BIG cats are regal animals. Positioned atop the food chain these deathly hunters provoke fear and demand respect. Just ask (if you could) the severed head of the South African poacher who earlier this week was eaten alive by a lion.
The reverence big cats command (at least from sensible humans) is why they have appeared so prominently through mythology, literature, and now on film. A history of fictional big cats that takes us from the Hindu sacred tiger Dawon, the Egyptian lion goddess Sekmet, all the way through to the whimsies of Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger.
This week a modern big cat – of the superhero variety – is set to dominate the big-screen. Marvel’s Black Panther finally claws his way onto celluloid in meaningful fashion following years of will-he-won’t-he speculation and a warmly-greeted auxiliary appearance in The Avengers: Civil War.
The Black Panther, like superheroes before him, assumes many of the physical attributes of his inspired animal. Just as Spiderman takes on web-swinging athleticism and Batman embodies a stealthy nocturnal brutalism, the Black Panther boasts immaculate agility and super hearing capabilities. In addition, the prestige of becoming ‘the panther’ is part of his duty as King of Wakanda.
The Black Panther’s royal position sees him follow in the proud paw-steps of other fictional big cats. Mufasa in The Lion King and Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia both ruled their respective kingdoms with a pride, authority and wisdom that made them noble and respected leaders.
Film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film iconically tapped into the magisterial aura attached to big cats when it made Leo the Lion their mascot. What could be a more striking signifier of the cinema’s spectacle than a screen-dominating, roaring lion?
Mayor Lionheart (voiced by JK Simmons) also takes a position of authority in Disney’s 2016 film Zootopia. In this anthropomorphic world, the lion is the obvious candidate to rule over a population of animals including foxes, sloughs and bunny rabbits. That being said, the lion’s deeply rooted association with dignity make him the perfect character for a surprise evil twist at the end of the film.
Big cats famously jostle for power in The Jungle Book. Shere Khan, a snarling tiger, rules the jungle with a violent autocracy that was later mirrored by Scar’s regime in The Lion King. In opposition to Shere Khan is a humble panther named Bagheera who helps the orphaned human Mogwali bring an end to this jungle dictatorship and return to his people.
The type of fear inspired by big cats like Shere Khan and Scar is utilised to symbolic effect in Life of Pi. Unfortunate youngster Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger he later comes to name Richard Parker.
In this instance, the agitated tiger acts as a metaphor for a deeper inner struggle that faces Pi during this perilous journey. Richard comes to represent a potentially fatal animalistic aggression and fear inside of Pi. He must learn how to tame the metaphorical tiger – or be ripped to pieces.
Big cats have not always been commanding on film. In The Wizard of Oz, such big cat tropes are inverted as Dorothy encounters the Cowardly Lion. Without courage, the lion then becomes a figure of haplessness in this uncanny realm.
The Pink Panther, who became a big-screen feature somewhat by chance, also diverts from usual big cat norms. Instead of prowling power, the Pink Panther acts as an animated trickster who contrasts with the film’s bumbling protagonist Inspector Clouseau.
Big cats are such impressive and fascinating animals that will always find a place in our storytelling.
The Black Panther’s arrival – in the land of Wakanda – marks the latest big cat to leave an indelible scratch on our minds. I have a feeling this particular big cat, with all its racial undercurrents and its refusal to view things through a predictable Anglo Saxon lens, will prove a roaring success.