Since release of Iron Man, Marvel Studios gave more stories of heroism and triumph on the big screen than comic book readers thought possible. The latest film not only introduces audiences to a country we have been anticipating since Age of Ultron but also to a man who may be the only of his kind so far. Many will dismiss the idea as me riding the wave of hype around the first predominately black casted film, wanting to sound progressive for the ideas addressed in the movie, and that this overreaction will die down after I look at the film objectively. Well . . . I will demonstrate just how universal and pioneering Black Panther will remain long after February is over.
Often there’s very little time reserved to get to know the villains in MCU movies. “I want to take over the world/destroy these people because I can” is the standard for most Big Bads. Which is fine. It happens in most of the Great Stories. But some of us have become numb to the mustache twirling caricatures of real life. We’re looking for a villain whom we kind of can’t blame for doing what they’re doing, as much as we would prefer it to be monochromatic.
In Black Panther, we learn the heart-breaking story of how Erik (Killmonger) was orphaned at a young age, learned of his Wakandan heritage, and sought vengeance on those who robbed him of El-Dorado. He lived as part of a marginalized section of society, stigmatized with crime. Killmonger became the antithesis of the peace-monger society of Wakanda. He was indoctrinated by imperialism to think the only way to enact justice on the oppressed was to use the oppressor’s own methods against them. Ironically, by wanting to conquer those who did him wrong, he became them.
As newly crowned king, T’Challa seeks to combat Killmonger’s destructive path by keeping Wakanda isolated and out of global affairs. He fears if people knew what they had, there would wars without end. But this pacifist ideology isn’t enough. T’Challa is defeated in the Duel on the Waterfall, and he makes the greatest evolution as a character because of it.
There is a step Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey called Atonement with the Father. This is the moment when the hero is shed of their juvenile self by the patriarch of their life and inducted into adulthood, independence. “The traditional idea of initiation,” writes Campbell, “combines an introduction of the candidate into the techniques, duties, and prerogatives of his vocation with a radical readjustment of his emotional relationship to the parental images. The mystagogue (father or father-substitute) is to entrust the symbols of office only to a son who has been effectually purged of all inappropriate infantile cathexes” (The Hero’s Journey 115). After T’Challa’s rescue and drinking of the heart-shaped herb, he experiences a radical readjustment when he confronts his father about not taking Erik with him after he killed his father. He is furious and disappointed in his father’s oversight because he always sought to emulate the man who was mentor, father, and prudent king. Campbell intends this to be a moment where the father is a point of good to navigate all future endeavors from. Black Panther turns this on its head and offers the hero a choice to be different from his father, not a foil of him.
The liberty to choose one’s future is what makes Black Panther so inspiring as a writer. T’Challa and Erik embody the Taoist symbol of the yin-yang with an African twist of purple and gold instead of black and white. Their battle of ideologies and their very appearance align with the traditional dualism of many of the Greats. Therefore, we expect T’Challa to emerge victorious after a considerable struggle–and T’Challa does struggle! We expect order to be restored. The vibranium technology to be safely kept in the hands of people who would not abuse it.
Campbell tells us during the Atonement with the Father that the hero “is competent, consequently, now to enact himself the role of the initiator, the guide, the sun door, through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to an experience of the majesty of cosmic law” (116). The passing from illusions of “good” and “evil” is put to great effect in Black Panther. After subduing Killmonger, T’Challa doesn’t maintain the status quo, nor does he begin the Wakandan Empire. T’Challa and Erik’s ideologies were too far from the centre, and centre is precisely where T’Challa becomes the very embodiment of a true hero.
T’Challa announces that Wakanda will no longer be neutral. Instead they will help the world with their technology. He takes the middle path and learns from his adversary. Yin-yang, good-evil, black-white, pacifism-militarism, isolationism-imperialism are fragmented. Both extremes are diluted down to their cores and combined. Turns out both sides can win if one is willing to sacrifice part of their worldview and compromise with the opposition’s. This is what makes Black Panther unique. It shows us the power of the middle path, the power of diplomacy. It should be a continued reference for creators to duplicate in their own stories. It’s not just a fad. Despite the film’s flaws, it shows the fulfillment of the Hero’s Journey.