Marvel's Black Panther rules. Literally

As Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman -- known for playing characters forging new ground -- takes on another trailblazing role.

Chadwick Boseman has made a career playing pioneers who've had to fight to make their way in the world. In "42," he showcased the quiet dignity of baseball's first black major league player, Jackie Robinson. In "Get On Up," he gave us the man behind the music legend James Brown. And in this year's "Marshall," he brings life to Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, during his crusade for civil rights early in his career.

So it's no surprise Boseman, 40, would play another trailblazer -- T'Challa or Black Panther, the first black mainstream comic book hero, created in 1966 by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. In Marvel Studios' "Black Panther," which hits theaters in February, Boseman plays the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the world's most technologically advanced, and secretive, country.

T'Challa rules a country grappling with whether to make its presence known to the world and whether to allow in outsiders, eager to exploit its cache of vibranium, a strong, vibration-absorbing metal used to create Black Panther's suit. At the same time, he has to fend off enemies who want to remove him from the throne.

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"Everybody has heard the line, 'It's hard for a good man to be king,'" the actor tells me. "Sometimes you have to do bad things or you maybe need to do bad things so there's justice, so there's peace."

Boseman and I had two conversations this summer, in which he talked about creating a new role model for kids, how "Black Panther" may get people to rethink women in tech, and why he's a cautious fan of smart technologies. Here's an edited transcript of our conversations.

When we saw Black Panther in "Captain America: Civil War," he had become king of Wakanda after seeking to avenge his father's death. You've called him an antihero. Why is that?
Boseman: He has the attributes of a hero, but has difficult decisions, difficult choices. Sometimes there's no right answer. Everybody has heard the line, "It's hard for a good man to be king." I think there's a sense of all the complications of being a good leader. At times it feels like "The Godfather." It's complicated to do what's right. It's complicated to follow the traditions. It's complicated to do something new. It's complicated when you have to deal with who should live and who should die.

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Mark Mann

Sometimes you have to do bad things or you maybe need to do bad things so there's justice, so there's peace.

So like "The Godfather," it's a story of people trying to figure out a place for themselves in a complex world? What kind of a movie is this to you?
Boseman: It is definitely a superhero movie. There are going to be action scenes, and some stuff is going to blow up. [laughs]

The thing I love about Marvel in general is that they deal with people. They deal with the human being first: Who is inside the suit? Who is the person that obtained this power or this ability?

This movie is about how you use power. What do you do when you get power? In this case, you're talking about someone taking the throne. But all superhero movies are about a person who has extreme power. They can disappear. They do tricks or they can jump really high. Whatever it is, that ability gives them an advantage. The only difference between a hero and the villain is that the villain chooses to use that power in a way that is selfish and hurts other people.

Black Panther tank top

Mark Mann

What do you like about this character?
Boseman: I love that he thinks about other people. He's not afraid to hear wise counsel. I think there is some fear of being wrong. I identify with that, with his plight, his personality. And I love him because the fantasy of playing a ruler -- you never get to do that. You never get to explore what that is. It's fun having power and having a say in what happens to the people around you.

Black Panther is notable for being the first black superhero in mainstream comics, and now the star of a big-budget action film. You've said this is a good moment in history for this movie to be made. Why?
Boseman: It's just this tremendous opportunity, not just for me but for all of us really to get out of our boxes. It's not just black people getting out of their boxes. Everybody is excited about the opportunity to do something that we should have already done. People are excited about seeing new stuff, but I think they're extra excited about seeing stuff they should have seen already.

It pulls from various ideologies. It pulls from the blacks-in-science idea, from a nationalist idea, it pulls from a collective-world idea. There's something that will influence people in a particular way. It took all of this time to come to fruition in a larger way, but now the world is right, the world is able to receive that. It's just a special thing.

When they call you and say, "So you want to play Black Panther?" if you know what Black Panther is, there's no way in the world you're going to say no because there's a lot of opportunity for magic to happen.

Chadwick Boseman

Mark Mann

Were you a comic book fan when you were a kid?
Boseman: Not when I was a kid. Unfortunately for some reason that didn't come into my sphere. But in college, that's when I first was put on to Black Panther. Even before I got the role, there was the idea I would love to play that one day.

Did you miss having role models like Black Panther when you were growing up?
Boseman: You don't know what you're missing if you haven't experienced it. People of African descent, most of us grew up accepting and loving Spider-Man. I still love Spider-Man. I still love the Incredible Hulk. I still have those characters that were white role models, superheroes, heroes -- whatever you want to call it. You basically had no choice but to accept those. You might have created other superheroes in sports or in politics, but there was never that renowned, widely accepted superhero in the same way.

But you don't know if you've never experienced it. In the same way, kids now [won't] say, "There will never be a black president." There are kids that that's all they know.

And now you're a role model and an action figure.
Boseman: I love it. You see how much it means. There was one kid [fighting cancer] who used the Black Panther as sort of his inspiration. He saw himself as a Wakandan, he saw himself as having the spirit of Wakanda in his fight. The fact that he chose you, that's the world he lives in. It does mean a lot.

What do you think it says that Black Panther was created in 1966 by two white men -- Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby?
Boseman: Yes, the idea came from Stan Lee, and it came at a time ironically that the totem of the panther was actually part of our revolutionary spirit. It was just something right about that time that these men were on that wavelength. What I think it speaks to is the fact that Stan Lee is just open enough to catching the revolutionary spirit, even as a white man.

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Mark Mann

You spent a lot of time thinking about how the king of an advanced African nation speaks, specifically your accent, your intonation. Tell us about it.
Boseman: People think about how race has affected the world. It's not just in the States. Colonialism is the cousin of slavery. Colonialism in Africa would have it that, in order to be a ruler, his education comes from Europe. I wanted to be completely sure that we didn't convey that idea because that would be counter to everything that Wakanda is about. It's supposed to be the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. If it's supposed to not have been conquered -- which means that advancement has happened without colonialism tainting it, poisoning the well of it, without stopping it or disrupting it -- then there's no way he would speak with a European accent.

If I did that, I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is and what being royal or presidential is. Because it's not just about him running around fighting. He's the ruler of a nation. And if he's the ruler of a nation, he has to speak to his people. He has to galvanize his people. And there's no way I could speak to my people, who have never been conquered by Europeans, with a European voice.

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Describe Wakanda to people who don't know anything about Black Panther.
Boseman: It's a utopia. It's not just an African utopia -- it's a utopia. It's a place where spirituality and science do not war with each other.

Black Panther is surrounded by strong women. There's a long-running debate in the tech industry about whether women are smart enough to be in tech.
Boseman: Do they really think that women are not smart enough? [laughs] Women are so much smarter than men most of the time. [laughs] It's crazy to think that you go to work and all of a sudden you get smarter. When you go home, your wife is obviously smarter than you. [laughs] She gives better directions. She can multitask better. You know you can't beat her, whatever it is. It's like, "I'm not going to argue with any of that." Your woman is always smarter. She can catch you in your lies. [laughs]

Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong'o, rounds a corner with Princess Shuri, played by Letitia Wright.

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o, left) rounds a corner with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), whom Boseman calls the "Tony Stark of Wakanda."

Marvel Studios

You've said that Letitia Wright, who plays your sister Princess Shuri in this movie, will change people's perception of women in tech. How?
Boseman: If anyone doesn't think there's a place for women in tech, it's completely demolished in this movie.

Her role is the most important. In the comic book, T'Challa is a scientist and a king, but my sister is the whiz kid. She is the one with that gift. She's the Tony Stark of Wakanda. She's witty, she's cool, she's funny. Now, T'Challa is good in science too, but she's the whiz. That's the way the story's been told forever. T'Challa is technologically sound. He's a scientist as well, but she's the minister of technology.

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When you think about the most technologically advanced society, what do you imagine?
Boseman: For me, technology is not about gadgets. Technology is essentially your ability to enhance your lifestyle beyond the norm. What I would love to see is for technology and nature to find a way to merge. If that happens in our society, we will have gone to a different place and we can advance the species.

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Mark Mann

What do you mean?
Boseman: If we're going to build a rocket to go to outer space and go to the moon, how do we do that in a way where it doesn't destroy the Earth? How do we build weapons that won't destroy the Earth? Or the better way, how do you live in a society that doesn't need weapons at all? How can we advance in this computer age without having landfills filled with the parts from those things? That to me, that's advanced.

Are you a gadget guy? Do you have a smart house?
Boseman: I don't have a smart house. My house is very dumb. [laughs] I do use my phone often -- I have no choice. I'm not one of those guys who walks around with a flip phone who doesn't want to be connected. There are times when I'm tech-friendly and there are times when I personally do want to shut everything off because I'm more creative when I shut off.

Looking forward to self-driving cars?
Boseman: I'm not so keen on letting my car drive itself. But I like the idea that it can catch me if I sleep. Even simple things like the fact that we have apps where we can call cars for ourselves instead of getting in the car and driving drunk. I love that. That's really dope stuff.