The Power of the Black Panther
Comics have helped shape guest author Krystal Kara’s life. Through the many pages she’s read, she’s found both support and encouragement in the stories and actions of superheroes and now uses that strength to empower others. The non-profit Be Super initiative calls upon the superhero in all of us “to bring to life the heroism within people” and encourages “everyone to get in touch with their empathy and compassion to be the heroes they were born to be.” In collaboration with schools, community groups, charities, and more, Be Super uses superheroes as an educational tool to raise awareness about the oppression, injustice, privilege, and inequity that affects us each day. Be Super has held various teach-ins or written blog posts that reference the Guardians of the Galaxy to discuss the prison industrial complex, addressed issues of Batman’s privilege, or talk about the justice system using S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America. Here, Krystal drops by WWAC to talk about Black Panther and representation.
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War has already broken records; people are flocking to go see the newest superhero film. It may be because for the first time there is a black superhero who isn’t portrayed as just a sidekick, or because there are multiple superheroes that are women, because half of the Avengers are fighting against the government, or maybe it has to do with friends not agreeing on a course of action and fighting ensues. Whatever the reason that you went and saw the movie, there are multiple reasons why this movie is important and how the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) can use this film to launch them in the direction of making their films more inclusive.
Before we jump into the MCU, let’s look at the source materials for these movies: comic books. With so many new comics books being released every Wednesday there is always new material. Several of these new comics that have been released by Marvel are related to the movie Civil War. For instance, Marvel’s upcoming Civil War 2 event positions Iron Man’s team against Captain Marvel’s team in a battle of determinism versus free will.
Perhaps the most exciting comic (well, the one I am most excited about) is a new Black Panther series that features a new writer and a new feel for the life of the King of Wakanda. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes his comic book debut with Black Panther #1, which seems fitting, since his main focus of writing is about politics and culture. In the newest adaptation, the people of Wakanda are restless and are fighting back against the government. The parallels to the current social climate are striking. The fact that this book also has a very strong queer relationship is incredible and one of the reasons I love this take on Black Panther.
A lot of people don’t understand Black Panther’s history, which is why I am going to give you a quick history lesson on just why this comic and his MCU debut is so important. Black Panther was the first black mainstream superhero created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and appeared for the first time in Fantastic Four issue #52 in July 1966. Shortly before this issues hit stands, The New York Times ran a piece about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The logo for this political party that started up in Alabama was a Black Panther and a few months after this organization was referred to as the Black Panther Party. From his creation, Black Panther has always been a political character; there is no denying that. Just like so many characters in the Marvel universe, they are political just by existing. These characters are constantly fighting the social norms and making readers question society.
So when it comes to the movies I tend to be a little disappointed. The comics represent so many different individuals and are so much more inclusive. I have high hopes walking into every movie hoping that they will be as progressive as the comics. Every time I walk out of the theater, a Nina Simone quote bounces around in my head: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I feel as if the movies fall short. Now I am still able to talk about social justice issues and conflicts using the movies. I mean, I have been able to give an hour-long presentation on the prison industrial complex using the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Oh, and don’t get me started with the connections to the United Nations and government systems; however, there is still so much more that could be done. I feel like MCU is working towards being more inclusive with Black Panther being introduced and the announcement of the cast for the stand alone film, along with a potential standalone Black Widow movie; however, with the whitewashing of Doctor Strange, those hopes become a little dimmer.
It seems as if Marvel have been listening to some of the criticism by the way they handle their television series and online video series. In both, they tend to focus on those who are usually excluded. There are women, people of color, and queer individuals as main characters, not just side characters or placeholders. They are still lacking; however, they are so much more progressive than the movies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. main character is a woman of color, Daisy Johnson. There is Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and even Daredevil whose main character is blind. These are huge steps in the right direction. Online, they have a new video series occurring monthly focusing on Black Panther. This new video series is a video recap and animation of the new comic.
Marvel’s Editor in Chief, Axel Alonso, had this to say about the newest project. “With the Black Panther capturing the hearts and minds of fans around the world. We are making an all-out press for the eyes and ears.” We can only hope that this inclusiveness with transfer into the MCU.
As a white, queer woman, my perspective is limited. So I reached out to other members of Be Super, fellow nerds, and friends for more perspectives on representation and the importance of introducing characters such as Black Panther. Here are what they had to say:
Charia: Black Panther is important, because he is more than just a superhero. T’Challa as a character is a king of a land of brilliant people. To have him be as smart as, if not smarter than, Tony Stark is amazing. The way he appeared in Civil War was literally jaw dropping. And to know that the standalone film will significantly feature Black actors and give them agency and real character arcs … To show that this character who is of color be this smart, proactive, and strong has given so many little black kids this feeling of hope. The resurgence of Black Panther is going to have so many kids (and let’s be real, adults like me) feeling that they can be as super and brilliant and completely themselves that they want to be!
Ellen: Representation in the media is always important, but I think representation in MCU is especially important. Oftentimes marginalized groups are portrayed as villains through either racial stereotypes or queer coding. For marginalized people, especially children, seeing themselves as a superhero can do wonders for self-esteem and confidence. It shows that the world needs people like them, and they can do great things regardless of what others tell them. MCU needs to do a better job of this, especially after the whitewashing of the Doctor Strange movie. I was especially disappointed with the way the director responded to the criticism. As a white woman, I have a lot of privilege, and there are a few women in the MCU that I can identify with, but they still do a poor job of it. There definitely needs to be more women of color and LGBTQ superheroes. As for the white women that are already in the movie, they are great characters, but they are utilized poorly. I need to see more scenes between Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and other women. They are the only two women on the Avengers team, and even though they chose different sides, I still would have liked to see them interact with each other. I also hate the way some of these powerful, smart women are used to further romantic subplots with the leading men, like with Sharon Carter. I want female characters that are not used to advance the narratives of the male characters.
Chris: As a child, there were not too many African/Black superheroes that reflected me as a young Afro-Caribbean boy in Chicago like T’Challa in Marvel’s Blank Panther comic series. The fearless, expedient, crafty, instinctive, genius and regal qualities the Blank Panther possessed were qualities that empowered me during my childhood all the way up into my adulthood. Although I was an X-Men fanatic growing up from reading the comics to watching the cartoon and major motion pictures, I was uplifted in seeing characters like Storm and the Black Panther who looked like me. It means so much to a child to see a super-heroic reflection in the comic books and movies, but also to see them for the intellectual, confident, resilient, Avenging, and strong characters that are. These characters were superheroes I looked up to and admired greatly, who encouraged me at a young age that you don’t necessarily have to have magical superpowers to Be Super at heart.
The Black Panther, in particular, taught me about the greatest superpower of all, being selfless and using my wisdom and resources for the greater good of my village/community and then humanity as a whole. T’Challa, more commonly known as “The Black Panther,” teaches life lessons to the young audience as well as the adult audience about possessing the qualitative values of charity, meekness, education, justice, and community service. In the age of social justice conversations that center around the misrepresentation of minorities in the film industry as indentured servants, slaves, sex emblems, systematic delinquents, ghetto gangsters, illiterate, barbaric, or “the help,” it is a breath of fresh air to anticipate a superhero film that represents young African boys/men as a king/leader of his community, or in T’Challa’s case kingdom, to strive for greatness and social progression with honor and purpose.
So MCU we are here, we are watching, and we are hoping that soon, little kids will be able to look up on the screen of a superhero movie and see someone that looks like them, that are strong and intelligent. It has been clear on how important and how much love there is for Black Panther. Being more inclusive is a heroic thing. We are here and we are waiting and watching with anticipation for MCU’s newest inclusive batch of superheroes.