Marvel’s Black Panther Has To Be Twice As Good If It’s Going To Succeed
Unasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
— Henry IV, Part 2 (3.1.31)
On a chilly November night in 2008, I stood in Grant Park clutching an Obama poster among a crowd of thousands. For black kids in America, the promise that you can be whatever you want to be—an astronaut, a race car driver, president of the United States—means very little. That is until Barack Obama was elected. After that, anything truly was possible. I believed it even as a college student standing with the throng of people on that night in November. But little by little, pieces of Obama’s power were chipped away by a relentless conservative news cycle, dog-whistle racist attacks from other politicians, and Congress doing everything possible to undermine him as a leader. Being Obama in this day and age doesn’t sound like a dream—it sounds like something you wake up from with a cold sweat.
When T’Challa, king of Wakanda, was introduced in July 1966, he was the first black superhero in mainstream comics; his first appearance in The Fantastic Four #52 was as majestic as this historical moment deserved. “It is not for nothing that I am called the Black Panther!” he proclaims as he bests the Fantastic Four at combat, then notes that he was only testing their abilities so they could help him with a graver threat in the kingdom of Wakanda.
T’Challa’s introduction accomplished everything it needed to do: It introduced a black character to the Marvel universe with abilities as strong as its mightiest heroes (after all, issues of The Fantastic Fourbore the tagline “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”) and gave him gravitas beyond someone who inhabited the Fantastic Four’s Manhattan. The trek to T’Challa’s Wakanda took them across the globe, and when they landed they found a mechanical forest—Wakanda was beyond advanced in technology.
If Wakanda was to be an advanced technological society, it had to impress Reed Richards, the premier scientific mind of the Marvel universe. Which isn’t a surprise to most black Americans. T’Challa is the epitome of the mantra “twice as good to get half as much.” It’s permeated American culture as recently as Scandal, thanks to Shonda Rhimes, but if you’ve grown up black in America you’ve probably heard it often. It’s the idea that to gain the accomplishments of white people, one needs to be twice as good at what they do. And when teenagers can become Spider-Man, it says a lot that the first black superhero in mainstream comics had to literally be a king to gain cultural significance.
That significance has returned, in large part thanks to a new Black Panther comic book series by Ta-Nehisi Coates, of which two issues have been released so far. Aside from exemplifying the very mantra that T’Challa does (there’s such a dearth of black mainstream comic creators that you need to be a renowned writer to land a Marvel title), Coates hopes that T’Challa can become “some kid’s Spider-Man.” I don’t know that I see that happening, nor should it. You hire Coates because you want an intellectual take on Panther. He himself stated to NPR that he’s not particularly interested in the superhero fights—“I feel like if there’s one weakness in this series, it’s that the fighting is there because it has to be there.” Which is how it should be. We don’t envision a king having to get down and dirty like Luke Cage does. He’s a king. We refer to him as “your highness.” Representation matters, of course, and a black kid will see Black Panther and think, “he’s like me.” But at what point do we move past representation and let black heroes have as much fun as Spider-Man or Deadpool, trading barbs with their adversaries in each fight?
Black Panther is a significant achievement in the Marvel universe. When his solo film bows in February 2018, the king will sit on the throne of a million-dollar box office take, sure, but he’ll also be the living, breathing proof that black superheroes have their movies. Still, with Marvel’s slate of films showing no other black films on the horizon, let alone the presence of a black woman in the Marvel universe, it also means that it’s merely a dream.
In his NPR interview, Coates compares superheroes to Greek mythology, but it’s the DC heroes that are gods. They represent archetypes. Marvel’s best heroes have always been messy humans who show us what we could do when power is thrust upon us. Marvel’s heroes are the tragedies the Greeks wrote about. If the characters are human and not gods, we’ll have black heroes who can actually be like Spider-Man (Miles Morales, for instance). Or egotistical playboys like Iron Man. Or reluctant monsters like The Hulk. And you won’t need the credentials of a MacArthur Genius to deliver a new black title at Marvel. The lack of female-led superhero films within the past 20 years is certainly not for lack of presence. There’s a plethora of white heroines in the Marvel universe and yet …Captain Marvel is scheduled for 2019. I have all the excitement in the world for Black Panther, but it’s Spider-Man who invigorated me the most in Civil War. I grew up feeling like I was Spider-Man. That connection made the Spider-Man logo my first tattoo. T’Challa is a brilliant character, but too often I’ve seen the weariness that comes with being king. Maybe Black Panther can become a kid’s Spider-Man, but with age, he’ll see that this godlike character is something most heroes don’t have to aspire to. If these are all the factors that it takes to get Black Panther on the screen—what hope do those who aren’t royalty have?