In Marvel Cinematic Universe years, it’s only been a decade since 2008’s “Iron Man” introduced a new era of epic, interconnected storytelling on-screen. But for those of us who discovered Black Panther in the comics — the character first appeared in 1966 — the wait has been much longer.
I first heard about him in the early 1990s, when a family friend mentioned the possibility of a film adaptation. I was familiar with superheroes but hadn’t discovered this one. As a child, I remember watching Adam West’s campy Batman in reruns with my mom, who is African American. And I grew up reading comics with my Puerto Rican dad. The idea of a black superhero — one who had defeated the Fantastic Four in his first-ever appearance — excited me. Even at age 10 or so, I knew how significant that was.
The hints that he was coming to the big screen were there, almost from the beginning, teasing us that something special lay ahead. In 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark stands in front of a digital map with part of Africa highlighted. It’s Wakanda. In “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), when Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers gets his shield, he marvels at its indestructibility and simplicity of design. Told that the armor is made from the strongest metal on Earth — the only sample known to man — he hears its name for the first time (so do we): vibranium, an element known to be mined only in the soil of the Black Panther’s homeland.
In 2016, Wakandan royalty finally arrived on the screen with “Captain America: Civil War.” After a terrorist attack takes the life of the Wakandan king, T’Chaka, his son, prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), takes his rightful place on the throne. In that moment, the Black Panther was born — along with the potential for a multi-movie franchise that at times many fans thought would never come.
Which brings us to the excitement of the present.
For a long time, there was one man in whom we placed our hopes and dreams, the black actor who helped Hollywood realize that a good film (or several good films) could be built around a Marvel Comics character: Wesley Snipes, who starred as the titular vampire hunter in three “Blade” movies. He was seen — in the world of black movie fandom, at least — as the answer to our Black Panther prayers.
Then there was that hot rumor in the 1990s — circulated via everything from cookouts to card games to intel from your uncle who read comic books — that Snipes wanted to make a Black Panther movie. Needless to say, this never happened. Yet it didn’t stop fans from hoping. Once the MCU, in fan lingo, became a proven Hollywood hit machine, we all waited patiently, knowing a film about the king of Wakanda had to be on the horizon.
Superhero movies are nothing new. But the Black Panther has always been the bold, black exception to the unwritten rule about what a superhero looks like. Seeing a nearly all-black cast, with a black hero, black villain, black love interest, and set in a black country, where every character in this fictional universe is given a depth that normally isn’t bestowed upon people of color — who all too often are relegated to supporting roles — that’s the power of “Black Panther.”
His greatest superpower? Not strength, but pride. It’s the same pride that we feel seeing ourselves on-screen, being proud of who we are and where we’re from. It’s the pride of knowing that we, too, can be part of the magic.
To comic book fans who see themselves in him, the Black Panther has never had a problem carrying the weight of being the black superhero on his shoulders. We’ve always been able to brush aside our insecurity — an insecurity born of exclusion, of rarely seeing our stories told in comics or movies — knowing that everything was going to be okay. We knew Wakanda was out there.
All those moments of being the sidekick, of being in the background or not being there at all don’t matter anymore. The Black Panther was always coming to save us. Now that he’s here, adventures that we never deemed possible are just getting started.