THE MARVEL Cinematic Universe’s first true Black Panther “Easter egg” popped up five years ago, in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” In one scene, as our hero first sees a prototypical shield made of the rarest metal on earth, Howard Stark — the father of Iron Man — tells us that the tool is made of the indestructible metal vibranium, mined from Wakanda.
Yes, the V-word was our initial clue that Wakanda, the Black Panther’s fictional African nation, was a part of Marvel’s filmic buildup.
As such, it is only fitting that now, the Black Panther — the most beloved black superhero of them all — makes his debut in a Captain America movie. And what a debut it is, in the “Captain America: Civil War” epic that opens Friday. Seeing him appear here, bullets bouncing off of his vibranium-laced panther suit, is quite the fanboy high.
Yet Black Panther’s big debut is also freighted with high expectations because of what the character means to many comic-book fans of color.
The Black Panther isn’t merely a black superhero; he’s the black superhero. Although he’s not the first black hero to debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury all arrived before him — the Black Panther will be this era’s first black superhero to command his own franchise film.
So this week’s rollout is a high-stakes introduction. Fortunately, Marvel Studios handles the Black Panther’s debut exceptionally, when a conflict between teams led by Iron Man and Captain America gives the Black Panther a reason to leave his Wakandan borders.
It’s worth noting, though, that this debut also spotlights the relative lack of diversity among the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s franchise films. As Avengers, War Machine and Falcon play supporting roles to Iron Man and Captain America — with neither black character headlining a film.
Marvel Studios, as we know, has faced some controversies over diversity. Recently, for instance, the studio drew fire because of the “whitewash” (and gender-swap) casting of Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan mystic the Ancient One in this fall’s “Doctor Strange” movie.
But as Marvel has produced an eight-year winning streak of interconnected movies, we always could be certain that the studio had the Black Panther card up its sleeve; it was just a matter of when Marvel played it. Now, five decades after the Black Panther first appeared on the comics pages, Chadwick Boseman shines brilliantly as the regal T’Challa, the Black Panther.
Boseman also has earned the opportunity to become the first black actor to lead a solo superhero project to multiple-movie success since Wesley Snipes’s “Blade” movies. Fortunately, judging from his turn as the Black Panther, Boseman appears more than qualified for the mission, which will be guided by gifted director Ryan Coogler, who certainly knows how to tell heroic black tales (“Creed”).
Black superheroes matter, and the greatest black comic-book character is finally getting the Marvel movie treatment he deserves.