If you’re one of the millions of moviegoers who saw Black Panther, you probably remember at least one scene where T'Challa does a wicked flip and delivers a skull-cracking kick to a bad guy’s face. You know, typical superhero stuff.
But what makes these acrobatic fight scenes possible? I used to think it was just fancy wire work, a camera trick, or some kind of special effect. Then I found out about martial arts tricking, or just “tricking” for short.
Tricking is what you get when martial arts, gymnastics, and breakdancing come together in a gorgeous, explosive display of kicks, flips, and twists. A cousin of capoeira and freerunning, tricking is not intended for real-life combat—who’s going to throw a backflip in the middle of a street fight, honestly?—but it does bring our favorite cinematic superheroes to life.
In fact, the guy in the Black Panther suit is often not Chadwick Boseman but Daniel Graham, a world-class tricker and stunt double. In 2012, he won the Red Bull-sponsored HKPK World Tricking Championships in Las Vegas, meaning he’s certifiably worthy of the suit. Watching him trick is like observing the human body’s equivalent of fireworks.
The roots of tricking can be traced to the mid-90s with the birth of Xtreme Martial Arts (XMA), a type of performative martial arts that combined kicking techniques with flips. Before long, the exclusive practice of these new moves, or “tricks,” broke away from traditional forms of self-defense to become an independent sport and art form. Thanks to an explosion of online videos and tutorials, tricking grew into an underground, worldwide phenomenon.
I got into tricking by way of XMA. And when I found out that two elite trickers worked as fight choreographers for Black Panther, I asked them to help me finally tell the world about how tricking turns real-life human beings into the kicking, flipping superheroes we see on the silver screen.
Matt Emig, 30
Emig has been tricking for 20 years and doing stunts for five years. For Black Panther , he was on the Fight Team, choreographing fights and training the actors and stuntmen. He was also the stunt double for Martin Freeman.
VICE: So how did you first get into tricking?
Emig: I was competing [in XMA,] and tricking was just kind of developing. They started to come out with instructional videos, and the night shows at competitions would have special demos where people would showcase these moves. I just fell in love with it.
How did you make the transition into doing stunts?
Because I was competing internationally, I had a lot of friends from all over. A few friends came out to LA and started doing stunts, and I wanted to give it a shot, so I came out. A few years later, I'm in Black Panther.
How has tricking prepared you for a career doing stunts?
Hollywood is always looking for something new and something fresh, and I feel like tricking is one of those things. The superhero genre is in right now—it's the new Western. So if you're at a superhero movie, what do you want to see? Some cool acrobatic, flipping, kicking movements. Then you have Danny Graham, who’s one of the best trickers in the world, playing Black Panther—it just makes sense.
What was a scene in Black Panther that utilized tricking?
At the end, there's a scene where Danny throws one guy, and then he runs up, kicks off this big dude’s chest, spins around, does a cheat 900, and kicks a guy in the head. He [was wearing] the Panther suit with the helmet on, so vision and breathing were a bit more challenging, but that was all real. So props to Danny for having the accuracy to 900 someone with a controlled kick to the head, and also to the stuntman that took the hit.
What is something unique that tricking brings to the table when it comes to making these superhero movies?
Tricking is flipping, kicking, and twisting all in one, and I feel like that describes most superheroes. They don't just kick somebody in the head—they'll jump up, spin around two times, and kick them in the head. I think it's cool that you could be a tricker, or a martial artist, and train to do these moves and techniques. Then you're almost like a superhero yourself.
Micah Karns, 24
Karns has been tricking for over seven years and doing stunts for five-and-a-half years. For Black Panther , he joined Emig on the Fight Team, choreographing fights and training the actors and stuntmen.
VICE: How did you first get into tricking?
Karns: I started at the martial arts school I went to. It was a very traditional school for Shuri-ryū karate, and on the weekends, we had an extreme performance class. That involved tricking, and then after watching YouTube videos, it just blasted off from there.
And how did you get into the action film industry?
A lot of my teachers from my karate studio all moved to LA to pursue stunts. School was never really my thing, and I felt like my best option was to follow my teachers, so I moved out to California when I was 18.
Most of the martial artists that get into stunts try to do fights, but tricking really sets some of the guys apart. Sometimes the fighters will need wires, whereas trickers can do it without the wires and then still continue on with the choreography.
Do you think that these superhero movies and TV shows would be possible without tricking?
No, tricking definitely adds to the superheroes, especially the ones that are meant to be nimble, like Spider-Man or Black Panther.
I got to trick a little bit in Daredevil—I think I ended up throwing a sideswipe. And then I did motion capture for Pacific Rim Uprising. A lot of the robot moves had tricking in them.
Can you remember a scene from Black Panther where Graham threw a trick?
Yeah, there's one part when Black Panther is fighting a bunch of armed guys in the jungle. He ended up throwing a trick called a b-twist side kick, which is a butterfly twist and then a side kick afterwards. He blasts this dude in the chest, and he goes flying.
On the day [of the shoot], we brought in local stunt guys from Atlanta, and we placed them in the right spots. It was just them leaving their chests open and letting Danny destroy them. A lot of the characters were very grounded—only Black Panther and Killmonger were acrobatic. It helped that Danny was the double for Black Panther, because we just gave him the choreography and let him do his thing. He added the tricks in, and it was fucking awesome.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.