The King of Wakanda represents a completely new alternative to Marvel’s usual Superhero protagonist, and I’m not talking about the colour of his skin.
Warning: Contains some spoilers for ‘Black Panther’ and a few minor spoilers for other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.
Let me get straight down to it: Marvel only really have one archetype for a protagonist. If we look at the characters who have been given solo films (or films centred primarily around them) in the MCU, they all enjoy one thing in common. Tony Stark, Dr Strange, Starlord, Thor, Spiderman and Captain America (and Ant Man but who cares about Ant Man?) are all white men, yes, but what’s more surprising is that they’re all characters who behave in a remarkably similar way. When push comes to shove, they’re all fundamentally this: cocky, slightly immature smart-allecks who, because of their brash nature, eventually mess things up and have to fix them in order to save the day. Apart from Spiderman (and Captain America pre-injection), they’re all supremely confident in themselves and their abilities and make sure to remind everyone of it at every possible opportunity. They like to taunt and mock their opponents as they defeat them – not as a ploy to try to unsettle them or throw them off their stride – but simply for the visceral thrill of humiliating them. They all make snarky quips and exhibit plenty of male bravado, never really admitting their flaws unless absolutely forced to. The only real exception to all of this is Tom Holland’s Spiderman but when he dons the suit, he assumes many of these qualities too – something I will elaborate on later.
What makes T’Challa different to all these characters, beyond the fact that he’s black, is that he exhibits none of these traits. For once, he represents a form of masculinity that we have not seen in the MCU.
T’Challa is quietly confident, yes, but never arrogant. Never does he rub his powers or his status in anyone’s face. Even in heated ritual combat – to the death – he does not mock, toy with or belittle his opponents. Instead, he urges them to “yield” in order to spare their lives in two separate instances, showing a level of maturity and consideration that Marvel’s other protagonists simply do not. His advice to M’Baku – “your people need you” – shows an ability to look beyond the individual and think of the larger picture, even towards someone who has up until this point been contemptible. The fatal mistake that most of Marvel’s superheroes make is that they tunnel in on their own selfish goals and end up hurting others as a consequence. T’Challa’s act of kindness ends up reaping rewards for him at the climax of the film – a sort of good karma.
Although I never like when films correlate ‘noble birth’ with ‘being a better person’, in the case of T’Challa it is completely understandable. T’Challa has been raised as a leader from birth – not just as the supreme warrior but as a political representative. He is acutely aware of his position and constantly has the interests of his people at the forefront of his mind. He conducts himself as a diplomat, even when he might be forgiven for losing his composure. The scene where he spares Klaue after Okoye reminds him: “My king, the world watches,” demonstrates this perfectly. He puts the reputation of his people above any personal satisfaction.
Unlike many of Marvel’s other heroes, his privilege has not spoiled him but instead matured him. He is not a pampered, reluctant prince like Thor who, either not interested or possibly intimidated by the prospect of being a ruler, instead chooses to gallivant around the galaxy in search of adventures and thrills. T’Challa assumes his responsibility with dignity when the time comes. Nor is he like Tony Stark who, ignorant to the extent his privilege, chooses to behave like an entitled teenager and demands that the world excuse his obnoxiousness simply because he is who he is.
This is a bit of a theme amongst Marvel’s protagonists. They all demand that their behaviour, however irksome, however obnoxious, should be excused, if not celebrated because they’re brilliant, if in no one else’s mind but their own. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange exhibits this behaviour most prominently – extrapolating his role as Sherlock to be a character who’s ‘a bit of a d*ck to everyone but it’s okay because he’s a genius’. He treats everyone he knows with contempt – colleagues, strangers, even the woman he loves/used to love – largely because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Although over the course of the film he learns that there are things beyond his understanding, he still retains more than a semblance of that arrogance, generally behaving like someone who feels no need to display social courtesy because he ‘is above it’. In his cameo encounters with other MCU characters he never makes any attempt to make them feel comfortable, despite the jarring experiences he puts them through. His only interest in them is to get what he wants as quickly as he can, then he whisks them away.
T’Challa, a binary opposite, is a diplomat through and through, as I have mentioned, and shows everyone respect and courtesy, even when they have not earned it. He treats people kindly by default where other MCU heroes would demand that you earn the right to not be dismissed by them. Fellow ‘Sherlock’ actor Martin Freeman’s character, CIA Agent Everett Ross, remarks on this ability for diplomacy during the interrogation of Klaue and derides Okoye for not showing the same respect (although unbeknownst to him he’s being bugged by T’Challa).
As I’ve said, most of Marvel’s protagonists display this lack of respect and it stems from an attitude of entitlement. They feel superior to everyone they speak to, so why bother showing them courtesy? T’Challa is shown on multiple occasions walking through the city in amongst the ordinary population. He is in touch with his people. He is humble, grounded. By contrast, characters in the MCU themselves have remarked on the inaccessibility of Tony’s decadent Stark Tower, which the Avengers call their base.
Yet while ordinary people might find themselves distanced from The Avengers, they will recognise their behaviour all too well. Despite all being well into their 30s and 40s (at least, the actors sure are), the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor behave like they’re still a bunch of teenagers. They’re brash, reckless, prone to flashy displays and bravado, they’re often chauvinistic and have ego clashes with other men in an attempt to assert their alpha-dominance. I mean, that last part is pretty much the core plot of any Avenger’s film. And in a different way, Starlord conducts himself like a child with a blaster, needing to stick his proverbial tongue out at anyone he disagrees with and constantly bickering with his fellow Guardians like schoolchildren. Yet both people in the films and us as audiences still laud and applaud them for being great role models and ‘good guys’. None of them are anti-heroes – they’re meant to represent the best that we have to offer.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to state that somewhere, this is a reflection of our cultural norms. White men, particularly abnormally privileged white men as 4/6 of them are (I include Cap’ because in the modern world, he is privileged by virtue of being Captain America), are generally excused for behaviour that they should have grown out of. Society constantly makes apologies for their reprehensible actions by branding them “harmless” or “locker room talk” or saying “boys will be boys” or “he didn’t realise he was being a d*ck”. The same apologies very rarely extend to women or coloured men, who are chastised for every small misstep. It is perhaps in this context that T’Challa arises – the black man who, because he is black, has to learn to be twice as good, twice as sensible, twice as restrained as his white counterparts, less he be the subject of scorn. He is the Barack Obama of superheroes, where previously we’ve been given better versions of Trump. (I apologise to those guys because they don’t deserve to be compared to Trump, nor is their behaviour anywhere near that level, but the analogy is apt).
Let’s sail calmer waters for a moment and move away from the social aspects of these characterisations. There is also an interesting pattern to be noted in regards to the ever-present conundrum of the superhero: The suit vs the suit wearer. There is almost no superhero who avoids this classic debate – are they an ordinary person who wears a suit to be a hero? Or are they always a hero who has to pretend to be a normal person during the day? Yet, in the MCU, we’ve seen an increasing shift towards the superhero and the alter ego becoming one. Thor is always Thor. Captain America is always Captain America. Dr. Strange is always Dr. Strange. Starlord is always Starlord. These four do not maintain an ‘alter ego’ as such. Particularly moving around Earth, as the former two do, they are not afraid of the celebrity status they hold and even embrace it. Thor certainly does in ‘Ragnarok’, gleefully indulging in selfies that strangers ask for. Tony Stark can also be added to this list since he publicly reveals his identity and largely ceases to be ‘Tony Stark the businessman’ as the films have gone on. Both mentally and physically, he has assimilated himself into Iron Man, to the point of building a suit that automatically latches on to him when needed. He’s Tony only by name. He also revels in his status as the ‘celebrity hero of the people’.
The only exception to this pattern is the new Spiderman who shows a very definitive break between Peter Parker the high school student and Spiderman the web-slinging hero. In a return to a more classic approach, ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ is a movie that focuses on the protagonist’s fight between being a person and being a symbol. But, going back to the theme of this article, what this allows Tom Holland’s character to do is essentially be two different people. As Peter Parker he is meek, he is shy, he’s your classic picked-upon debate team science nerd. But as Spiderman, he is a return to the ‘traditional’ (non-Toby Maguire) Spiderman, though in a fledgling form: He’s cocky, he likes to throw snide jokes and witty remarks at his opponents while he fights them and he’s complacent to the point of causing trouble for himself – like when he nearly allows a boatful of people to drown because he toys with the bad guys and decides to go in solo. As I said in the beginning of the article, when he dons the suit he often reverts to ‘type’ for Marvel. He exhibits the macho, testosterone-fueled-teen-male qualities that he absolutely does not during the rest of the film as Peter. But the difference between his and the behaviour of the previous Marvel superheroes is that he is actually a teenager. His behaviour can actually be excused for being immature because that’s what he understandably is.
An interesting aside – Peter displays many moments of vulnerability throughout the film, none better than the brilliant scene where he is held to gunpoint by The Vulture on his way to his homecoming prom. He is not afraid to cry (as he does to his aunt) and admit when he is out of his depth, something that is not seen in the other hulking (no pun intended) male superheroes of the MCU. It’s a shame that the only way that putting it in a film is seen as justifiable, from a production standpoint, is for him to be essentially a child, as if grown men cannot be allowed vulnerability.
T’Challa, however, is also open about his weaknesses, admitting on several occasions when he feels overwhelmed. Usually, and particularly in superhero/Marvel movies, male heroes only admit their wrongs at the ‘All Is Lost’ moment in the climax – when they’re literally or figuratively on their knees and in need of some deep inspiration to give them strength. At their lowest moment, when they have no choice but to admit defeat, they find a way to carry on, stronger than before. T’Challa on the other hand, even when being crowned king, has the emotional strength to admit to the spirit of his father that he is not ready to live life without him. He similarly expresses his doubts to Nakia that he cannot be as good a king as his father well before things start to go wrong. And when he does reach his ‘All Is Lost’ moment, he does not feel ashamed to shed tears while yelling, “You were wrong!” at his predecessors, lamenting the lives that were ruined because of their mistakes.
But, returning to the issue of ‘The Suit Conundrum’, T’Challa represents an interesting halfway-house between the two formulas. He is not two different people, but he does have an alter ego… let me explain. He is not ‘The Black Panther’ all of the time, at least not in the superhero sense of it. As leader of Wakanda he is The Black Panther, yes, but in this context I would argue that that doesn’t refer to a guy running around in a black suit chasing bad guys. The Wakandan title of ‘Black Panther’ refers more to an idea – he is the chosen one. He is the God ordained leader, the drinker of the heart-shaped herb. The foremost Wakandan. The Black Panther suit, which is where the ‘superhero’ interest lies, is a different matter. That is a device for executing justice largely outside Wakanda. It is necessary as a weapon for the fight against Killmonger in Wakanda, yes, but it’s primary purpose is for international missions – like the ones in California, Busan and Nigeria. Like the classic superhero costume, it is a means of hiding your true identity because Wakanda’s true wealth cannot be known to the rest of the world. What’s interesting though is that while T’Challa and ‘The Black Panther’ are separate entities, T’Challa does not use the suit as a literal and metaphorical mask to let out a more cocky or obnoxious side of himself. He’s still the same guy. He’s still a diplomat (demonstrated by the sparing of Klaue as I mentioned), he still does not taunt anyone or generally behave like a smart-ass just because he can. He’s mostly silent and dignified. He does what he needs to and then the suit is off.
I could make another point about how this again speaks to larger society, although I’m hesitant because I might lose the already small number of you who’ve made it this far. The point could be made that all of this reflects how white men use anonymity (in the case of the real world: the internet) as a means to let out a repressed, unpleasant side of themselves, mostly to abuse groups of people they consider their ‘enemies’ before seamlessly going back to their normal lives as ‘good guys’. But, as I said, I won’t make that point 😊.
Overall, I’m really happy to see ‘Black Panther’ exist – not only because of the immeasurable leaps and bounds it has made for diversity and representation, not only because it’s an objectively great movie and not only because it’s a superhero movie that doesn’t obsess over fights in favour of character – but also because it demonstrates an actually new type of Marvel hero. A new personality; one that shows a side of masculinity not often explored in blockbuster movies. I could write an entirely separate essay on the female characters in ‘Black Panther’ and the space they are given to be strong and meaningful and also how they interact with T’Challa, but for now, I’ll just settle for saying that I hope Marvel takes a hint from the immense success of ‘Black Panther’ to make more films that actually deliver a diversity of faces and personalities that go beyond ‘cocky, white man-boy’. Perhaps they can learn from this and what’s happened over at DC where, sandwiched between a relentless slew of trash films, one shining beacon has stood out: Wonder Woman. (And hopefully DC will learn to stop making trash too). Not just because diversity is good, but because having writers who are deeply invested in their characters and care about what they stand for will inevitably write good films. So, will we see a Marvel-ous response in the coming years to the successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther? Here’s hoping. For now, I’m just glad they exist.