'Black Panther' Set Visit: Everything We Learned On Set

Wakanda doesn't actually exist, and if it did, it'd be located somewhere in Africa. But for a several weeks last winter, it actually set up shop right in Atlanta.

More specifically, it was situated in Pinewood Studios, which is where I and several other journalists found ourselves in February 2017. We'd come to visit the set of Black Panther, which even then felt like one of the most hotly anticipated movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's decade-long history.

We were rewarded with a wealth of information about the film – everything from the inspirations behind the look of Wakanda's Golden City to some juicy details about the central themes that drive the movie.

Black Panther Borrows From the Comics

Although Black Panther is relatively new to the MCU (he made his first onscreen appearance in 2016's Captain America: Civil War) the character has been around in the comics since the 1960s. Like all long-lived superheroes, he's changed time and time again – to reflect whoever was writing or drawing him at any given time, to react to an evolving culture.

Now he's refashioned himself onscreen as the MCU's first leading black superhero. But to take that leap to the screen, the team behind Black Panther had to look to the comic pages.

"I would say the two runs that were most inspirational were the [Christopher] Priest and Ta-Nehisi [Coates] run," producer Nate Moore told us. The visuals were also drawn from the books. "Brian Stelfreeze is an amazing artist and some of his version of Wakanda, and even Wakanda technology, was stuff that we borrowed pretty liberally from."

Wakanda Is Fantastical – But Not By That Much

Wakanda being what it is – which is to say, totally fictional – it could've wound up being just about anything the Black Panther team imagined. The approach they went with was to make the country feel "amazing" yet "grounded."

"What we were very afraid of was making Wakanda almost too Kirby-esque, and by that I mean making it feel almost like they're alien and not human," said Moore. "The truth is they're human. They're just 20 or 25 years ahead of us."

Wakanda got there through a combination of natural resources (it sits atop a rich store of vibranium), technological ingenuity, and deliberate secrecy. It's a country that's never been conquered, largely because it's been careful to present itself to the rest of the world as a place that's not worth conquering.

That's freed up Wakanda to pour their energy into technological advancement – which, in turn, has resulted in a unique culture that combines ancient tradition with cutting-edge modernity.

Black Panther Set Visit

T’Challa Struggles to Be Leader and a Superhero

That's the context in which T'Challa was raised, and that's the context in which he must now rule. Black Panther picks up not long after Civil War left off, which means T'Challa's still mourning the death of his father and settling into his new position as king. To top it all off, his actions as the Black Panther have exposed Wakanda to the rest of the world.

It's a lot for any one person to handle – even one as powerful, as intelligent, and as capable as T'Challa – and the film finds him pulled in a few different directions. "I think that's the big question," said producer Nate Moore. "Can you be a leader for a country and still be a hero? And still look out for the interests of the world when you have a constituency that has a very specific agenda?"

Needless to say, not everyone in Wakanda is pleased with the way that T'Challa is going about resolving that tension. "All of Wakanda is not monolithic," said Moore. "I don't think everybody in Wakanda was super happy that he was out there [in Civil War]. For a country that values its secrecy so much, it was a big deal."

Black Panther Is Part Godfather, Part Bond

That political unrest sends our heroes on an adventure that sounds less like your typical superhero wish-fulfillment fantasy, and more like a mix of power-play drama and jet-setting spy action.

Moore told us that director Ryan Coogler saw Black Panther as an almost Godfather-ish saga, in that it deals with a family organization (in Black Panther's case, the royal court) dealing with a change in leadership. Various factions are vying for power within the country.

Wakanda's internal conflict turns out to have consequences outside the country's borders as well. That's where the Bond influences come in. Moore described Black Panther as a "big globe-trotting epic" – which probably doesn't sound all that crazy, if you've already seen bits of that South Korean casino scene.

The Villains’ Grudges Get Very Personal

Into this world come two villains with two very different, very personal agendas...even if all the cast members are kind of reluctant to say exactly what those agendas are.

The one we've met before is Ulysses Klaue. Since Avengers: Age of Ultron, Andy Serkis explained, has been running around "causing mayhem in the world, on minor and major levels." But he's got a very specific love-hate relationship with Wakanda. "He certainly has discovered things about it than nobody else has," he said. "He's one of the few people who's been into Wakanda, and he reveals quite a lot about it."

Michael B. Jordan plays the film's other villain, Erik Killmonger – though Killmonger himself would never refer to himself as such. Instead, Jordan said, Killmonger would say he's a revolutionary. "I feel like Killmonger is very selfless. I feel like he's looking at the bigger picture."

Whatever that "bigger picture" is (and Jordan wasn't allowed to get much more specific), it's not the same one T'Challa has in mind. "Killmonger sees Wakanda as something that could be used differently than it currently is, and that puts him directly at odds with T'Challa," teased Moore.

Black Panther

The Dora Milaje Are a Force to Be Reckoned With

With so many antagonists gunning for him, it's a good thing T'Challa also has plenty of allies. Unusually for the genre, a lot of them are women.

For starters, there's the Dora Milaje, an elite force of female warriors led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). In the comics, they double as a pool of potential wives for the Wakandan ruler; Moore told us that aspect wouldn't be part of the movie because it's "a little creepy."

One of those soldiers is Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a "war dog" who travels around the world undercover, reporting back to her homeland to help keep it safe.

It's worth pointing out here that even the Dora Milaje aren't immune to political conflict. Nyong'o hinted that her character could find herself torn between her country and her ruler, while Boseman revealed that the soldiers aren't afraid to challenge their king.

T’Challa Relies on His Royal Family

T'Challa's close to his remaining family as well, including his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who offers counsel. And he's got a special place in his heart for his teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who helps him to loosen up a bit.

She, in turn, has a very important role to play in his battle – she's the head of the Wakandan design group, and is the one responsible for all of the most recent upgrades to his Black Panther suit. If T'Challa's the jet-setting Bond, think of her as the Q.

All of these women, from T'Challa's sister to his soldiers, are more than capable of handling themselves. That is to say, none of them are damsel-in-distress types. "That doesn't exist in this movie," said Boseman. "All these characters are strong. Even if it's not a physical prowess, there is a mental prowess."

Black Panther

Black Panther Is a True Standalone (Or So They Claim)

With so much happening in and around Wakanda, you may be wondering how the rest of the MCU factors into the movie. The short answer is that it doesn't. "There are so many characters in the Black Panther world that we wanted to explore, we didn't want to rely on cameos from other movies," said Moore.

The producer added that it was "safe to assume" there would be no appearance by the Winter Soldier, despite the fact that the character has been in Wakanda since the end of Captain America: Civil War.

Still, Black Panther is part of the MCU, and that means the possibility of a connection is always there. Moore conceded that although Black Panther was conceived as a standalone film, it could make some "ripples" that affect other MCU storylines later on. (And with Avengers: Infinity War just around the corner, we're not gonna rule anything out.)

Black Panther Is Inherently Political

As for how Black Panther connects with the rest of our world, Moore acknowledges that the very premise of the movie is "inherently political."

"Just the idea of Wakanda being a nation in Africa that is the most technologically advanced in the world is a political statement without us having to go too much far past that," he said. The film also draws inspiration from cultures all over the African continent, making Black Panther what Moore describes as "a love letter to Africa, which you don't get to see a lot on film."

(In the MCU version of world history, Moore explained, the influence worked the other way – Wakandans were among the first people, and as they spread to other regions, so did their culture.)

That said, Moore noted, Black Panther isn't exactly a message movie – just a relevant one. "In the same way that Captain America: Winter Soldier, without, hopefully, being too textual, was talking about issues that we were all talking about in defense and information-gathering, I think Black Panther will have similar echoes of what's happening."

Yes, the Black Panther Folks Know About #BlackPantherSoLit

If all of this is just getting you more pumped for Black Panther, rest assured your expressions of excitement make their way back to the team. Even Boseman, who purposely tries to distance himself from the conversation, acknowledged that he's seen it.

Nyong'o was more emphatic, saying wryly that "you'd have to be blind not to see" conversations like #BlackPantherSoLit. "It's a lot of pressure on us," she said. More so, even, than her other big Disney franchise. Asked whether Star Wars or Black Panther was more intense, Nyong'o immediately chose the latter.

Moore is well aware that the #BlackPantherSoLit hashtag has been burning up on social media, and he couldn't be more thrilled. "It gets us excited when people are excited. We don't take that for granted," he said. "So when people get as excited as they were getting for Panther, we were like, 'Oh, we're on the right track. This is great!' It's heartening for us."

So keep tweeting – you never know who might be looking. Besides, we've still got 22 days to go. We're going to need something to occupy our time.