In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Avengers are the apex predators of the superhero world. We know there are other powered individuals out there thanks to television shows like Agents of SHIELD and the growing Defenders universe on Netflix. But the Avengers are the upper echelon of the costumed set—the most powerful, the best funded, most well-resourced superheroes in the world. They have Tony Stark, one of the richest people in the world and arguably the smartest person; Captain America, the gold standard of enhanced humans; and Thor, an alien space prince with almost unlimited power. Who could possibly compete with that?
The Black Panther, quite possibly the only person in the world who has no need to fear the Avengers, or indeed, any reason to acknowledge them at all. In his alter ego state, he is T’Challa, King of Wakanda, the world’s most advanced nation. He’s incredibly rich—even richer than Stark—thanks to the vibranium mined in his country. He’s also incredibly smart, an accomplished scientist and engineer in his own right, and imbued with the mystical powers of the Black Panther, he’s every bit as strong and agile as the supersoldiers Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. There is nothing the Avengers could give him he can’t get for himself, no amount of money to tempt him or power to excite him. He is entirely, wholly, his own man.
We first meet T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War when he is still just a prince, standing at his father’s side. We don’t have long to get to know King T’Chaka, but in a single brief exchange between father and son we can see all the pride and love between them, while also learning that T’Challa prefers direct action over diplomacy, though he seems to be absorbing lessons of leadership and tact from his father. As portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa brings a heap of gravitas to the screen, but also a sense of contained power highlighted from his first appearance.
This first on-screen shot of T’Challa is loaded with meaning. He wears the kind of bespoke suit we’re used to seeing Tony Stark in, thus associating him with Stark’s world of wealth and power. But he’s dressed in blue, Captain America’s signature color, which also links him to Cap’s position as the moral authority of the MCU. And he’s framed in a classic power pose, observing the world from a window high above the street-level action. So immediately we know T’Challa is a powerful man with moral authority. That he’s also a loving son and tactful, if reluctant, politician are just grace notes on his base presentation of power.
And that power is specifically black power, that cannot, by virtue of T’Challa hailing from Wakanda, belong to anyone else. Captain America can pass on his shield and mantle, Hawkeye can train a protégé, there can be multiple Black Widows. But though T’Challa can share his technology, no one can be the Black Panther but another Wakandan, which makes it an exclusively black privilege. This is incredibly important as the Black Panther is the first marquee black superhero in the MCU. That they chose to give him a solo franchise and not, say, War Machine, means that this enormous power we’re being shown will only ever exist in a black context.
And it’s not just limited to T’Challa. She has one line and no name, but T’Challa’s bodyguard makes a huge impression when she threatens Black Widow. She is almost certainly part of the Dora Milaje, the traditional guard of the Black Panther—an exclusively female guard. Portrayed by Florence Kasumba, a Ugandan-born actress, this unnamed security chief needs less than a minute to establish herself as a foe to be wary of, and she establishes Wakandan women as formidable bearers of power in their own right. (From everything we learn in Civil War, Wakanda is a nation of people not fucking around.) And like the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje can only be Wakandan, which means the strength demonstrated by the security chief is also exclusive, to black women.
But it’s not just physical strength on display. The conflict in Civil War that arises between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers does so because neither one of them is capable of seeing beyond their emotional baggage. They get stubborn, they get angry, and then they get physical, and everything falls apart. T’Challa is the only character who is emotionally strong enough to see the destructive cycle of revenge consuming everyone around him and step outside of it. He has the emotional intelligence to understand that revenge and justice are not the same thing, even though he shares Stark’s grief over violently losing a parent.
He also demonstrates enormous compassion when he offers to harbor Bucky Barnes, at great risk to himself and Wakanda at large. T’Challa’s mistake in Civil War is that he superseded the law in order to kill Barnes himself—which completely undermines the Sokovia Accords, but that’s a different topic—and the way he atones for this mistake is to provide shelter and assistance to Barnes. Stark and T’Challa are on the same basic path in Civil War, each seeking retribution for murdered parents, but where Stark chooses anger and revenge, T’Challa chooses forgiveness and justice. These are traits unique to T’Challa, and the moment he becomes not just a hero of his people but a superhero in the world is when he values compassion above all else. For T’Challa, the warrior strength of the Black Panther and a king’s empathy go hand in hand.
It’s not hard to imagine T’Challa’s decision to harbor Bucky Barnes having consequences down the line, or Tony Stark’s potential fury at learning that, in the end, his presumed ally is no longer on his side. But the Black Panther will never be a superhero whose allegiance can be forced or coerced. He’s no Peter Parker, joining a fight he does not understand on the off chance he might get a paying gig out of it. Thanks to his position as king of a sovereign nation and the great resources and wealth his country affords him, T’Challa can only ever be persuaded by his own moral compass and code of ethics, which in Civil War prove to be even truer than Captain America’s. In the Black Panther we have a uniquely black example of power and heroism, and one that will, going forward, be a major player among the Avengers. All hail the king, indeed.