“I will kill him myself.” That’s the moment in Captain America: Civil War when I knew that I wasn’t going to have a problem with the Russo brothers’ approach to my favourite superhero.
Spoilers follow for Captain America: Civil War.
That line up top is one of the first things T’Challa says after his father King T’Chaka dies in a bombing attack supposedly carried out by the Winter Soldier. The razor-sharp threat immediately places him outside the boundaries of the other superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in that he seemingly has no compunctions about killing. Everything his character does in Civil War is about ruthlessly single-minded. The Black Panther is about his prey and pretty much nothing else.
Throughout the movie, the Black Panther feels like a character who serves his own agenda first, aiding Stark’s faction only out of pragmatism. He’s not here to make white characters feel good about themselves, as has sometimes been the case in his comics appearances. In the big fight scenes between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, he’s not helping War Machine or Black Widow with the ol’ tried-and-true, ‘change dance partners’ superhero battle switcheroo. T’Challa is going after Bucky almost exclusively. He’s going to kill that man. It truly feels like his way of life demands it.
Yet, the Black Panther doesn’t come across as a feral Dark Continent savage. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal is cooly regal when we first meet him. Even as he gets pulled into a plot of ever-escalating drama, his affectation is that of someone who’s unperturbed by the major events happening around him. T’Challa and Wakanda get portrayed as mysterious but not exoticised. Sam Wilson quips at the Panther after he makes his dramatic debut in costume but the king doesn’t respond with snark. He simply says that the Black Panther has protected Wakanda for centuries. This is who he is and what he does.
This is a younger T’Challa than the one who shows up in my favourite Black Panther run, so he’s not the master strategist put forth by writer Christopher James Priest. But he still manages to use his country’s undisclosed but considerable resources to sneak into the movie’s climax and capture the mastermind who got Steve and Tony fighting in the first place.
In the end, T’Challa moves from wanting vengeance for himself and his country to ensuring justice will be done. That switch doesn’t feel like it’s motivated by a need to align with Tony or Steve’s moral compass; rather, it’s the thematic endpoint of his arc in the movie. Civil War’s third act has Iron Man become obsessed with killing Bucky as payback for his parents’ murder. Tony Stark almost turns into a villain, an analogue of the kind of people that he and the Avengers usually fight. T’Challa, on the other hand, is able to find his own closure precisely because he’s an outsider who isn’t compromised by the considerations motivating Captain America and Iron Man. In Civil War, the Black Panther begins a wary relationship with the world outside Wakanda and it becomes crystal clear that he’s a force to be reckoned with.