Brow Beat

Does Black Panther Say “Vibranium” As Much As Avatar Says “Unobtanium”?

A Slate investigation.

Col. Miles Quaritch from Avatar, played by Stephen Lang, and Andy Serkis’ Klaue from Black Panther.
Col. Miles Quaritch from Avatar, played by Stephen Lang, and Andy Serkis’ Klaue from Black Panther.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Fellman - © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox - All Rights Reserved. and Marvel Studios.

Black Panther is already smashing box office records and earning a level of critical esteem the likes of which we haven’t seen since at least The Dark Knight, but where that 2008 blockbuster was too embarrassed ever to use a word such as Batmobile, Black Panther leans into its source material’s goofy vocabulary. Yes, it raises provocative questions about black liberation and the invention of “Africa” and whether any man has ever looked as beautiful as Michael B. Jordan, but it is also, one must acknowledge, a movie about a man granted performance-enhancing powers courtesy of the “heart-shaped herb” who runs around in a costume made of a fictional metal called “vibranium.”

The 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the first to drop the name of the extraterrestrial miracle metal. (That would be 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, in which the “completely vibration-absorbent” stuff is cited as the material in Cap’s trademark shield.) But it’s arguably the first to wear that name out. The substance is namechecked so frequently in Black Panther that I found myself recalling the way viewers snickered during James Cameron’s Avatar eight years ago whenever someone spoke the name of that movie’s magic metal, unobtanium. (This was probably partly because some of Black Panther’s imagery, particularly in the scenes about the “heart-shaped herb” and “the ancestral plane,” resembles Avatar’s purple-skied bioluminescent jungles.)

Stan Lee, the inventor of so much beloved Marvel hokum, first coined vibranium in 1966. But unobtanium—despite the number of critics who pounced on the word as a handy example of Cameron’s hackery—is legit: not a real material, but a real term, first used by the crewcuts at the Langley Aeronautical Library in the 1950s. Unobtanium is simply a placeholder term representing some hypothetical element capable of performing a given task that engineers have for it, the way X stands in for an unknown value in an equation. (Cameron’s 1995 “scriptment” for what later became Avatar notes that the superconductor’s “joke name of unobtanium has stuck, over the years,” indicating a higher level of self-awareness than Cameron’s detractors generally extend to him.) “Unobtanium” is also, I suspect, an easier thing for an actor to say with a straight face than “Infinity Gauntlet,” though we’ll all find out when Avengers: Infinity War opens in three months.

In a valiant attempt to find out which movie most often invokes the name of its imaginary metal, I revisited both films and counted. I even watched the 178-minute “Extended Collector’s Edition” of Avatar, which runs 16 minutes longer than the 2009 theatrical cut, just in case there was more unobtanium-talk in that version.

What I discovered shocked me. Avatar contains a mere three utterances of Unobtanium. Three! That’s an average of one every 54 minutes in the theatrical release. (Or one every 59 minutes in its extended cut, which contains no further unobtaniums.) Black Panther runs 134 minutes, burns through three vibraniums before we even get to the Marvel Studios logo, and then goes on to average a truly vibration-absorbing vibranium shoutout every five minutes.
(Every five minutes and nine seconds, to be exact.) And while Black Panther may be—OK, is—a stronger, more thoughtful film than Avatar, vibranium is just as goofy a word as unobtanium! Case closed!

Like any diligent math student, I am prepared to show my work: I transcribed all the lines, to the best of my ability. Below, take this as evidence that both films, while they concern different materials, also share a common element: a love of silly words.

All the lines in Black Panther that contain the word vibranium:

1. “Millions of years ago, a meteorite made of vibranium, the strongest metal known, struck the continent of Africa.”

2. “Wakanda used vibranium to develop technology more advanced than any other nation.”

3. “To keep the vibranium safe …”

4. “Klaue stole a quarter-ton of vibranium from us and set off a bomb …”

5. “It’s from Wakanda, and it’s made out of vibranium.
Don’t trip. I’ma take it off your hands for you.”

6. “You’re not telling me that’s vibranium, too, eh?”

7. “Ulysses Klaue plans to sell the vibranium to an American buyer in South Korea tomorrow night.”

8. “The vibranium dates back to the attack on Sokovia …”

9. “And the vibranium?”

10. “Vibranium?”

11. “It’s a vibranium car, you idiot! The bullets won’t penetrate!”

12. “Vibranium.”

13. “Vibranium, yeah. Strongest metal known.”

14. “That’s a nice fairy tale, but Wakanda is a third-world country, and you stole all their vibranium.”

15. “Your father told the U.N. Klaue stole all the vibranium you had.”

16. ”With vibranium weapons, they could overthrow their oppressors in every country!”

17–19. “In its raw form, vibranium is too dangerous to be transported at that speed. So I’ve stabilized it.” “Vibranium is on those trains?” “Vibranium is all around you.”

20. “I’m standing in your house serving justice to a man who stole your vibranium and murdered your people!”

21. “Vibranium!”

22. “It is my responsibility to make certain my people are safe, and that our vibranium stays out of the hands of people like you.”

23. “We’re going to send vibranium weapons out to our War Dogs.”

24. “Our resources, our vibranium, all my designs.”

25. “We both know the power of vibranium!”

All the lines in Avatar featuring the word unobtanium:

1. “This is why we’re here: unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for $20 million per kilo.”

2. “Their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar! Heh heh heh!”

3. “What does hold them up? Grace explained it to me. Some kind of maglev effect, because unobtanium is a superconductor, or something.”

Read more in Slate about Black Panther.

Chris Klimek is a full-time writer and part-time boxing instructor in Washington, D.C.