If you plan to see "Black Panther," you'll be introduced to an exciting and eclectic group of people, concepts and even geography. Here's a primer to help you prep, with notes on where the film diverges from the comics.
--VIBRANIUM: The appropriately-named alien metal vibranium absorbs vibrations (including sound) in the bonds between its molecules. If that sounds like techno-babble, it is. What's important is that the African nation of Wakanda has all of it there is on Earth, and everybody else wants it.
In the comics, there's also vibranium in the Savage Land, a prehistoric jungle under the Antarctic ice cap, protected by Ka-Zar and his sabretooth tiger, Zabu. For movie purposes, pretend you didn't read this.
-- WAKANDA: Given a jump-start by vibranium, the various tribes that have come together to form the small nation of Wakanda are, technologically, 20 or 25 years ahead of the rest of the world. Since Wakanda was never colonized, its culture goes back centuries, with ancient codes of dress, religious structures and tribal bonds co-existing with a high-tech wonderland.
In the comics, Wakanda is transitioning into a constitutional monarchy.
-- BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman): The Black Panther is the king, head of state and religious leader of Wakanda, wearing ceremonial garb -- vestments, really -- that is technologically enhanced with vibranium gadgets. (In other words, it's not a "costume.")
The current Black Panther is T'Challa, son of King T'Chaka, who was killed in "Captain America: Civil War." T'Challa is presumably now king, and had already attained the ceremonial title "Black Panther." This was achieved after a trial by combat and the ingestion of a "heart-shaped herb" unique to the country. The herb bestows enhanced strength, speed, durability, senses and vitality.
In the comics, the herb can also confer death, as it is lethally toxic to those who don't pass muster with the panther god Bast. The Wakandan gods, called The Orisha, are just as real in Marvel Comics as the Norse, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and other pantheons.
T'Challa is also a part-time Avenger, and even weirder, "King of the Dead." After losing his Panther powers (long story), he replaced them with a combination of technology and sorcery. This enables him to control the undead and converse with previous, deceased Panthers. What those Panther spirits give T'Challa mostly is a hard time, but occasionally they toss in some good advice.
That's just in the comics, so don't expect any ghosts in "Black Panther." Maybe in the sequel.
-- RAMONDA (Angela Bassett): As T'Chaka's widow and Queen Mother, Ramonda is a stately and stable presence in court whose advice is generally awesome.
That's all true in the comics as well, except that in print T'Challa's mom died in childbirth and Ramonda is his step-mother.
-- SHURI (Letitia Wright): T'Challa's sister is a genius intellect and master engineer, especially with vibranium.
She's a bit more complicated in the comics, where being Ramonda's daughter makes her T'Challa's step-sister. She's also a highly trained warrior who became both queen and Black Panther a few years ago when T'Challa was sidelined by injury. Her body was frozen when Thanos' Black Order invaded Wakanda (see "Avengers: Infinity War" for more on those guys), and her spirit banished to The Djarli, the spiritual plane where Wakanda's memories live. She has returned with the power to turn to stone or into a flock of birds, buttressing her already impressive Panther powers and combat training.
While it would be cool to see Letitia Wright turn into a bunch of birds, that's not really on the table this go-round.
-- DORA MILAJE: All-female bodyguards for the royal family, the Dora Milaje ("Adored Ones" in Wakandan) are warriors from all the tribes of Wakanda, an honor meant to unite the nation. The Dora Milaje aren't just bodyguards, though -- they are also the Wakanda equivalent of the U.S. Special Forces and are highly trained in a variety of vibranium weapons, combat techniques and espionage. They were also once the pool from which the Wakandan king would pick his queen, but T'Challa ended that tradition in the comics, and it won't be mentioned at all in the movie, because it's kinda icky.
Significant members in the film will include Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). At least eight other Dora Milaje are named in the credits, so expect a lot of scary women trouncing bad guys.
-- W'KABI (Daniel Kaluuya): T'Challa's chief of security and best friend. In the movie, he is also the chief of the Border Tribe.
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-- ZURI (Forest Whitaker): Zuri is an adviser to T'Challa, and also a shaman. Given the caliber of actor in the role, he's likely to be quite more than that.
In the comics, he's not only not a shaman, he's not breathing.
-- M'BAKU (Winston Duke): In both comics and movies, M'Baku is the chief of the Jabari-Lands in northwest Wakanda, a frequent site of unrest.
In the comics, M'Baku pulled on a white gorilla costume to fight T'Challa as the "Man-Ape." As you might expect, that didn't go well for M'Baku, who is currently dead.
-- ERIK KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan): In both comics and movies, young N'Jadaka's entire family was exiled from Wakanda by King T'Chaka. After assuming the name Erik Killmonger, he returns to lead a revolution and kill T'Challa.
-- ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis): A German mercenary, Klaue lost a hand in "Avengers: Age of Ultron," and is obsessed with vibranium.
In the comics, Klaue killed T'Chaka, but lost his hand to a pre-teen T'Challa. He's obsessed with killing the Panther, and has converted his entire body to solid, sentient sound in order to do so. (Yes, I said solid, sentient sound. Don't think too hard about it.) He goes by the name Klaw, since he wears a prosthetic weapon where his right hand used to be, and has a variety of sound-based super-powers. (Again, for movie purposes, just skip this paragraph.)
-- EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman): A former CIA operative, Ross tried to regulate the Avengers in "Captain America: Civil War," and was last seen interrogating Baron Zemo.
In the comics, Ross is the U.S. Department of State liaison to Wakanda. Frequently used as comic relief, the nerdy bureaucrat is always out of his depth in T'Challa's world.
-- THE TRIBES: In the comics, many of the Wakandan tribes have actual names, but in the movie it appears we're going to get -- in addition to the dangerous Jabari -- the Border Tribe, the Merchant Tribe, the Mining Tribe and the River Tribe.
That's OK. The info dump is going to be sizable enough as it is!
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(c)2018 Andrew A. Smith
Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)
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