Black Panther (1998), a Retrospective
From Swords and Spaceships Magazine, January 2015
“In the beginning, a mountain of fire and metal fell to the Earth…” Thus begins N'Baza’s narration (the great Harry Belafonte) as he tells the Wakandan creation myth to young T’Challa and M’Windaji as Marvel’s Black Panther
opens. It’s one part exposition for the audience and one part character study as we introduce the impulsive and arrogant young T’Challa and the stoic and simmering young M’Windaji. It is told in a combination of Afro-stylized animation by Terrell Little’s animation team and live action sequences of N'Baza, young T’Challa, and young M’Windaji around the camp fire. We learn of how the Four Tribes of the Wakanda discovered the meteor and the “Heavenly Metal” at its core, ultimately revealed to be vibranium, of course. We learn how the ancient soothsayers foretold of the coming of the “slavers, conquerors, and colonizers” from the four corners of Africa and how Wakanda found a way to hide its wealth under the earth itself. And we learn of the rift at the heart of this story of adoptive brothers in a single line of dialog.
Young T’Challa: And the last of the colonizers looked just like brother M’Windaji!
Young M’Windaji scowls coldly at his younger adopted brother, who giggles at his own joke. He takes a moment to look at his own white skin.
This simple exposition piece ultimately tells us all that we need to know about the setting, the stakes, and the troubled sibling rivalry at its heart. T’Challa is the first and only son of T’Chaka (James Earl Jones), the king of Wakanda and the holder of the sacred, and superpowered, title of Black Panther, empowered by the sacred heart-shaped herb. T’Challa is heir to the throne, anointed, ennobled, and blessed by the spirits of the ancestors, and he is well aware of this. By contrast, M’Windaji is an adopted son, he and his sister Asili child refugees from the White Gorilla Army, a band of soldiers under the local warlord and priest-king M’Bara (Forest Whitaker in a flashback). T’Chaka (Lawrence Fishburne in a flashback), then without child, adopted the two young white children against the advice of his brother N'Baza, as they were the “children of colonizers” and thus, to N'Baza would bring only hardship and heartache to Wakanda. “We can never be sure of their true loyalty!”
Fan Poster for a 1990s Black Panther (Killmonger will not feature in this film; Image source Know Your Meme)
Fan Trailer not too
far removed from aspects of this film
And while T’Challa grows up cocky, arrogant, and privileged, his older adoptive step brother M’Windaji, the name derived from his western name Jaeger, also meaning “hunter”, seethes in jealousy. He is seemingly far more skilled than his brother, far more athletic, far more focused, and far more ambitious. He’s faced subtle prejudice his whole life, ever the outsider even as the adopted son of the king. The very birth of T’Challa marked the end of his once privileged status, forever dooming him to be second in his adoptive father’s eyes. His little sister Asili (“Nature”, the Wakandan’s phonetic interpretation of her western name “Ashley”), who is sickly and timid, earns only contempt from him.
(Image source marvel.fandom.com)
As they grow, the ambitious and aggressive M’Windaji is by far the better student, the better fighter, and the more dedicated citizen of Wakanda. But he will never be the Black Panther, and he will never get the respect and attention he wants, which naturally turns to bitterness, particularly for his perpetually vainglorious step brother T’Challa. He feels that he must be twice as good to get half as far and resents his sickly little sister for her inability to “keep up”, making them, in his eyes, look bad to the rest of the Wakandans. In fact, there is only one true rival for him on the fighting front, a girl who, due to her gender, is also perpetually barred from powerful office save as a wife. Her name is Kipepeo, ironically meaning “butterfly”, but she is a consummate Tom Boy and the only fighter that can best M’Windaji. The two become childhood friends and M’Windaji sees her as a natural wife, but as the daughter of a powerful chieftain, she is instead betrothed to T’Challa in a political union. Kipepeo, as she reaches adulthood, is disgusted by the prospect of any marriage.
M'Windaji: It is wrong that he should be the one to marry you! There is no connection there! There is no love! It is I whom you should marry!
Kipepeo: (stops sharpening her spear and scowls) What makes you think that I want to marry
As adulthood comes, the challenges of their youth come crashing together. Kipepeo (Sanaa Lathan) is being taught womanly duties, and hates them. M’Windaji (Clive Owen) is being groomed for a position as a warrior and “guardian” of Wakanda, but secretly still feels like he is owed a chance at his father’s throne. And T’Challa (Wesley Snipes) is being sent on “walkabout” to New York City to enroll in the prestigious Empire University, where he will learn the skills necessary to be king and learn also about the outside world.
And thus, we follow T’Challa as he leaves his home amid great ceremony, pretending it to be a poor and non-threatening small African nation, as he leaves for New York. He is just as arrogant and sure of himself as ever, confident that the world will greet him with flowers at his feet. But he is in for a surprise. His privilege means nothing here, particularly in a world where those of his color are treated as second class citizens. He’s soon faced with prejudice, profiling, and patronizing attitudes, ironically facing many of the same experiences of his adopted brother, but worse as he has no powerful person to protect him, at least at first.
In classes during the day, his Physics professor Dr. Reed Richards (Pierce Brosnan) is at first put out by T’Challa’s lackadaisical attitude. “You are a very intelligent man, Mr. T’Challa, “but you need to consider your work ethic. You can’t just pay others to do your work for you, particularly if you’re to be the head of a nation, however small and poor.” He tries to encourage and mentor T’Challa, but having little in common with the young prince, largely fails to get this promising student to apply himself in a reversal on the typical White Savior trope.
Instead, while walking the streets at night, T’Challa bumps into a gang member and gets into a confrontation. They fight and the outnumbered T’Challa is losing, badly, when the police arrive. Cockily assuming that the authorities will have his back, he is instead humiliatingly searched and talked down to and, when he tries to speak up for himself, he is maced and arrested. In jail (with Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo as a whistling jailer) he meets Luke Cage (Clifton Powell), a tough New York City street fighter and self-proclaimed “protector of the people” who teaches him the ways of the streets after they are released.
T'Challa and Cage walk down the dirty streets of West Harlem. T’Challa notices homeless people begging for coins, prostitutes, and young toughs selling drugs.
T’Challa: Who takes care of these people? Where is their clan? Where is their president?
Cage: These is the folks who America forgot. Ain’t no one on these streets gots anyone to look out for them. They do what they must to get by. And the President gots other things on his mind. The mayor? He can’t hardly care. Gots a fundraiser for his election to worry about. Ain’t none of them got time to help any of us out, and those who gots the money to spare ain’t too inclined to share.
T’Challa takes a moment to think about things. He looks up at the gilded, marble-fronted skyscrapers. He notes a limo go by.
T’Challa: And this is what you call “Civilization”?
Cage: You ask me, the only difference between “civilization” and “savagery” is where you choose to look.
Cage shows him around, shows him the challenges of poverty and repression, shows him the threats not just from crime but from the systemic inequity. Cage teaches T’Challa how to box and wrestle and acts as the tough but fair mentor that he’d always needed but never received as the son of a king. Together they confront and defeat the gang bangers who’d assaulted him before. “Family is where you find it,” becomes Cage’s mantra as he makes partnerships and alliances with several people of many races and ethnicities. T’Challa also meets the beautiful singer Monica Lynne (Aaliyah) and is immediately smitten. Lynne is ultimately the one who admonishes T’Challa to take his studies seriously. “Few folk of our color get the chance that you got, Tiger. Don’t screw it up!”
Soon T’Challa is coming into his own, in a relationship with Lynne, helping Cage to make the streets safer, using his wealth to help fund food banks and blind lawyer Matt Murdock in his attempts to defend the defenseless in the city. He is even applying himself in his studies, with Richards noting in blind irony to himself how “I seem to have finally reached young Mr. T’Challa!”
But while T’Challa learns, Wakanda, as tends to happen in such circumstances, burns. T’Chaka has appointed his adoptive son M’Windaji as the head of a special branch of “guardians” known as the Hatut Zeraze, or “Dogs of War”. The soothsayers have warned T’Chaka that a great threat is coming to Wakanda from the outside world, and he trusts his adopted son to lead this irregular force. Beyond that, he also has a new gift for M’Windaji: his own vibranium weave suit.
T'Chaka: My son, your will and body and mind are strong as any Wakandan, but your blood will never permit you to don the mantle of Black Panther. But I have ordered the creation of a new office, one just for you and perhaps your children, spirits of the ancestors willing. One befitting your heritage.
T’Chaka waves and two Wakandans bring forth a new suit of vibranium weave. It is white, with a fur collar and a lupine mask. A complex and contradictory set of emotions cross M’Windaji’s face.
M'Windaji: (touches suit) A jackal? Hyena, perhaps?
T’Chaka: (turns to M’Windaji) A wolf. A creature from your ancestral lands, loyal, powerful, aggressive. As I stated, you will never be the Black Panther, but you can serve Wakanda as the White Wolf.
M’Windaji’s promotion comes just in time, as a plot is afoot: a Hydra agent known as Ulysses Klaw (Mickey Rourke) has captured and interrogated a Wakandan herder into divulging the secret of Wakanda. And he has assembled a force to launch a coup and install a puppet regime. His local ally is M’Baku (Michael Clarke Duncan), son of M’Bara and new Priest-King of the White Gorilla Army. M’Baku is presented as a cheery and likeable but unstable figure, a megalomaniacal and power-hungry psychopath that Duncan reportedly based on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Klaw promises M’Baku the throne of Wakanda in exchange for exclusive trade rights for Wakandan vibranium, and M’Baku agrees, though neither really trusts the other in this alliance of convenience.
(Image source Major Spoilers)
As the forces of Hydra and the WGA arrive at the border of Wakanda, T’Chaka mobilizes the army. Kipepeo arrives with a corps of female fighters, but T’Chaka sends them home. “This is no place for women,” he says.
When the combined forces of Hydra and the WGA attack Wakanda, M’Windaji and his Hatut Zeraze lead the Wakandan army, who fight the WGA forces with honor and effectiveness, managing to drive them back. M’Windaji personally engages and bests M’Baku in hand-to-hand combat, forcing the larger opponent to flee with is army, vowing revenge.
But as a result of the combat, a wildfire breaks out and the Wakandans take action to put out the fire before it endangers villages in the region. Klaw and a small force of commandos slips past in the chaos and directly strikes at the royal retinue. T’Chaka, dressed in the vibranium weave armor of the Black Panther, fights valiantly, but is ultimately mortally wounded by Klaw’s Hydra-designed sonic rifle, whose waves bypass the energy absorbing power of the vibranium, nullifying the armor’s advantage. M’Windaji and his Hatut Zeraze and Kipepeo and her woman warriors rush back to the king’s aid, and Kipepeo manages to sever Klaw’s right arm in the melee, but it is too late, and T’Chaka dies in his adopted son’s arms, his last words being “T’Challa must become…Black Panther!”
Klaw walks up to M’Baku, who seems in good spirits.
M'Baku: Ah, Mr. Klaw! (smiles and slaps him on the shoulder of the severed arm) Too bad to see you disarmed. But despite the setback, we have killed the Black Panther, and that is reason for a celebratory feast! Which of your men is the most plump and tasty?
Klaw: (scowls at M’Baku) Cannibalistic savages!
All of the assembled WGA soldiers laugh.
M’Baku: (Slaps him again on the shoulder) I kid…we in the White Gorilla Army are all vegetarians!
T'Challa is, of course, devastated to hear the news. Not only is he upset to have lost his father, but upset that he wasn’t there to protect his father, and feeling guilty despite N'Baza (via video-link) assuring him that had he been there he would likely have been killed too. N'Baza, who has temporarily assumed the kingship of Wakanda (but not
become the Black Panther), encourages him to return to Wakanda. T’Challa tells his goodbyes to the people that he met, though asks Lynne to come with him, which she accepts.
But before he can board the private jet, Agent Henry Peter Gyrich (Samuel L. Jackson) stops him, giving him a card with the SHIELD logo and a phone number.
Agent Gyrich: Your Highness, Agent Henry Gyrich. The US Government is interested in strengthening relations with the nation of Wakanda.
T’Challa: Agent Gyrich, I am curious why the American government would be interested in us. We are a very small and poor nation. We have no resources or strategic value.
Agent Gyrich: Of course, Your Highness. That said, should poor little Wakanda ever come across any…resources that they’d care to trade, you just drop us a line.
Agent Gyrich hands T’Challa a business card. On one side is a phone number. On the other the SHIELD logo.
As the private jet lands at the small airfield on the African savanna, Lynne is at first awed by the natural wilderness and wildlife, and then delighted by the laughing children who run alongside their Land Rover, all as Belafonte’s Mali Blues inspired score plays. T’Challa asks Lynne if it feels like “a homecoming” as a “daughter of Africa”, but she admits that she wished it did, noting “it’s a long way from The Bronx.”
She’s rather unimpressed when they arrive at a small village without electricity or running water at the base of a rather round-ish heavily forested mountain. She’s even further unenthused as T’Challa leads her into what looks like a simple earth and thatch hut, albeit one notably larger and fancier than the rest in the small village (“The royal palace”). This leads, through a secret door, into an incredible complex carved from the mountain behind the “palace” with a shroud of fake trees above, with Lynne now amazed at what she sees. Giant buildings and high-tech flying vehicles. Hover trains and lights and fountains and statues of Black Panthers past.
“You must tell nobody what you have seen today,” T’Challa tells her.
Wakanda, Old Skool Edition (Image source The Geek Twins)
T’Challa, meanwhile, is upset to find that Wakanda has become a virtual police state, with the paranoid M’Windaji’s Hatut Zeraze, all dressed in white vibranium weave with dog-like masks, now acting as secret police who search everyone and haul off anyone suspected of harboring sympathies for M’Baku. M’Windaji is even seen interrogating his own quivering sister Asili, questioning her loyalty to their father. Kipepeo intervenes, escorting Asili away. T’Challa specifically recalls his treatment at the hands of the police in America.
Inside the glamorous throne room, T’Challa is greeted warmly by N'Baza, but more coldly by M’Windaji. N'Baza takes him to see his father’s body and tells him that it is time for him to consume the heart-shaped herb and assume the throne and title of Black Panther, though a now slightly humbled T’Challa, after his experiences in the US, is somewhat reluctant. N'Baza also informs him that it is time for him to marry Kipepeo, which angers Lynne, who was not informed that T’Challa was “engaged”. T’Challa and Kipepeo both push back on this, but N'Baza insists that “it is the way of our ancestors!” to which T’Challa responds, “Then perhaps it is time for us to move forward,” causing shock in the royal court. M’Windaji openly calls his adoptive brother out for this, and proposes that instead he, M’Windaji, should wed Kipepeo, who says, with irritation, “Am I to have a say in this?” N'Baza calls a close to the meeting, leaving the issue unresolved.
T’Challa has a talk with N'Bazza and his step mother Ramonda (Phylicia Rashad) about responsibility versus choice, with her sympathetic to his views. She confesses that she was always T’Chaka’s “true love” and that his marriage to T’Challa’s mother N’Yami (who died in his childbirth) had been out of duty rather than love. They discuss the traditions of Wakanda, and he tells her of his experiences in New York, and lays out his hopes for a more open Wakanda, one that uses its wealth and power for good. N'Baza warns him that if Wakanda opens up to the world, that it will become a target, to which T’Challa, noting his father’s death, replies that “we are already a target,” handing N'Baza the SHIELD card.
Lynne, meanwhile, meets with Kipepeo, who is with Asili working in a garden in the surface village. The small plant that Asili puts in the earth seems to grow and bloom in her hands. Asili says little, and smiles shyly. They discuss the nature of belonging, and what defines a person’s heritage. “Asili was born here in Africa, though her blood is from another land,” Kipepeo says. “And yet she and her brother work to make Wakanda safe and secure, despite the fact that they will never be seen as true Wakandans.”
“I can relate,” says Lynne.
Kipepeo also notes how she loves no man and has no desire to marry, making it clear that she would support T’Challa marrying Lynne, who notes that “it’s a little early to talk marriage.”
“T’Challa will have to choose a bride when he claims the throne,” says Kipepeo. “Otherwise, it will sew discord between the clans. Wedding you rather than a clan-head’s daughter would send a message to the clan leaders that he has forsaken Wakandan tradition for modernity, which will cause discord as well, but perhaps the right kind.”
When Lynne expresses that she doesn’t want to be a political pawn, Kipepeo notes that “when you marry the prince, you become a political Chess piece whether you wish to or not. But not a pawn…a Queen!”
M’Windaji, meanwhile, is patrolling the frontier, irritated at his brother’s return, when a small bug-like drone flies up to him and lands at his feet. It projects a hologram of Klaw’s face. Klaw tells him a secret and makes him an offer.
Klaw: (hologram) Greetings, Jaeger von Weisberg!
M'Windaji: My name is M’Windaji, the White Wolf, Guardian of Wakanda, and you are wise to send only your false head, for I would cut your living one from its neck!
Klaw: (hologram) Your name is Jaeger Fredrich Wilhelm, the Baron von Weisberg, and you are Latverian nobility, not an African savage!
Klaw attempts to play to M’Windaji’s insecurities, noting how he’ll never be a “true” Wakandan, and notes how Hydra can help him not only seize the throne of Wakanda, but destroy the White Gorilla Army, slay M’Baku, and avenge the deaths of his “true” parents. M’Windaji flat out refuses. “My only home is Wakanda, my ‘true’ father was King T’Chaka, the Black Panther, and you, Ulysses Klaw, are his assassin. My only regret is that you still breathe when father does not!” He then crushes the drone with his foot.
But enraged, M’Windaji storms back to the palace as N'Baza is preparing the crowning ceremony. He points his blade at T’Challa and says, “I am M’Windaji, eldest son of T’Challa, and I demand my opportunity to claim the throne and the title of Black Panther!”
N'Bazza says that M’Windaji is “not of Wakandan royal blood” and that he is therefore ineligible, but T’Challa raises his hand. He walks up to M’Windaji and looks him straight in the eye.
“My brother has spilled blood for Wakanda. I decree that he has earned the right to challenge.”
This leads directly to a duel at the sacred falls as all the clans look on. Both men are shirtless and painted with ceremonial markings and carrying short clubs and shields. It is a brutal fight, years of personal animus expressed in physical form, and the larger, stronger M’Windaji appears to be winning. But T’Challa, using some of the simple but effective fighting techniques he learned from Luke Cage, emerges the victor, ultimately choking his brother unconscious.
T'Challa is then administered the heart-shaped herb in a secret ceremony, given the suit of the Black Panther, and crowned as the King of Wakanda in an extravagant ceremony. One of his first acts is to expel M’Windaji and the Hatut Zeraze. “The dividing line between civilization and savagery,” he says, “Is in how one treats their weakest, most powerless citizens. It is the way of Wakanda to treat all Wakandans with honor and dignity. Your Dogs of War treat our people like criminals, not citizens. Your brutal ways are not the ways of Wakanda. For three years you will walk in the world. When you have seen the error of your ways, and made amends, then and only then will you be able to set eyes upon Wakanda again.”
M'Windaji replies, “We of the Hatut Zeraze are loyal citizens of Wakanda, and will always be loyal citizens of Wakanda. We fought for Wakanda when you were away. We died for Wakanda while you were away. And we will return to Wakanda on our own terms, not on yours.” He turns his back on T’Challa and walks out. Kipepeo raises her spear in anger, but T’Challa holds up his hand and stops her.
Instead, he makes his own decree.
T'Challa: I, King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther, have made my decision on who I will marry. I will first honor my father’s commitment to marry Kipepeo of the Mountain Tribe. She will be my first wife. I further decree that by the ancient traditions of Wakanda, I will have many wives, but they will not be wives in the traditional sense, but in the traditions of the Mino woman warriors of Dahomey, they shall be a new personal fighting force led by Kipepeo, the Dora Milaje, the “adored ones”. They shall fight for Wakanda with honor and compassion.
Kipepeo is at first shocked, but then bows deeply.
Kipepeo: Husband-to-be, my blade is in your service.
T’Challa: (turns to Lynne) But a king must have one true wife, a woman to be his companion and father to his children. Tradition is to marry a Wakandan woman, but I have learned that family is where you find it. Monica Lynne of the Bronx, I ask that you be my True Wife and only companion in love.
Lynne looks at T’Challa in shock. The assembled court looks at her with anticipation.
Lynne: Honey, I appreciate the offer, but I ain’t ready to be Queen of Wakanda. And I ain’t going to be a “second” wife, whether that other wife ever touches you or not. I may not have much, being a poor woman from the Bronx, but I have my pride. The answer is no.
The court mumbles in shock. T’Challa looks disappointed, and perhaps a bit angry, but swallows his pride.
T’Challa: So be it, Monica Lynne. You have made your choice. There will always be a place in Wakanda for you, but I will have S’yan make sure you are safely returned to your home New York.
Lynne leaves on the private jet, sadly looking out the window at Wakanda and the mountain that is more than a mountain.
It then cuts to M’Windaji, who leads the Hatut Zeraze away from Wakanda. They pile in to a series of vehicles. M’Windaji sits in the back and an assistant tells him that he “arranged the call” M’Windaji requested to the “potential ally”. The assistant hits a button and the masked image of Dr. Victor von Doom appears.
“Greetings, son of Latveria,” says Doom.
Ulysses Klaw (Image source Daily Superheroes)
It then cuts to Klaw sitting in an office, sipping liquor. His right arm is now cybernetic, with a sonic weapon at the end of it instead of a hand. A spy reports to him that T’Challa is now the Black Panther, has dismissed the Hatut Zeraze, and has assembled a new guardians force for Wakanda…made up entirely of women! Klaw laughs at this idea. “An army of women!” he laughs and says to an aid, “Contact M’Baku. Wakanda is vulnerable. Victory is inevitable!” But he looks at his severed arm and scowls.
This sets up the final battle, with M’Baku now wearing a powerful suit of robotic armor built by Hydra stylized like a gorilla. He and Klaw have assembled a sizeable army with helicopters and armored vehicles and other weapons. Standing opposite to them is the Black Panther and a corps of women with melee weapons. It looks like a slaughter is about to happen.
M’Baku in his new armor (Image source Yahoo Movies UK)
However, the new Dora Milaje, with a combination of vibranium weapons and amazing battle prowess, prove able to counter even the modern weaponry of the HYDRA agents and WGA. Bullets bounce off of their shields and even fabric. Their blades cut through tank armor like a knife through warm butter. Other warriors spring from the forests in surprise and Wakandan flying vehicles are seen in the open for the first time. Soon the tide of the seemingly one-sided battle is turning, or seems to be.
T'Challa battles his way through the crowd, besting all of the attackers using his strength, skill, and vibranium suit and claws. He finally confronts M’Baku and the two engage in a massive fight, the huge and powerful mountain of a man versus the speed and agility of the Black Panther.
And while he fights M’Baku, Klaw is blasting his way through the Wakandans, seeing T’Challa. He leads a counterattack by Hydra agents armed with the sonic weapons that cuts into the flank of the Wakandans, threatening to collapse the lines. He is about to shoot the Black Panther in the back when a thrown blade stabs into his arm, shorting it out. The Hatut Zeraze, led by M’Windaji, joins the fight. They have laser weapons of their own, of Latverian make. M’Windaji himself charges and beheads Klaw, causing the Hydra agents to charge towards him. But his sister Asili, watching from the side, raises her thin arms, her eyes glowing a warm yellow-green, and a score of vines sprout from the earth, entangling them.
(Image source YouTube)
Meanwhile the Black Panther has managed to slash the power lines to M’Baku’s suit, leaving him vulnerable. M’Baku ejects from the suit and jumps on to a fleeing helicopter, vowing to return. T’Challa, Kipepeo, and M’Windaji now join forces in a final attack that decimates the attackers, and leaves Wakanda victorious.
The Black Panther confronts the White Wolf, who tells him, “For now you are King, brother, and I will respect your orders of exile. But I will always be loyal to Wakanda, for it is my land as much as yours, blood be damned.” He then leaves.
With Wakanda successfully defended, T’Challa announces to the world Wakanda’s existence and wealth, declares their continued neutrality and non-alignment with worldly alliances, and willingness to trade. He also announces plans to give aid and spread knowledge “to the poor, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed of the world, regardless of their blood.”
And thus, T’Challa is left, King of Wakanda, the Black Panther. But as we pan away, his smile falters, for despite his new power and the respect of the world, he remains alone on his throne.
1998’s Black Panther
was the 8th Marvel film released by MGM, and the first to feature a non-white protagonist. Directed by Ernest Dickerson and produced by Harry Belafonte and Wesley Snipes, the film was a passion project for Snipes and may have never come to be without him. He’d approached Marvel specifically about a Black Panther film, and while Black Panther wasn’t high on the priority list at the time, Stan Lee was on board and found it very easy to convince Disney Chairman Jim Henson to support the film. Henson brought in his old friend Harry Belafonte, who produced, did the music, and of course starred as N'Baza. Dickerson, who’d directed The Incredible Hulk
, had also pushed for a film based on a black superhero, wanting to direct a Luke Cage film, but was ecstatic to direct Black Panther
. He was reportedly the impetus behind adding Cage to the film as a mentor figure.
Little was expected of this film, as even with a socially progressive Chairman the assumption was that audience racism would prevent white audiences from going to see it, so budgets were constrained. Some have suspected that M’Windaji was added specifically as an “audience surrogate” for white viewers, though no hard evidence has emerged to support this. Wakanda lacks the grandeur of later appearances since much of it was shot on sound stages or done with mostly static CG backgrounds to save money. The entire second act of this five-act film was set in New York so that they could shoot most of it cheaply on the NYC set at Disney-MGM Studios East. The new Disney Animal Kingdom park stood in for Africa for all but a few establishing shots filmed by a second unit in Kenya and Tanzania. The martial arts-based action and lack of showy superpowers (save Asili’s ability to command the growth of plants) kept effects costs low. In total, the budget came in at a rather modest $42 million, hardly anything compared to X-Men’s
$63 million or the effects-heavy The Fantastic Four’s
However, the Marvel name, tie-in to other Marvel films, and Wesley Snipe’s bad boy charisma managed to pull in a surprising $181 million, making for a very profitable feature and justifying future appearances for T’Challa and the Wakandans. Reviews were very positive with appreciation for the grandeur of the visuals (despite the budgetary limitations) and with praise for Snipes, Owen, and Lathan in particular.
And for Black audiences the figure of T’Challa became an immediate central hero and role model, driving merchandise sales and home media views. “It was a pleasure to see a superhero that looked like me,” said young actor Chadwick Boseman, who cited the movie as an inspiration, “particularly as the central hero, not just standing on the side.”
Kipepeo, likewise, would get a large following as a powerful woman warrior, in keeping with the growing “action girl” trope of the 1990s. She was very popular with women and girls, black women and girls in particular. Her unwillingness to marry any man and close friendship with Asili also made her a lesbian icon, with later comics writers making the two a canonical couple while other writers insisted that she was asexual. The nature of her and the rest of the Dora Milaje as “wives” of T’Challa also created some predictable controversy and accusations of promoting polygamy or making Africans look “backwards”, even though the wifely status of the warrior women was ceremonial rather than real in any physical or romantic sense, and though it was based upon the very real Mino, or Dahomey Amazons
, woman warriors officially the “wives” of the King of Dahomey but in reality an elite and fanatical fighting force.
Beyond “Girl Power”
The character of M’Windaji, however, would drive the largest conversation as audiences, as was intended, debated whether M’Windaji was “right”, whether he truly was a Wakandan, and whether it mattered. The character was specifically created in part as a deconstruction of the old trope of the white man who “goes native” with the non-white community and bests the locals, demonstrating his natural superiority. It was a trope loaded with racist baggage and the production team hoped to demonstrate this baggage while also making the character sympathetic. M’Windaji was also a dark reflection of Luke Cage, both being naturally talented and aggressive men who have to work harder than their peers due to their race. In the case of M’Windaji, though, his bitterness and jealousy combined with a burning ambition, sense of entitlement, and repressed inferiority complex led him to violent, selfish, and often questionable actions.
And as the Marvel movie saga continued, M’Windaji’s loyalty to Wakanda and personal ambition and sense of entitlement would be put to the ultimate test.
was a milestone not just in representation in superhero films, but in that it was perhaps the first film to truly embrace the connected nature of the Marvel Movie Universe (Earth #307135), with Luke Cage and Mr. Fantastic playing supporting roles, cameos by Spider-Man and even Daredevil (as Matt Murdoch), with mentions of The Hulk and “mutants” as a threat (there is suspicion that Asili is a mutant, and T’Challa mentioning briefly having met Storm in Africa as an Easter Egg for comics fans). It also reintroduced the character of Agent Gyrich from X2
, this time overtly tying him to SHIELD (though only via the logo), who would become a linking factor in many future films and help set up the future crossovers.
was in many ways the first non-solo Marvel film in this regard, though it still stands fully on its own as a feature, with no requirement to have seen any of the other films before seeing it. It’s watershed status makes it the frequent subject of scholarly discussions and Hollywood retrospectives. It introduced many iconic characters to new audiences and cemented that Earth #307135 was indeed a shared world, setting forward all that was to come.
And we at Swords and Spaceships
, of course, hold a special place for it in our hearts.
 At one point, TChalla will note an old photo of Reed from the 1960s and comment how he’s “aged well.” Reed will shrug and say, “long story.”
 Somewhat better than Blade
due to the Marvel Universe connection.