Why Wakanda Itself May Be the Most Important Character in Black Panther

I’ve seen Black Panther twice, and by the time you read this, I’ll probably have seen it three times—three encounters with this dazzler of a movie, each one filled with nothing short of breathtaking awe.

Wakanda, the kingdom of our titular hero, is more than a gilded city. It’s the metaphor of the possibility of an uncolonized Africa, a diaspora that works as a collective whole. If there’s a main character that hasn’t received it’s fair share of recognition and acclaim, it’s Wakanda itself. In order to best understand the Kingdom and all of it’s magic, we should take a look at some of the driving  forces behind the kingdom.

(Some spoilers follow.)

T’Challa, the Black Panther of the film (as the mantle is passed on to each Wakandan king after the death of the previous monarch) is newly crowned, and stuck between safeguarding Wakanda’s impressive technological secrets from the rest of the world and sharing its resources to make the world a better place.

It’s a political stance referenced in the Black Panther comics—in both Christopher Priest’s foundational run as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current books. The importance of T’Challa is obvious: he is a king. But more intriguing is that he holds a triumvirate mantle. He’s king, and superhero, and an anointed figurehead from the panther goddess, Bast.

Created in 1966 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Black Panther’s origin made him a welcome addition to the lineup of Black heroes. For years, the Black superhero had been one comprised of ideas of brute strength and unlimited endurance, a reflection  indicative of the thoughts around the “Black body.” Luke Cage, created in 1972, is an excellent example of the brute Black hero. Over the years, he’s evolved into a much more complicated character, but his origins were deeply entrenched in Jive talking and literal pummeling—in short all brawn, barely any brains. T’Challa, however, has both. He’s as cool as Batman, richer than Tony Stark and rules a kingdom more elusive than Namor’s Atlantis.

The Dora Milaje
The Dora Milaje are one of my favorite things about the kingdom of Wakanda. The all-women Dora are the king’s personal guard as well as Wakanda’s strongest military forces. Think Amazons, but African and armed with vibranium powered weapons. A true force of nature, their dedication to the king is unmatched in both the comics and the MCU.

On the big screen, and outside of Storm (whose presence has been mediocre at best) this is the first time we’ve seen a collective of black women as heroes in a comic book movie. They’re fierce, honorable and a reflection of Wakanda’s infrastructure. Black women, a group so often forgotten in the worlds of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy, are arguably the strongest force in Wakanda.

Vibranium sits at the heart of every Black Panther story. There’s something magnanimous about a substance only found in the heart of East Africa yet coveted by practically everyone in the Marvel universe. One could even go as far as to say Vibranium makes an excellent metaphor for the Black people, or anyone with African heritage. Black culture is seen as a crown jewel in pop cultue, and like Vibranium, it’s been taken and abused in the form of appropriation. Something to consider, Captain America, the central figurehead of American heroes, relies on the capabilities of a vibranium shield. In fact, in the comics, this caused a clash between Captain America and T’Challa’s father T’Chaka.

Shuri & Wakandan Tech
More than anyone (perhaps with the exception of Nakia), T’Challa’s sister Shuri represents an evolution of Wakanda proper. Her ability to mold vibranium into a catalyst for scientific exploration is one of my favorite things about the character. To see a Black woman on the forefront of science and innovation in a film like this is nothing to blink at (consider the ways the achievements of Black women have often been ignored or erased in real world history). Shuri’s innovations surpass those of Tony Stark, while being less self serving. You see them aiding in medical and transportation fields. The innovative Wakandan way of life is neither violent nor centered around weapons. (Though they do make an incredible Panther suit.)

Reams can be written (and probably have) about why Black Panther is an important character and Black Panther an important film, but the mere fact of Wakanda—a nation representing the dream of a world without colonization, is why it feels so epic to so many.

Do you think Black Panther lived up to the hype?

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