The Wakandan Royal Portrait offers clues to the dangers within the fictional nation
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We are in the Hall of Kings. It’s a place rich in history. The spiritual center of Wakanda.
Vines creep the ancient stone steps, still growing strong after centuries — much like the royal family arrayed before us.
This is a portrait of the ruling Wakandans from Marvel’s new Black Panther film, with the title hero played by Chadwick Boseman standing front and center, clad in the onyx-hued armored suit he uses to defend this technologically advanced wonderland from the outside world.
The Black Panther suit is woven with Vibranium, the indestructible yet-surprisingly-maleable mineral that is nearly non-existent around the world but can be found in abundance beneath the surface of Wakanda — a fact its people have kept secret for thousands of years.
They’ve mined it, experimented with it, and used it to develop medicines, vehicles, and weaponry that make the rest of the industrialized nations look primitive.
Wakanda is a land that has never been conquered. And as long as outsiders remain in the dark about its treasures and advancements, maybe no one will really try.
But that’s wishful thinking. There are myriad threats from outside its borders, and now there may be uprising and revolution within. T’Challa is a young man, a novice on the throne, and the assassination of his father is proof to many within Wakanda that outreach to the rest of the world is foolish. Maybe it’s time for someone else to seize the reins of power.
In that way, executive producer Nate Moore tells us that Black Panther pays tribute to two cinematic classics.
One is an iconic saga about a son rising to fill the void of a fallen patriarch, and “the five families” competing to seize power amid the upheaval.
The other is a fun-loving action series about a hero with a license to kill.
“What I think we landed on was sort of a cross between James Bond and The Godfather,” Moore tells EW. “A big, operatic family drama centered on a world of international espionage. So hopefully we’re getting the best of both worlds.”
Let’s take a closer look at the forces at play in Black Panther.
“What makes him different from other superheroes first and foremost is he doesn’t see himself as a superhero,” says director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). “He sees himself as a politician. That’s the first thing on his mind when he wakes up in the morning. ‘How am I going to fulfill my duties as king of this place?’”
That means not just fighting external foes, but keeping the citizens of his nation happy. He’s a king, but not a tyrant. And Wakandans don’t speak with only one voice. There are many political factions, many clashing points of view. Some are ready for revolution. Some are being pushed.
“He has to keep harmony between the tribes within his country, and that means managing expectations and doing things that are unpopular,” Coogler says. “At the same time, he is the protector of that nation.”
Angela Bassett costars as Ramonda, once the queen, now the mother of the king.
“She is one of the advisors that he would look to,” Boseman says. “He has to look to her for some of the answers of what his father might want or might do. She may not be exactly right all the time, but she definitely has insights. She is the queen mother. And she’s that for not just him, but for everybody.”
Bozeman laughs. “She’s has her hands in everything — even his love life.”
“The one thing I will say about all the female characters in this movie is that they are very strong,” Boseman says. “It’s a very matriarchal society.”
One of them is Wakanda’s undercover operative Nakia, played by 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. She may actually be the closest thing to 007 in this movie, and she’s a former lover of T’Challa’s.
“She is a departure from what she was in the comic book,” Nyong’o says. “Nakia is a war dog. She is basically an undercover spy for Wakanda. Her job is to go out into the world and report back on what’s going on.”
She also boasts some unique weaponry. “We call them her ring blades,” says Moore. “The ones Lupita carries while in the green outfit are based on traditional African weaponry. However, she does get a hi-tech upgrade later in the film, compliments of Shuri.”
Letitia Wright plays T’Challa’s kid sister, who is no one you want to face in battle either. “She is also a genius and runs the entire Wakandan design group,” says producer Kevin Feige, whose also president of Marvel Studios and one of the chief architects of its interlocked universe. “She’s responsible for all these amazing technological advances that Vibranium has brought about from Wakanda.”
Here she is pictured with twin, panther-shaped weapons. It’s not clear yet what they do exactly, but it probably hurts.
She’s not technically family, but she’s just as close. This character played by The Walking Dead‘s Danai Gurira is the head of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special soldiers unit that protects the kingdom (and the king) from harm.
“They are a very powerful force,” she says. “They are not utopic, but what Wakanda has down well is it has allowed people to function within their strengths. These women, their strength is to preserve Wakanda. It’s more like the secret service in a sense that it’s not just military. She is head of intel.”
Okoye has guilt over the death of the previous king, and she’s generally a stoic presence. But she’s not unfeeling. “She can be serious, but she also has an unexpected sense of humor,” Gurira says. “She has a heart, but for her country and for her people. She’s not a person who doesn’t connect to human beings as a result of what she does.”
There is an enemy in this portrait.
In the comics, he was once a Wakandan known as N’Jadaka, but he took on this “death-dealing” nom de guerre when he became a dissident, then an exile, from his homeland.
Michael B. Jordan’s character is one of the antagonists of the film, allied with the mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron), an arms dealer who has plundered Vibranium before and plans to do it again. He’s addicted.
In The Godfather terms, Killmonger has sided with this outsider against “the family,” his brothers and sisters of Wakanda. “I think Killmonger has his own opinion on how Wakanda has been run and should run, and what I think Michael brings to the table is sort of a charming antagonist, who doesn’t agree with how T’Challa is running things, frankly,” says Moore. “I think that puts T’Challa in a difficult situation. Killmonger is a voice of a different side of Wakanda.”
Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya plays T’Challa’s best friend, who is also a member of one of the most vital groups in the nation. “W’Kabi is the head of security for the Border Tribe,” says Moore. “They live on the borders of Wakanda and serve as the first line of defense for the country.”
In other words, he helps maintain the disguise that Wakanda is just mines, farms, and woods.
“To outsiders they appear to be what people would ‘expect’ of a small provincial African nation – but the truth is they are some of the fiercest warriors in Wakanda, intent on protecting the secrets of their advanced nation at all costs,” Moore says.
Now that T’Challa is king, he asks W’Kabi to join him as a palace advisor.
Another vital voice of reason for the young king is Forest Whitaker’s shaman, a longtime advisor to T’Challa’s father and the keeper of the Heart-Shaped Herb, a plant that grows only in Wakanda and absorbs the Vibranium-rich minerals. When consumed, it gives the new leader superhuman strength. (But in the comics, it only works on members of the royal bloodline.)
“He’s somewhat a religious figure or spiritual figure,” Coogler says of Zuri. “Spirituality is something that exists in Wakanda in the comics, and it’s something we wanted to have elements of in the film. Forest’s character, more than anything, is a major tie-back to T’Challa’s father. Zuri is someone he looks to for guidance.”
As wondrous as Wakanda seems, it can also be treacherous. For all the talk of honor in The Godfather, the families were compulsively driven to destroy each other. 007 may venture to the most beautiful places (and people) on Earth, but there’s always a villain determined to wipe those places off the map. If Black Panther owes thematic inspiration to those predecessors, the danger comes hand in hand with the beauty.
But that’s where the similarities will end. When the Marvel Studios movie debuts Feb. 16, the story will remain on Earth, but its creators pledge to take fans to a world they’ve never seen before nonetheless.
“I don’t think people are prepared for what this movie is going to be,” says Feige. “Not just Black Panther, but the Dora Milaje, and Killmonger, and the entire design of Wakanda – both its traditional African-inspired elements, but also the Vibranium inspired techno-elements. I can’t think of a blend that has happened like that before in movies.”
There’s only one Black Panther, after all.
No matter who wants to lay claim to his throne.
There will be more Black Panther coverage as part of our Comic-Con issue roll-out. Check back to EW.com later for a Q&A with Chadwick Boseman.
Thursday: More exclusive photos!