As far as Marvel movies go, few heroes have had such a profound cultural impact as the introduction of the MCU character Black Panther. But T’Challa, and indeed Chadwick Boseman’s incredible interpretation of the Wakandan ruler, could not have been possible without the comic books that paved the way.
Black Panther may have made his first appearance on the page way back in 1966, but it is the 2016 comic book arc ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that truly allowed a successful superhero movie based on the character to live and breathe in the modern era.
With Black Panther 2 now here and the seminal work by Coates re-released in a special edition format, there’s no better time to explore just how influential this comic book story of the relationship between king and kingdom was in the MCU movie universe.
In the introduction to ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’, novelist Walter Mosley describes T’Challa’s 1966 debut in Fantastic Four issue 52 as a moment which gave “permission to imagine.” It was an almost prophetic birth of a hero for many Black Americans, a hero who arrived when they needed him the most – during the civil rights movement.
Mosley recounts how Black Panther was not merely “a creation for us, it was a manifestation of our underlying dreams. We wanted him, and therefore, he appeared.” Against the backdrop of social unrest, racial tensions, and the birth of the real-life Black Panther Party in America at the time, to see a superhero in your image on the pages of a comic book was truly, “something different.”
That was just the start, though. Despite now having a character to look up to, Black Panther was still initially written and drawn by white people. As the years went by, Marvel Comics, and indeed the Black Panther stories it produced became “more sophisticated,” with a heightened focus on the “concept of justice.” A flawless hero wouldn’t suffice, the comics we read should invoke a “moral quandary for us in those we admire,” explains Mosley.
And that is where Ta-Nehisi Coates comes in. His Black Panther story visits a Wakanda which has been humbled by floods, the Marvel villain Doctor Doom has decimated the great nation, and the country is recovering from the invasion of Thanos. T’Challa, who left Wakanda while his sister, Shuri sat on the throne, returns after she is killed at the hands of Thanos’ Black Order. The rightful heir to the throne is back, but his kingdom is restless.
It’s a story which encapsulates what Coates always wanted to see from his heroes. As he grew up and faced the challenges of being a Black American, he began to wonder how “in the modern world, an advanced civilisation could be ruled by a monarchy.” Mosley emphasises Coates’ strong desire to “understand our love of tyranny contrasted with our desire for freedom; the betrayal of our hearts in spite of the love we feel for our blood.”
For Mosley, what Coates brings together in this 12-part comic book arc is the “distillation of 55 years of progress made by dozens of artists” and is “the whole philosophy of superhero comics and its hold on the modern imagination.” It’s a notion which goes hand-in-hand with the inception of the behemoth that is the MCU and its dominance in popular culture.
Through the years, Kevin Feige and his army of creators have given us action movies, comedy movies, thriller movies, and a whole host of heroes and villains who have made the leap from page to screen. Naturally, the source material offers so much in enabling this transition, but the very essence of what it means to be a Black man in this world has changed drastically through the years.
The beauty of Black Panther stories is their ability to imagine a better world, but Coates recognised that an idealistic world cannot exist, at least not without great pain, conflict and tribulations first. Similarly, an idealistic hero cannot exist without sacrifice and very difficult decisions.
With hate spreading through the kingdom of Wakanda, many believe T’Challa has lost his soul and civil war is brewing. Zenzi, a mystical witch, is stirring division throughout the regions of Wakanda and feeding the rage of disillusioned citizens by manipulating their minds.
The inner conflict within T’Challa, who must determine what it means to be a hero and a king at the same time while mourning the loss of his sister, bears great resemblance to the first Black Panther movie of 2018. Chadwick Boseman brings a gravitas to a grieving T’Challa there, who must put aside the pain of losing his father and unite the kingdom in the face of the threat of Killmonger.
The same can be said for the new Marvel Phase 4 movie, a sequel which has to deal with the tragic, real-life passing of Boseman and provide us with a new hero in his place. There is a poignant piece of writing in book three of ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’ where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, tells him, “you acted beyond what a king should — giving yourself for the world.” It’s a haunting foreshadowing of what Boseman would ultimately bring to the role himself.
The idea of what it means to rule a nation is integral to the lore of Black Panther, and it has never been dissected quite as astutely as in Coates’ story. It’s a concept best embodied by T’Challa’s admission in book two: “Heavy is the head… the proverb does no justice to the weight of the nation, of its people, its history, its traditions.”
From the outside, many people would probably love to sit on a throne and wear a crown and wield the power to lead a nation, but if we’ve learned anything from Game of Thrones, the pressure of such a responsibility can only lead to bad things. At the core of Coates’ story lies two paths; do you carry a nation on your shoulders or hold a nation under your feet?
When you think back to that first Black Panther movie and the contrasting motivations and methods of T’Challa and Killmonger, it makes perfect sense that the juxtaposition between the two would stem from Coates’ notion of leaders and dictators. It’s something that the wise Changamire, an aged philosopher in Coates’ story, underlines effectively throughout.
Changamire is a character who has seen the rise and fall of his nation time and time again. He has seen great men and women lead Wakanda and terrible people bring about its destruction. In T’Challa, he initially sees neither. Instead, he sees a king within a broken system. In book four, he claims, “Wakanda has all the intelligence any advanced society would want, and none of the wisdom that any free society needs.”
What is fascinating, though, is the way that Changamire’s words of wisdom are twisted and weaponised by those looking to bring Wakanda to its knees. It becomes apparent that what is right and wrong doesn’t matter to some people as long as they get what they want, and it’s this way of thinking that can be found in Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger, too.
There is a pretty clear theme of anti-monarchy sentiment throughout the story, not only from T’Challa’s enemies and naysayers but from the man himself, too. Ramonda recognises this, and despite everything he has given as ruler of Wakanda, she understands that his position and his people are a burden to her son.
It’s a sentiment which is harboured most strongly by Ayo and Aneka, the former Dora Milaje warriors who turn against T’Challa and look to forge their own kingdom. “No one man should have that much power,” Ayo tells her lover, a statement that becomes a mantra among the women of Wakanda that the pair inspires to rise up and denounce T’Challa’s reign.
While their allegiance to T’Challa may be a stark contrast to the powerful women we see in the Black Panther movies, these characters are just as formidable. Indeed, throughout Coates’ story, strong women such as Shuri, Ramonda, and the aforementioned rebels form the backbone of the narrative and are likely to have been a source of inspiration for Ryan Coogler’s version of the Dora Milaje in the Black Panther cast.
What is perhaps most prevalent in both Coates’ story and Ryan Coogler’s work on the big screen is the themes of corruption and deception among the higher powers in Wakanda. Both understand that any kingdom is born out of oppression, and those at the top decide what is best for the good of the people. As Ramonda puts it, “we never studied a single nation founded on truth and candour.”
When Killmonger returns to Wakanda to reclaim what he believes is his, he exposes the manner of his father’s death at the hands of T’Chaka and the great cover-up that followed to allow T’Challa to take the throne. In the comic book ‘A Nation Under Our Feet,’ T’Challa’s reluctance to open up to his people and the secrecy of his operations only serves to weaken his foundations as their king.
By the end of the story, he is reminded, “either you are a nation or you are nothing,” a valuable lesson on the belief that the best leaders rule from within, not from above. A king is only as mighty as his people, and that is something that both Coates and Coogler weave into their respective versions of Wakanda so beautifully and with so much conviction.
In Black Panther 2, the issue of who rules Wakanda after T’Challa dies, twinned with the emergence of Namor the Sub-Mariner, provides a further examination of the very meaning of power. But, at the end of the day, it’s not about what kind of king you want to be, it’s about what kind of virtues you want the people of your kingdom to represent, and that is why Coates’ depiction of Wakanda is the perfect fable for a modern world.
You can pick up your own copy of The Folio Society’s new special edition collection of Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet here. If you want to know more about Black Panther 2, check out our interview with Nate Moore, the producer of the film, or look ahead to the Black Panther 3 release date.