A black pop cultural hero leaps onto the big screen
“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today… if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, then we must fill our hearts with tolerance.” – Marvel comics’ creator Stan Lee, in Stan Lee’s Soapbox, December 1968, in Fantastic Four #81.
To mark Black History Month, the University of Manitoba’s Visionary Conversations on Feb. 13, 2018, at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will explore issues affecting the Black community and celebrate its stories, asking: “Are Black Canadians Equitably Represented in Positions of Power and Influence?”
That same day, the Marvel Studios’ movie Black Panther begins its set of premieres, opening first in England and later in the week in the U.S.A. and Canada. It’s the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and follows the events after Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther teams up with Wakanda’s special forces, the Dora Milaje, to prevent a world war.
Pop culture expert and U of M professor of religion Kenneth MacKendrick sees Black Panther as a complex but familiar story about the struggle of good versus evil.
“There are a lot of high hopes for the Black Panther movie and certainly Marvel has arranged the talent to pull off one of their most successful feature films yet,” he says. “Over the past few years, the comic has attracted some high profile writers and artists and have all done very well. There is an expectation that Black Panther will break barriers along the same lines as Wonder Woman.”
MacKendrick adds: “The hope seems to be that the door will be opened not simply for a wider range of representational roles in superhero films, but a wider range of positions for African Americans, Latinos, and Asians across the industry. This is a fairly lofty political ambition for a comic book character, but it is fair to say that comic books have never been just comic books.”
As a professor of religion, MacKendrick views comic book heroes in a different way than most fans. He explains: “I see Wakanda as one of the major world religions of Marvel, if I can put it that way.”
Marvel has the religion of the family (Fantastic Four), the religion of The Avengers (an elite superhero team), mutants who survive (X-Men), the world of the street (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Ms. Marvel), the underworld (Punisher, Moon Knight), the quirky (Gwenpool, Deadpool), the space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), the youth (Young Avengers, Runaways, Squirrel Girl, Champions), the alien royalty of the Inhumans as well as Namor and Atlantis, and so on.
“In each of these domains, creators are able to experiment with art, narrative, and social and political relevance,” says MacKendrick. “The world of the Black Panther crosses into most of these other spheres. He’s royalty, but he’s also a scientist and explorer, like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, as well as an inventor, like Tony Stark. The otherworldly nature of his powers also links him with the figures of Doctor Strange and Thor. In addition, he’s an Avenger.”
“The imaginary world of Wakanda is ripe with possibilities. It captures two sides of a coin that many people find fascinating, the juxtaposition between the archaic and the technological. Fans of the Black Panther are probably right at home with the Jedis from Star Wars,” says MacKendrick.
MacKendrick cites Adilifu Nama, a professor of African studies at Loyola Marymount University and an expert on African American pop culture: “What black superheroes may lack in mainstream popularity, they more than match in symbolism, meaning, and political import with regard to the cultural politics of race in America.” (“Color Them Black” in The Superhero Reader, University of Mississippi Press, 2013).
Black Panther was introduced in the Fantastic Four comic in July 1966, three months before the founding of the national Black Panther Party. The comic book character has an origin story much like Batman: his father is murdered and he vows revenge. In his premiere, Black Panther defeats his enemy with the help of the Fantastic Four. In 1976, Black Panther even battled the KKK.
Marvel has introduced many black characters over the years. Bradford Wright, author of Comic Book Nation, says Marvel was the first publisher to integrate African-Americans into comic books. Wright explains that Marvel gradually introduced “random African Americans citizens into common street scenes, in which they appeared as policemen, reporters, or mere passers-by. It was a belated but meaningful comic book illustration of America as a multiracial society” (Comic Book Nation, ibid.).
In 1967 the character of Robbie Robertson was introduced as a newspaper editor at The Daily Bugle. Also in 1966 Bill Foster was introduced, a bio-physicist appearing in The Avengers who would eventually become the superhero Black Goliath. Stan Lee gave Captain America an African American sidekick, the Falcon (Sam Wilson) in 1969, partnering with Cap in 1971. For a time, Falcon took over as Captain America in 2012-2015. The popular African-American Marvel superhero Luke Cage was introduced in 1972 and his recent revival in a Netflix series has been very successful. In 1975, Marvel introduced Misty Knight, “the first African American cyborg”, and the weather-controlling Storm of the X-Men.
MacKendrick says that in recent years Marvel has been emphasizing diversity with the introduction of a number of young characters including Miles Morales (Spider-Man, 2011), an Afro-Latino teenager with spider-like powers, and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel, 2013), a teenage Pakistani-American with shape-changing powers.
Other familiar superhero mantles have been renewed with new characters: Thor (Jane Foster), Hulk (Amadeus Cho), Iron Man (Riri Williams, aka Ironheart), Wolverine (X-23, Laura Kinney), Star-Lord (Kitty Pryde), Hawkeye (Kate Bishop), and many others. In 2009 T’Challa’s sister Shuri took over as the Black Panther and ruler of Wakanda.
“These alternating identities have been hailed as a publicity stunts and have often been controversial,” notes MacKendrick. “Such changes have also been celebrated for moving (albeit slowly) in a more progressive and inclusive direction. It’s probably safe to say, keeping within the imaginary world of the Marvel universe, passing the torch to a new generation is part of any good origin story.”