I suppose neither of us is used to the spotlight,” a dapper T’Challa, the prince of Wakanda, says upon meeting Natasha Romanova, aka the Black Widow, in “Captain America: Civil War.” A few scenes later, a recently orphaned and vengeful T’Challa, swapping his bespoke blue suit for a full-body bulletproof one, reappears as a new Marvel movie superhero.
The prince will have to live with the attention: Even before its Feb.
16 release, “Black Panther” smashed box-office records, beating out “Captain America: Civil War” on first-day advance ticket sales and surpassing “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” to become Fandango’s top-selling superhero movie in history. Perhaps even more impressive, the film is also outpacing its cinematic counterparts in cultural reach.
“I’ve been waiting all of my life for ‘Black Panther,’” said DJ BenHaMeen, host of FanBrosShow, a weekly podcast on “urban geek” culture. “That said, I know where I was, the exact street in Houston and the exact time on Oct. 28, 2014, when Marvel officially announced that they were doing the movie.”
Not since Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1992 has there been so much hype and hope for a movie among African-American audiences. From special group outings planned by excited fans to crowdfunding campaigns to ensure children can see it, “Black Panther” is shaping up to be a phenomenon. In December, a viral video of two African-American men excited to see the movie’s poster with its all-star black cast — “This is what white people get to feel like ALL THE TIME?!!!!” one man wrote on Twitter — seemed to capture the anticipation, garnering more than 2.5 million views.
What has audiences so eager this time is in part the combination of an auteur African-American director (Ryan Coogler of “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”), a heavyweight cast (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker) and a soundtrack co-produced by a rap superstar (Kendrick Lamar), all working on one of the most popular franchises in Hollywood. But the excitement has also been fueled by the origin story of the African superhero.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics, making his debut in Marvel’s Fantastic Four No. 52 in 1966. He went on to appear in Avengers titles and took his first star in turn Jungle Action No. 5 in 1973. He had his ups and downs: his own series largely penned by Kirby, a cancellation in 1979 and a return in the 1980s. From 2005 to 2009, he was the subject of another series, this one written by filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (“Marshall”). In 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a new series of comic books, while Joe Robert Cole and Coogler worked on the script.
In many ways, Black Panther is part of a current wave of black superheroes, like Netflix’s Luke Cage and CW’s Black Lightning. But “Black Panther” has the setting of Wakanda, a fictional African country that is wealthy (thanks to vibranium, a mineral with energy-manipulating qualities) and technologically advanced. Part of the movie’s emotional and visual appeal lies in the fact that Wakanda has never been colonized.
“Wakanda is a kind of black utopia in our fight against colonialism and imperial control of black land and black people by white people,” said Deirdre Hollman, a founder of the annual Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. “To the black imagination, that means everything. In a comic book, it is a reality, and through a major motion picture, it’s even more tangibly and artistically a reality that we can explore for ourselves. There’s so much power that’s drawn from the notion that there was a community, a nation that resisted colonization and infiltration and subjugation.”
For Frederick Joseph, a marketing consultant who created the #BlackPantherChallenge, a GoFundMe campaign to buy tickets so youngsters can see “Black Panther” in theaters, the complexity of Wakanda takes on new meaning in our current moment. Compared to President Donald Trump’s disparagement of Haiti and African nations, he said, “You have Wakanda as a place of Afro-futurism, of what African nations can be or what they could have been and still be had colonialism not taken place.” (Joseph’s campaign, which raised more than $40,000 to take children from the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem to the film, has led to more than 70 similar efforts.)
The Black Panther’s regal alter ego, Prince T’Challa, is a draw as well, said Jonathan Gray, author of the forthcoming “Illustrating the Race: Representing Blackness in American Comics.” He explained: “Now there you have every black boy’s fantasy. He is richer than Bill Gates, smarter than Elon Musk, better looking than Denzel.” And with vibranium, “he is the hereditary ruler of the richest nation on Earth. The movie is about wish fulfillment. When you see Bruce Wayne, this dashing billionaire, where is the black version of that? You got T’Challa.”
In this sense, “Black Panther” is as much an alternative to our contemporary racial discourse as it is a throwback, not only a desire for what could have been but also a nostalgia for what we once had. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this movie appears precisely in a moment in which our politics seems inescapable,” Gray said, adding later that “Black Panther” should be understood in a political context in which both the legal gains of the civil rights movement and the interracial optimism of the Obama era have been undermined.
For Marc Bernardin, an author of the comic book “Genius” and host of the podcast “Fatman on Batman” with director Kevin Smith, the movie taps into “the cultural longing for what Obama was, the time in which you didn’t check your phone everyday hoping the world wasn’t on fire again. A time where devaluation of young black life wasn’t as stark and awful as it feels like it is right now.”
Simply going to the movie can be interpreted as a small gesture of protest and a grand expression of cultural pride.
“Black Panther” has already become a kind of shared language. “Last week I was at the mall when another black dude passed by me,” Bernardin said. “We gave each other a nod, and he said, ‘Black Panther’s’ in a month, yo.’ That was his version of ‘what’s up,’ his way of marking of time.”
In addition to fans wearing custom-made Black Panther costumes and African-inspired haute couture to the premiere last month, African-American civic groups and others are buying out movie theaters so African-American children can experience the film with one another.
In Oakland, California, LaDawn James Williams originally intended to fly to New York to see it with her college friends from Howard University. Instead she plans to host a “Black Panther” screening for her local chapter of Jack and Jill of America. She, her husband, and their 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son will watch it with more than 90 other African-American families in a private viewing.
“We’ll be able to take the mask off,” she said. “It’s going to be really subtle, but we’re going to get certain things about the movie and its language that only we know. So I want this to be something we do together: my family, my chapter and my community.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.