THE NEW AGE OF SUPERHEROES
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How an Afrofuturist Black Panther could shake up the Marvel Universe

By Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

With superhero movies dominating Hollywood for the foreseeable future, the phrase “franchise fatigue” has become increasingly familiar. After last year’s blockbuster season closed with the surprise hit of Guardians of the Galaxy, 2015 was something of a disappointment: the new Avengers film was lucrative but lackluster, Ant-Man was disappointingly formulaic, and Fantastic Four was a straight-up disaster.

But if you’re worried about the increasingly bland landscape of superhero sequels and spinoffs, your savior is here—and his name is Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman will play the character in Captain America: Civil War next year, followed by a solo movie in 2018. Done right, the film could challenge many of the problems of superhero movies circa 2015: their relentless whiteness, their obsession with all-American military power, and their cookie-cutter visual style. This is a story, after all, about an African king with superpowers granted by an ancient panther deity, who frequently outwits the Avengers and who travels the world in a futuristic private jet with a cadre sword-wielding female bodyguards.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther appeared in 1966 as the first mainstream black superhero: The mantle belongs to the reigning monarch of the fictional African country of Wakanda, who must pass a series of physical and spiritual tests before being granted superhuman strength by the Wakandan Panther God. For most of that character’s history, this has been a man named T’Challa, whose storylines feature plenty of the obligatory supervillain battles and urban vigilantism you’d expect from a classic Marvel hero, alongside the more serious duties of a world leader.

Over the past five decades, T’Challa’s adventures have spanned everything from mythological fantasy to international politics, centering around an African culture whose technological and military power more than matches the United States’. The blend of African fantasy and futuristic technology has led many fans to label the Black Panther comics as an Afrofuturist narrative, perhaps one of the most mainstream examples. And at a moment when superhero movies, for all their outsize bombast, have grown increasingly predictable, it’s these Afrofuturist elements that make a Black Panther movie so potentially exciting.

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Critic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism in the 1990s, and it’s since been used to describe a wide range of work, including the writing of Octavia Butler and the music and imagery of Sun Ra and George Clinton. Janelle Monae’s concept albums and videos are the most recent mainstream example, melding sci-fi influences (including Metropolis and Sun Ra’s film Space is the Place and free-jazz record of the same name) to create a rich mythos about an android rebellion.

When superhero movies, for all their outsize bombast, have grown increasingly predictable, it’s these Afrofuturist elements that make a Black Panther movie so potentially exciting.

Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, defined it as “a way of looking at the future through a black cultural lens, or looking at alternate realities and possibilities referencing black culture.” Black culture, she said in an interview with the Kernel, encompasses both the African diaspora and those still on the continent. “Afrofuturism is an intersection between black culture, technology, the imagination, and liberation, with a heavy dose of mysticism.”

In the comics she sees an Afrofuturist foundation on which filmmakers could build. “In the respect that this is a hero from a highly advanced mythical African country,” she said, “that goes off to change the world and fight his own battles—yes, it falls within the context of Afrofuturism. And the fact that it’s a hero who’s a person of African descent, in and of itself challenges some norms.”

And Wakanda’s comics history has very sci-fi, Afrofuturist elements, including an origin story that begins with a meteor full of Vibranium crashing to Earth thousands of years ago. Best known as the key ingredient in Captain America’s shield, this rare metal is extremely valuable due to its resilience and ability to absorb kinetic energy—and Wakanda controls most of the world’s stockpiles. To protect this mineral wealth, the country’s leaders chose to remain isolated, developing a unique society outside of Western influence.

That led to technological advancements that would flummox even Reed Richards. Back in 1966, Black Panther gifted the Fantastic Four a magnetic “sky-craft,” only to have the Thing wonder, “How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?” A few panels later, scientific genius Mr. Fantastic gawks at a Wakandan emissary using what basically amounts to a cell phone.

It also led to a distinct aesthetic and culture influenced by numerous African cultures. For example, the Black Panther’s bodyguards resemble the all-female military unit tasked with protecting the kings of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) throughout the 18th and 19th centuries—but in a sci-fi twist, they’re armed with everything from swords to jetpacks.

In September, Marvel announced that journalist, author, and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates would write a new Black Panther series, with art by Brian Stelfreeze. After the news broke, Coates trolled Twitter with descriptions of a drily “political” comic with “a great deal of commentary on fiscal policy.” But it’s clear that this Black Panther will be political, in the sense that Black Panther—king of a mythical African nation that escaped Western colonization—-has always been political.  

“How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?”

To start with, their year-long series is titled “A Nation Under Our Feet,” after Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book about how African American activists used grassroots mobilization to become a political force in the decades following slavery. In the new comic, Black Panther will have to respond to a violent uprising among the people of his home country.  “Wakanda is really the light of the world, in the Marvel Universe,” Coates said in Marvel press release. “And yet it’s a system of governance that has not advanced beyond the idea of blood-rule. It’s always seemed to me that T’Challa was aware of this discrepancy.” This conflict between innovation and tradition, headed up by Black Panther’s dual role as superhero and national icon, distills the comic’s greatest strengths.

Meanwhile, artist Brian Stelfreeze, talking to Newsarama, described a Wakanda even more explicitly in the vein of Afrofuturism. “I’m designing Wakanda with a different eye towards technology,” he said. “I’m thinking of technology in a different way. I don’t want Wakanda to be Silicon Valley or Dubai, or anything like that. What I want to do is show Wakanda as having technology that was created in a completely different way than technology that we know.”

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Illustration via Marvel

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Considering Black Panther’s background and narrative themes, many fans happily consider it Afrofuturist. However, the character originated with a white American writer and artist. Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, director of the dystopian sci-fi movie Pumzi, emphasized the importance of authorship. “In [Mark Dery’s] definition of Afrofuturism,” she said in an interview, “the author had to be black or of African origin or African-American… it had to do with black and the diaspora and people of color. So it’s curious to me, if the genesis of the idea of Afrofuturism really went back to who the author was, how this is labeled Afrofuturism if the author is not a person of color.”

Of course, Black Panther has had many authors, complicating such a question. For instance, his first solo storyline came in the omnibus comic Jungle Action, an origin that writer Don McGregor attributed to Marvel’s habit of publishing Tarzan-inspired adventure stories. “I was appalled that Marvel was printing these blond jungle gods and goddesses saving the natives stories,” McGregor said in a company retrospective on the character, “and I mentioned that. I said if they were going to do a jungle strip, they should have a black character as the hero.” It wasn’t a exactly story borne of black artists creating an African vision of the future. And for decades, Black Panther was written and drawn by white creators before Marvel hired writers like Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin to revitalize the character.

While Black Panther’s future in the comics looks bright, whoever takes the character from page to screen will face the challenge of maintaining the political subtext of the comics while making a mainstream, conservative Hollywood blockbuster—all while tying into the ongoing narrative of the Avengers franchise. There’s an opportunity for a boldly unique vision, though Marvel hasn’t yet shown an eagerness to allow much creative idiosyncrasy in its corporate universe; yes, there’s James Gunn’s quirkily personal (yet still explosion-filled) Guardians of the Galaxy, but there’s also Edgar Wright’s aborted attempt at Ant-Man.

“I said if they were going to do a jungle strip, they should have a black character as the hero.”

Marvel has already set the foundation for Black Panther’s appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, with an arms dealer offering the heroes a clue leading to Wakanda. But the country is so obscure that even the well-traveled Bruce Banner has never heard of it. So either the filmic Wakanda has kept itself well-hidden (which isn’t entirely impossible), or this scene fell foul of the awkward writing that inevitably occurs in a multi-strand megafranchise. Either way, the Avengers wound up at a gloriously nonspecific location labeled simply “The African Coast,” where Iron Man and the Hulk proceeded to trash half of downtown Johannesburg while civilians fled in terror.

So, while Wakanda has the potential to be a refreshing addition to Marvel Cinematic Universe, the reliance on fictional locations may pose a problem. Wakanda is just one of many imaginary nations in the comics, and those that receive the most attention—Latveria, Genosha, K’un-Lun, Madripoor—are non-Western cultures that are either exoticized, ruled by supervillains, or both. It’s not hard to sense a trend, especially when the headlining heroes are usually white Americans living in New York City.

“The creation of this world and this fictitious African country is not new,” said Wanuri Kahiu. “I remember watching many episodes of different TV shows from America where different countries were given really absurd new names. Or they’d have the same name and they’d be called something like, the Republic of Northern Zambia,” she said, laughing. “They’d co-opt the actual name of the country and then create a new identity with it.”

Despite Black Panther’s status as an aspirational hero—a king who’s preserved his people’s culture while making them the technological envy of the world—Wakanda’s origins lie in a fictional universe created predominantly by white American men. That universe may (slowly) be becoming more diverse, but Black Panther is unlikely to embrace full-blown Afrofuturism. In a best-case scenario, the film’s creators draw from real African cultures in a respectful way, and the presence of an African superhero in a big-budget Hollywood movie opens opportunities for African films and characters. Not Afrofuturism, necessarily; just Africa.

“I would hope for the film to be actually shot in Africa, on the continent,” said Kahiu. “And to use local cast and local crew, because the best they can do is that they can open up our world, our African world, into understanding the technology and the creation of science fiction and the creation of visual effects on a very first-hand level.”

She hopes to see her continent as something other than a fiction or a background. She would like Black Panther with local Africans on set, and a real Africa on the screen. “For it to actually sincerely incorporate it in its ethos, that would be exciting.”

Illustration via J. Longo