Do I have to say *spoilers* for Black Panther? I mean – if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re probably not a Marvel fan and just stumbled onto this blog by accident, but I am going to probably spoil it for you badly.
Wait! Wait! Come back! There’s value here! Really!
First off, I am going to admit that I am a Marvel fan. I am going to try to be objective about this, but I make no promises.
The first time I watched the movie – I had a typical fanboy response. I loved it. I loved that the T’Challa’s main arc was started in an earlier film and what we got from Black Panther was the second act. His first act happened a whole movie ago! The third act was a movie after this one, wrapping up T’Challa’s redemption and forgiveness arc. For the story minded fans (like me), this was a great reward for paying attention to what was going on in the MCU. Even the Black Panther movie itself had three acts (T’Challa’s ascent to the throne, his fall and his subsequent reclamation), like all heroic movies have nowadays. If Joseph Campbell even gets a 1% royalty from the use of his formula, that man is stinking rich.
For those of you who might not know what I am writing about, Joseph Campbell examined myths from different places and different times and came up with what he calls The Monomyth. Every heroic tale from long ago has a pattern to it. While Mr. Campbell uses Hindu mythology in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we can see it clearly in that old, old epic Star Wars.
I’m not going into deep, deep detail about the Heroic Cycle. Just go out and buy Hero with a Thousand Faces. If you’re a storyteller, or interested in how stories are told, then this is the book for you. If you can’t get the book, head over to TV Tropes on the Internet and they have a whole subheading dedicated to the Heroic Cycle and all of its variants. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to use very broad strokes for this.
The first step is always the Call to Adventure. Going with the Black Panther, we had his call to adventure in Captain America: Civil War with the death of T’Chaka. The Call to Adventure is never pretty. It’s not supposed to be. Its purpose is to force us out of our comfort zone into the wide world. Sure – Luke Skywalker’s call to adventure was the hologram, but what got him out the door was the death of his aunt and uncle. T’Challa would have been happy to be the Prince of Wakanda for another ten for fifteen years, but that would have been a bad movie (Black Panther: Breakfast is Cold). He had to be pushed on the path and it took The Winter Soldier to do it.
You know who else had a Call to Adventure?
Like I said, the Call is ruthless. Erik’s call was the death of his father at the hands of the King T’Chaka. If that hadn’t happened, Erik never would have done all the things he dd to get to the point where he was Killmonger…which brings us to the next big step.
Finding the Mentor.
The Mentor is the one who provides the Hero with the Boon or the Item to be carried with him on the journey. In Star Wars, the Mentor is Obi-Wan and the Item is the lightsaber. With T’Challa, everything is laid out for him easy-peasy. He had Zuri to guide him through the ceremony where he talked to his father in the Ancestral Plain. With Killmonger, the Mentor comes in two parts. The training comes from the biggest mentor of all: The U.S. Government. They give him the warrior’s skillset and the intellectual’s wisdom (Navy SEAL and M.I.T. – literally ‘go hard or go home’). The boon comes from the other half of the Mentor: Ulysses Klaue. The boon, unfortunately for Klaue, is his dead body. This is also where we begin the next part of the Heroic cycle. For Killmonger, this is also Crossing the Threshold. This is a point of no return for the Hero. Everything he’s learned and done has led him to this point. He and T’Challa must now Enter the Underworld.
Entering the Underworld is exactly what it is. The Hero must enter a place of darkness and despair to find and defeat The Dragon – otherwise known as the villain or the protagonist. With T’Challa, this is after his second fight at the waterfall which is a mirror to the first fight. The first fight with M’Baku is at the height of his story. The second fight? Not so much, but the hero must fall before he rises. You can’t fall much farther than death.
In the Ancestral Plane, he meets and defeats his Dragon, and this the strength of this movie. T’Challa’s villain isn’t Killmonger. The Black Panther’s Dragon is him accepting two things: that he is suddenly King (honestly, who among us is ready to deal with the death of a parent?) and that the man and King he revered was at the end of the day just a normal man like the rest of us. A man who made mistakes and never fixed them. That was T’Challa’s Underworld, his decision in trying to make things right and foregoing death was his battle. He could have stayed behind with his father and ancestors, let others clean up the mess. Instead, he makes the right choice and comes back.
For Killmonger, Entering the Underworld is more of a figurative event. You might think it’s when he’s in the mines and fighting T’Challa. That’s the climax. The real descent begins in the throne room and challenges T’Challa for the throne and mantle. His descent, however, almost brings down Wakanda with him. The fight on the Waterfall is him Defeating the Dragon – with T’Challa being the embodiment of Killmonger’s Dragon which is the nobility that killed his father and abandoning him to the United States. The fight in the mine is another fight for T’Challa against his Dragon, again it being embodied in Killmonger. The dragon this time is the sentiment that Wakanda needs to assert itself on the world scene in a violent fashion. The end of this fight is T’Challa Returning Home.
Returning Home is the Hero coming back with wisdom or power to use for the good of his immediate environment. In Star Wars – Luke has gone through the Underworld in the Death Star, witnessed the death of his Mentor and Defeated his Dragon (Darth Vader is indeed the Dragon of the whole series, but the Death Star is the Dragon of his movie. Vader doesn’t really get Dragon status until the second movie) and Returns Home with the power and the knowledge of the Force. With Black Panther, he Returns Home (breaking the civil war and restoring order) with Power (he has the last heart-shaped flower in him, so he is also the last Black Panther, which is also symbolic of the old world that’s left behind) and Wisdom (what Wakanda does has ramifications for the world beyond their borders) to use them for the betterment of the nation of Wakanda, and the world at large.
Killmonger…well…his is a bit more complicated. While his material goal of supplying weapons and sparking a revolution failed, his other goal was far simpler: getting Wakanda to take its place on the world stage. He Returned Home with wisdom of what happens in Wakanda doesn’t always stay in Wakanda. His goal was achieved at the cost of his life, but being a hero means that sometimes you must make a sacrifice. He won, and he got his reward to see a Wakandan sunset. The tragedy is that even in death, he couldn’t let go of the hatred (from imdb.com):
T’Challa: We can still heal you…
Erik Killmonger: Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.
Everything gets wrapped up, T’Challa shares his wisdom and his nation. WE watched two heroes – fighting for opposing reasons – reach their goals. Black Panther is a great film, certainly one of the best Marvel films to come out. Its greatness comes from the fact that they changed the conventions of movie story telling and it paid off. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and not just in Marvel.
Wow – I think that’s my longest post ever. Next time, I’ll try not to run off at the mouth. Please consider the books on your right as they were written by friends far more talented than I am or consider getting me a nice cup of coffee with the kofi link. Thank you all for listening and I wish you well.
p.s. – still meeting deadlines! Huzzah for me!