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Black Panther, TV Star

Are you ready for BLACK PANTHER this weekend?

I can’t remember the last time there was this much excitement for a new Marvel Studios film, maybe going all the way back to the premiere of THE AVENGERS. While I can’t wait to see what director Ryan Coogler has in store for us with the Panther’s first solo big-screen adventure, it’s hard to believe that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation didn’t even make it to any sort of television or film project until 1995, some 29 years after the character’s first appearance in 1966 in the pages of Fantastic Four #51.

T’Challa made his television debut in the second season of the syndicated Marvel Action Hour Fantastic Four animated series, which had been completely revamped with a more serious and comics-faithful approach after a fairly disastrous first season. In the episode “Prey of the Black Panther,” written by Glenn Leopold, viewers are introduced to the Black Panther as he breaks into the Baxter Building and lures the Fantastic Four into following him to his African homeland of Wakanda, where he splits up the team and hunts them individually, in an attempt to prove himself worthy of the mantle of the Black Panther. All of this is adapted fairly faithfully from Fantastic Four #51 and 52 by Lee and Kirby, with the exception of the leaving out of Johnny’s college buddy Wyatt Wingfoot. Once the FF defeat T’Challa, he apologizes and explains himself, as he’s preparing to battle the nefarious Ulysses Klaw, who had killed T’Challa’s father years ago in his quest to steal Wakanda’s vibranium to activate his sonic weaponry. The Fantastic Four and the Black Panther team up to take down Klaw and restore peace to Wakanda.

There’s a lot going on in this episode, packing all kinds of exposition, locations and flashbacks into only 20 minutes. They even manages to squeeze in a brief appearance of Klaw in his much freakier solid-sound form, which I always loved in the comics but kind of doubt we’ll ever see Andy Serkis sporting in any of the movies. Giving the whole affair some gravitas is the performance of Keith David as T’Challa, whose crazy deep basso profundo stands out against the more “Saturday-morning-cartoon” style voices of the rest of the cast. This was a fine, respectful introduction to the character for folks who’d never read the comics, even if it did feel a little rushed.

The character got a lot more focus and screen time in the outstanding 2010 animated series Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which over the course of its 52 episodes provided probably the deepest cuts into Marvel history and continuity of any Marvel TV or film project to date. In its fourth episode, “The Man in the Ant Hill,” written by Christopher Yost, viewers were treated not only to an introduction to the villainous Ulysses Klaw (who seems to have hired the cast of Predator as his henchmen, if you look closely), but also to a heaping helping of T’Challa’s backstory, as we’re witness to his father’s murder at the hands of Klaw and M’Baku the Man-Ape, with M’Baku taking over rule of Wakanda.

Seven episodes later, Black Panther would get the spotlight again in “Panther’s Quest,” a loose adaptation of Avengers #52, in which T’Challa (this time voiced by James C. Mathis III, who gives the Panther a regal yet steely vibe in his performance) approaches the newly formed Avengers for assistance in reclaiming the throne of Wakanda from M’Baku, and wind up facing the Grim Reaper, Klaw, and Hydra forces there as well. Screenwriter Paul Giacoppo does a great job of immediately making T’Challa seem like a formidable ally to the Avengers, without downplaying the rest of the team. Even more recent additions to the Black Panther mythology like the Dora Milaje (the Wakandan female royal bodyguards) are included here, and by episode’s end T’Challa has defeated M’Baku, reclaimed the throne and joined the Avengers in a ffort to bring Wakanda out of seclusion. It’s great stuff.

The Black Panther has been getting a lot of screen time in the most recent seasons of the current Avengers Assemble animated series currently airing in Disney XD, but for my money if you’re looking for animated adventures of T’Challa, your best bet is Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which featured him consistently and well throughout its run. Do yourself a favor and go buy both seasons. You can thank me later.

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