered down amidst the third world; most issues that plague the rest of Africa don’t have any bearing in Wakanda. Years upon years of wealth, good education and infrastructure have seen to that. But there’s still real potential here, potential for Black Panther to speak on the kind of issues that most superheroes have no business speaking on (other than Captain America and Christopher Nolan’s extra-political Batman). I fully expect Ant-Man to be an inventive, bitingly funny thrill that delivers nothing of substance about our current political state.
And eventually, all this will lead to Infinity War, where T’Challa will probably be jettisoned into space to help bring down Thanos, and Wakanda will be the furthest thought from anyone’s mind. Unless he gets all guilt-trippy about outfitting everyone else with Vibranium armor or something (it’s entirely possible).
Superhero movies so rarely go international in any meaningful way. Maybe Thor: The Dark World set its Earth portions in London, but what did that really add to the film? Anything besides a sense of non-American window dressing? Malekith’s invasion wouldn’t have changed much if it was set in Barcelona or San Francisco or any other major metropolitan center. This is the opportunity for Marvel to really stretch what a superhero film is capable of. We’ve already got our Black Panther. We might as well use him to his full potential.