The first comic book I ever owned was a gift from my grandmother. I’ll never forget opening up the box she sent one summer to find an assortment of candy, sugarless gum, and 2 Spider-Man comics, complete with an artist rendering of Stan “The Man” Lee welcoming me as a “True Believer.”
It was that same summer, deep into the 90s, that I discovered the animated series “Spider-Man” along with its sister show, “X-Men.” These two shows would play an integral role in my development as a young man. The X-Men laid the groundwork for an understanding of prejudice I had never known nor been attuned to. Peter Parker taught me that most quintessential superhero lesson (say it with me now): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As I got older, I stepped away from comics for a bit until I learned of the Civil War tearing the universe I had come to know and love in half. It was in the pages of “Civil War” where I was fully introduced to the King of Wakanda himself: T’Challa.
Granted, I had seen the Black Panther before in other media. In a few video games, he had been an optional character. To be honest, before learning his story, I had just seen him as an off-brand Batman: black suit, ninja-like skills, and apparently rich. That’s it. His face was also completely covered in most depictions. I likely didn’t know Black Panther was even black, let alone from Africa.
In the pages of “Civil War” and its tie-in series, “Illuminati,” I discovered the truth. Black Panther’s place in this world that I had come to love was not as an Avenger but as a King.
Character or Place?
Diving into the publication history of “Black Panther” and the supporting cast from Wakanda reveals what is true for many original black superheroes: they were mostly written and created by white men.
As such, the comic book representations of both Africans and African-Americans were often problematic at best (sorry M’Baku) and downright racist at worst (see 70s-era Black Mariah). Despite that, the core concept of what Wakanda represented, a highly advanced, uncolonized African nation set apart from the rest of the world was something that captured the imagination of comic book readers for decades.
In much the same way that T’Challa speaks to our universal longing for a hero-king, Wakanda speaks to our universal longing for a promised land. If you’re reading this now, you already know that seeing Wakanda realized in 2018’s “Black Panther” was such a magical experience for me: The technology, the culture, the richness of the lore laid out in a nation that has existed before written history in the Marvel film universe.
But it was an even greater experience for my black brothers and sisters, both long-time geeks and the yet uninitiated Marvel diehards, to see the dignity displayed of African women and men who had never known the harsh history of our world:
- Tribes with history.
- Unbroken lineages.
- Chants, dances, and songs by Africans rejoicing in their heritage, free from the degrading eyes of National Geographic.
Ryan Coogler didn’t just bring Wakanda to life, he made it the breakout character of the film. We’ve seen this concept before. New York is often described as a character within the Spider-Man comics. Las Vegas was intentionally positioned as a character unto itself in 2001’s “Ocean’s 11.” In many respects, Black Panther without Wakanda might as well be any other textbook superhero.
But the question of Wakanda’s future was a core driving point of its own film, which made it an altogether disappointment to see such a welcomed and celebrated addition to the MCU reduced to little more than a prop in Infinity War. In essence, Coogler saw Wakanda as a character, the Russo Brothers saw her as a place.
What is Wakanda to Thanos?
I get it. “Avengers: Infinity War” is the story of Thanos on his quest to bring balance to the universe by any means necessary. With as many characters that exist in the vastness of this franchise, the determining factor as to who got screen time and character development was, “Who are you to Thanos?”
Got an infinity stone strapped around your neck or stuck to your head? Congrats! This movie is about you. Going in, I was so sure that the yet unknown Soul Stone was under/in Wakanda. Everything from the power of Vibranium to the unique spiritual nature of the ancestral realm seemed to hint at a deeper connection to the upcoming film. But no. The soul stone was hanging out with a space Nazi. So ultimately, what is Wakanda to Thanos? Nothing.
A Nameless Faceless Army
But it’s not just that Wakanda was reduced to simply being a setting, it’s that the people of Wakanda were reduced to something far worse.
I’m a sucker for grand battle scenes on an epic scale. The first time I saw “Gladiator,” I was captivated by the opening sequence of Maximus unleashing hell on the battlefield. The image of a bloodstained sword left buried in a tree trunk with fire flickering around its edges in the midst of the chaos is burned into my memory.
But ever since “Gladiator” cleaned up at the 2001 Academy Awards, it seems that directors have been trying to one up each other by putting more tin soldiers on the big screen to smash against one another for little more than a spectacle. The result is often the same: a few cool shots among a nameless faceless army that the audience is not supposed to care about.
Much like the battle in Wakanda, we know the generals of each side but we just watch the aliens, robots, or expendable humans fight in the background while the title characters get the hero shots.
Death of a King
And then finally, we come to what I believe was the biggest mistake of the film overall: The death of T’Challa…again. This bugs me for two reasons.
The first and most obvious is that it takes away some of the sting of the now infamous Thanos snap. While some characters like Doctor Strange, Drax, or Bucky could easily be accepted as gone but not forgotten, there is NO WAY that Disney is about to lose the title character of its record-breaking new film franchise. No way. Not going to happen.
T’Challa’s dusting came so suddenly and without warning that the death of a talking tree actually evoked a stronger reaction from me than the King of the very nation that gave up everything to protect our universe.
And while we’re on this note, is Shuri ok!? We got confirmation that M’Baku and Okoye made it out alive but what about the nation’s (theoretically) last surviving member of the BP lineage!? I hope she’s alright. I hope she takes a backup, heart-shaped herb and becomes the new Black Panther and Queen of Wakanda in Avengers 4…but who knows?
There is more I can say about this. The fact that neither Sam (Falcon) nor Rhodey (War Machine) seemed all that phased by Wakanda seems more unrealistic somehow than the aliens and spaceships around them.
But in the end, there is no denying that “Avengers: Infinity War” was a masterpiece. It exceeded my expectations, broke my heart in all the right ways, and (as Marvel has done repeatedly) gave me something I never thought I would experience on the big screen. And despite all of the heroes and villains sharing space in this 2 hour and 40-minute epic, for the most part, all of my favorite characters got some time to shine and showcased who they truly were to the universe. All but one.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out Once Upon A Time in Wakanda, a podcast series that explores the characters and themes of The Black Panther movie and comic universe. Powered by The Witness, this one-of-a-kind Wakanda Podcast talks you through the lore of Wakanda both on the big screen and in the panels of the Black Panther comic books. From season to season, Tyler Burns, Earon James, and Beau York aim to bring you the Black Panther podcast you’ve been looking for.