Dr. Alex Wainer, professor of communication and media studies
Recently, Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, opened the doors to its newest magic kingdom, that of Wakanda, the fictional home of T’Challa, the Black Panther, and the latest in an unending series of Marvel blockbuster hits. But this film is more than a carefully marketed chapter in the ever-unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a true cultural phenomenon, a rare event that Hollywood cannot really create but only hope to stumble upon.
African-Americans have shown an intense interest in a film that features a mostly black cast, in a high-budget film aimed at an international audience -- an unheard of goal until now. By Monday morning after its opening weekend the film had earned almost $200 million domestically, with a worldwide total of over $350 million.
My wife and son and I attended a local theater opening night. As Marvel movie fans, we wore our new Black Panther t-shirts and several folks were amused at our display of fandom. Although I’m teaching a class on Comics Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, I’m not very familiar with Black Panther comics but I trusted Marvel Studios to do a great adaptation after 10 years of consistently entertaining movies. There were several African-Americans wearing their T-shirts and other Africa-themed apparel. And the theater we were in featured a sizable contingent of black audience members who heartily expressed their enjoyment during the film.
The film itself? Marvel has spent a bit more than usual to create an epic tale with lush and exotic production values. The story centers around T’Challa, the new young king of Wakanda, an African nation blessed by the ancient impact of a vast meteorite composed of vibranium, the strongest known metal with incredible qualities that has made the obscure country a fantastically advanced technological utopia hiding itself from the world to protect its people from the depredations of outsiders. The kingdom maintains its centuries old tradition of its king the chief protector as the Black Panther, who gains his super powers from a vibranium-powered plant. The character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the Fantastic Four comics in 1966, has been a mainstay in Marvel Comics ever since.
The film functions as a quasi-Shakespearean tale of a young new king facing challenges not only from enemies foreign and domestic but from within himself as he struggles to rule wisely. The theme of ethical leadership is strongly displayed by T’Challa’s father’s cautionary words to him: “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.” The film has action, family drama, tribal tensions, spectacular super-science and other attractions that will appeal to a wide audience.
The story will also resonate as audiences watch the tale of a young prince struggling to come into his own, overcome the sins of the royal household, endure separation from his subjects and a final challenge to his rule, all this suffused in a synthesis of African culture and special effects action. The Disney-owned Marvel Studios is practically proclaiming, “Long live the Panther King!”
In my Introduction to Mass Media classes, we discuss the ways media link us with people who share interests we might not otherwise have discovered. I know that for me and the many different kinds of Americans sitting together in theaters to watch the Black Panther last weekend, enjoying a story of a mythical African kingdom empowered by an imaginary super metal, led by a hereditary king with the powers of a feline predator, all based on a story created by two Jewish men from New York in the 1960s, made for joyous two hours.
Only in America, eh? And now, around the world.
Dr. Alex Wainer is Professor of Communication & Media Studies in the School of Communication and Media. He is author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.