Superhero Origin Movies and Why Black Panther Isn’t One

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Origin Movies

Origin is defined as ‘the point or place where something begins, arises, or is derived.’ In any piece of fiction and non-fiction everyone has an origin. Who they are and why they are where they are. In the world of comics and their movie adaptations this is especially important. Readers and viewers connect to a hero based on their origin and how they grow from it. For example, the world latched onto the hero Captain America in his first solo feature, Captain America; The First Avenger (2011). We as the viewer saw a small, short, scrawny man named Steve Rogers try his very best to stand up to bullies, apply again and again to the army despite multiple rejections, and upon finally being accepted, show his selflessness by jumping onto a grenade to save everyone around him. We watched him take the super soldier serum and dawn his iconic costume, all while keeping true to his original mind set, “protect the little guy”.

Throughout the movie we saw his beginnings as a hero, we saw his origin. This happens to the hero Batman in the movie Batman Begins (2005), we see Bruce Wayne witness the death of his parents and from that point forth start his transformation into Batman. We also see a hero’s origin in Iron Man (2008), we watch as egotistical, arrogant and selfish Tony Stark puts his own wants and needs aside to help save the world as Iron Man. Thor (2011) is a bit different because when we first see Thor he is a hero, but only externally, internally he remains immature and arrogant. He is Thor Odinson, not Thor, hero of the nine realms. Throughout the film, we see him stripped of his godhood and sent to earth, where he learns humility and becomes a true hero. By the end of the film, he is willing to die for the sake of mere mortals, people who are by all rights, not his own. This is when he stops being just Thor the god, and becomes Thor the hero. It is his heroic origin.

Before I go on, I believe there is an important distinction that needs to be made. A first appearance and an origin are not the same thing. For example, in the DCEU, Wonder Woman’s first appearance was in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) but it is not her origin. Her origin is in her own movie, Wonder Woman (2017). It is where we see her go from the naive Amazonian girl to the woman who walked across No Man’s Land in her iconic costume for the first time. Another example is Black Widow appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010) we just saw her being an awesome, bad ass spy, yet not a single ounce of her origin was revealed to the audience, she simply was the Black Widow.

Recently Black Panther (2018) has been called a superhero origin movie and I don’t think that’s true. We saw Black Panther’s origin in Captain America: Civil War (2016). We saw T’Challa watch his father die. We saw how hard the tragedy hit him, and how it motivated him into dawning his father’s armor and taking up the mantle of the Black Panther. True, he may not have come fully into his own yet, but he has taken the first steps, and he is a hero. In his own movie we do not get that, we get the continuation of who he was in Civil War, going from the prince who inherited his father’s title, to a king who struggles with the needs of his people as well as the rest of the world as a whole. The same can be said for Peter Parker, who we likewise get an origin of sorts for in Civil War. We as an audience learn his motivations for why he became a hero, and likewise see him dawn the iconic costume for the first time. In his solo film, Spider-Man Homecoming (2017) we simply see the story of the hero and the boy continue.

In both of these instances, we are witnessing a character arc. It seems nowadays people are finding origin stories and character arcs synonymous. A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. This is not an origin story, though it does play a key factor in many of them. In the movie Black Panther, we watch T’Challa become the king Wakanda needs and the man he needs to be. We see the transition of Prince T’Challa to King T’Challa, but not T’Challa himself becoming the Black Panther. We saw that in Civil War. Now, that is an origin. The origin of a prince becoming a king, not the origin of a man becoming a hero.

The whole point of the Black Panther film was for us to see the culture of Wakanda, as well as the different views several characters have on how Wakanda should be led. It was a story about family, about how both T’Challa and Killmonger lived different lives and saw how their own people were treated in different ways. It is not however, an origin story. We don’t get to see him suit up for the first time, or find out the motivation behind why he does what he does. We saw both of those already in Civil War. Black Panther is a story that shows the stepping stones of T’Challa’s development and growth as a character.

A hero’s origin is very often where the driving force behind their character is established. It is the point where the character’s moral core crystallizes. It is the point where they dawn their iconic colors. The point where they truly become the hero they are meant to be. With Peter Parker, it was when he learned that ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ With Batman, it was the moment when he decided that no other 8-year-old should have to live through the same tragedy that he did. With T’Challa, it was a lesson he learned all the way back in Civil War, that to be a good ruler, he has to be selfless. He learned that ultimately, his decisions effected those around him, and that even when doing something that he perceived to be right, it could still lead to ruinous consequences for those around him. When he first set out as the Black Panther, it was on a quest for vengeance. By the end of the film however, he sees how vengeance, even when justified, can tear a people apart. He sees it tear the Avengers apart and realizes that he must set his own personal wants aside for the greater good. We see echoes of this in Black Panther.

T’Challa sees the desires of his people, the desire to continue the isolationist traditions of their past, and realizes that it is ultimately harmful to the world around them. He sets aside those desires and brings Wakanda fully onto the world stage, becoming a force for the greater good. That being said, is this a strong character arc? Yes. His shattered view of his father as a perfect king, and the rejection of the decisions his father made in the past are incredibly well done. Is this T’Challa’s first solo outing? Yes, and it is a good one. The world of Wakanda is fascinating and compelling, and I’m eager to see more of it. Now, is it an origin? No. This is not T’challa’s beginning as a hero, just another step on his journey.