WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel’s Black Panther, in theaters now.
If you follow the news or peruse social media, you’re no doubt aware we live in a tense political time, in which many of our long-held values and established institutions have been called into question. Needless to say, director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther arrives at an interesting moment. Given that its story has something to say about society, there were some who criticized the decision to inject politics into an action movie. That kind of reaction is perhaps to be expected, and while it’s not always without reason, this time it’s ill-informed, for one simple reason: Black Panther has always been political.
You’ll hear a lot about the film being the first big-budget blockbuster with majority black cast. Its critical and commercial success serves as definitive proof there’s no need to “whitewash” roles, as so many Hollywood releases have done, in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. To that end, Black Panther should be recognized as a major turning point.
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However, even if it hadn’t arrived at this specific moment, when the world wasn’t so focused on what every detail of a film, song or poster was trying to say, Black Panther would still be a strong sociopolitical statement. It’s unavoidable, because politics and social commentary are at the core of the character.
The first superhero of African descent in mainstream comics was Black Panther, introduced in 1966 in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four #52, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The character as significant for a variety of reasons, the first being that, at the time, there were no black superheroes. There was certainly none that received as much attention or had attached to them the idea of Afrofuturism, the way T’Challa did with the introduction of Wakanda.
The comics presented the city as a technological marvel in the middle of the poorer nations of Africa, which was revolutionary, especially in relation to the way the continent was depicted in the media of the time. The comics broke away from that, going so far as to represent the misunderstandings the general public possessed through The Thing and the Human Torch in Fantastic Four.
As you can see, from the very beginning, Black Panther was a character with something to say. The Black Panther title that followed would continue to include race, prejudice, ignorance and other political themes that resonate on several levels. This is a character who must rule over a nation as it transitioned out of the isolationism it had maintained for centuries, all the while trying to construct and nurture prosperous relationships with the outside world.
It was for that reason Black Panther executive producer Nate Moore said in early interviews that while the film wouldn’t bring any kind of message to the forefront, it would be inherently political. So much so that he was confident its relevance would be almost immediately grasped by the audience, similar to the topics explored in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.