In a way, the comic-book superhero Black Panther shares similarities to Superman. Not necessarily in terms of character or aesthetic, but what he means as an icon.
When Superman debuted in the nineteen thirties, he was hailed as an everyman hero, despite his extra-terrestrial origin. Despite being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, he was a hero that was there for the common man. A hero who would stand up to injustice and act as a social crusader, before it was dictated by editors that perhaps colourful, eccentric villains might be more entertaining to the children reading the comics than corrupt businessmen.
But across his long publication history, no matter what sort of criminal the Man of Steel fights, he’s always stood as a symbol of hope; a figure that humanity, both in terms of the characters in-universe and the readers of the comics, should strive to be more like.
And while Black Panther’s various duties mean he can’t always look out for the common man in the same way Superman does (except for times when he’s acted in a capacity other than king, such as when he headlined the Daredevil comic books for a few months), his importance has become not unlike Superman’s. Yes, he was created by white comic-book creators, and his name doesn’t actually have the connotations that you may think it does, but what he’s evolved into – what Black Panther is now – is, in some ways, every bit as important as Superman.
Contrary to what some believe, the Black Panther’s name has little to do with the Black Panther Party who were a part of the struggle against black oppression in America in the nineteen sixties, as his creation predated the formation of the party by several months. In fact, for a time, Black Panther’s name was even changed to avoid ties to said party.
However, in contemporary society, it doesn’t hurt that that connection is made by some readers, as the words ‘Black Panther’ bring forth a powerful image when it comes to presenting themes like ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Nationalism’; themes that are especially important for one of the first prominent black superheroes.
Civil rights aside, even taking the word ‘Black’ by itself, in this world where audiences go bonkers for superheroes, is incredibly important. Out of the seventeen Marvel movies in the series, we’ve only seen four central black characters show up, and out of those four, only one of those is headlining their own movie (accompanied by an excellent, and predominantly black cast, no less). Black Panther is not unlike Wonder Woman – it’s a film that shows us that superhero movies aren’t just a white guy’s game. Female heroes and people-of-colour can hold these franchises up just as well as your Captain Americas and Batmen, and the powers behind these films have finally realised that, and are starting to pass over the baton.
Like Black Panther was one of the first black comic-book heroes and various others followed suite, the success of his film could see a major growth in the amount of diversified heroes.
A big factor of why the Black Panther might appeal to audiences is his origin as the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda.
In a world where the black population has faced hardship in the form of slavery, segregation and general racial prejudices; seeing this powerful figure who has managed to fend off all attackers, to keep his people safe from persecution, could be seen as a depiction of what could have been. By being centred around the extremely isolationist nation of Wakanda, Black Panther toys with the idea that, had the African people not been victims of persecution from the outside world, and with the right resources, then they could have seen a dream of an advanced, seemingly perfect homeland realised. An Africa not stricken by war and dictatorships, but instead an Africa where the sky is the limit; where science can be blended with spiritualism to create a whole new way of perceiving reality. Where society doesn’t judge you for the colour of your skin, and you’re not in danger of being persecuted due to a ridiculous or outdated stereotype. Where a country in Africa has a standard of living envied by both the Western and Eastern worlds.
Furthermore, Black Panther, in terms of his powers and abilities, can also exemplify everything one of rival publisher DC’s other premiere heroes can. Alongside being like Superman in terms of iconography, Black Panther also shares similarities to Batman, in that he, in some incarnations, exemplifies the potential of humanity.
With his keen mind and unwavering devotion to his cause, Black Panther is not unlike an African Batman; able to overcome any task that he puts his mind to. Of course, like Batman, he does have access to a wealth of resources that give him a step up from the competition, but at the end of the day, even without his suit (or the magical herb that gifts him his powers) he is still a fierce warrior and capable leader.
Aside from being a celebration of African culture, Black Panther also stands as an inspirational figure that showcases the true potential of all humanity, regardless of race, gender or creed.
But, perhaps the most important factor in Black Panther coming to screen is the impact he will have on future generations. For the longest time, when it comes to Halloween, costumed parties or even just playing in the playground, black kids have had a much more limited roster of characters to choose from.
‘What do you mean you want to be Spider-Man? You can’t be Spider-Man; he’s white!’
And while, in fairness, there is an animated movie coming out this year showcasing the black Spider-Man, Miles Morales, in terms of live-action film who do young black kids have to pick from? Comic books aren’t as strong a medium as they once were, so many people’s exposure to super-heroics comes primarily from the movies.
So what, you want to be Falcon or War Machine? Cool characters yes, but often regarded as ‘sidekicks’ to white superheroes Captain America or Iron Man.
Well, what about Blade..? That guy who’s more monster hunter than superhero and does more chopping up of vampires than he does saving lives. Maybe not.
Well then… Luke Cage or Black Lightning? (Not that kids should be watching those shows). Ex-con and someone who fights the police just as much as he does criminals. Our options are limited here.
But then along comes Black Panther. A superhero and a king? Now that, that’s not a bad costume idea at all. Regal, powerful, undeniably cool. A big reason Black Panther matters is because it means that black kids (and adult fans of superheroes) are no longer confined to the B-Listers.
We now have a costumed character that we can see ourselves in and aspire to be more like. And if all goes well? Black Panther is just the start.
Black Panther is in cinemas now.