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To those unfamiliar with Marvel’s comic book lore, the focus on Vibranium in Avengers: Age of Ultron might have felt as if it came from nowhere and was close to Avatar‘s “Unobtainium” in terms of MacGuffin materials. Little do they know that the fictional material has an important place in the mythology of a future Marvel movie star.
Vibranium made its first appearance in Marvel’s comic book universe as an unnamed “wondrous rocklike fragment” in 1966’s Daredevil No. 13. Readers saw the fragment — which had what was described as “a strange, throbbing quality” — shatter a hammer by canceling out the vibrations that resulted from a blow; not exactly the best science, but certainly a dramatic visual that helped explain what was so special about what was, at the time, called “Anti-Metal.”
Later, it would be explained that what the metal actually does is absorb any vibration, making it almost indestructible, and therefore highly sought-after by supervillains out to create unstoppable weapons of mass destruction. This also explains why Captain America’s shield can withstand blows from Thor’s hammer so easily. (Although it doesn’t explain why it makes a noise when something hits it; absorbing vibrations should work for sounds, too.)
The name “Vibranium” wouldn’t appear for months after the metal’s debut, with Fantastic Four No. 53 establishing both the name and the world’s sole source of “true” Vibranium as the fictional African nation of Wakanda, home of the Black Panther who made his own comic book debut in the previous issue. If the name “Wakanda” sounds familiar, it’s because Age of Ultron also made a point of noting that the country was the world’s only source of the substance.
Age of Ultron also featured Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer who had his own collection of Vibranium; this was a callback to the Fantastic Four storyline that introduced Wakanda, the Black Panther and Vibranium as it’s known today, which featured Klaw as the villain. Whereas Klaw lost his hand to Ultron in the movie, in comic book mythology it’s a young Black Panther who’s responsible; in later appearances, his hand is replaced by a sonic weapon.
The reason for Wakanda’s unique position is that Vibranium is literally out of this world. It’s arrived on a meteorite millennia earlier, bringing with it other radioactive qualities that mutated some of the Wakandan natives, as well as the plant life of the region. The superhuman powers of the Black Panther, in comic book mythology, come as a response to eating certain herbs infected by the radiation.
Vibranium was one of two metals used to form the shield, according to a comic that offered a retconned explanation for why the shield was unbreakable. Then the Adamantium alloy which covered Wolverine’s skeleton was created in an effort to artificially replicate the the properties of Vibranium. But the metal remains most closely identified with the Black Panther and the larger mythology around him.
Although Chadwick Boseman, who will play the Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, may have been absent from Age of Ultron, it’s not entirely wrong to think of the second Avengers movie as an introduction to the character — or, at least, a primer to prepare audiences to leave America and enter a country that doesn’t even exist. Who said this isn’t the Mighty Marvel Age of Foreshadowing?
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