The following article contains spoilers for Black Panther.
In the realm of superhero media, the pitting of upstanding, just, can-do-no-wrong heroes against corrupt, irredeemably cruel, kicks-kittens-for-fun villains seems to be the norm. The stereotype of characters who fall very neatly on either a “good” or a “bad” side have plagued this genre for years, and this isn’t helped by lackluster comic books and movies that rest on their laurels and contently rehash the same tropes and storylines again and again. Black Panther is not one of those movies. Black Panther is a revolution in every aspect: its incredible cast, its setting and costume design, and most importantly, its storytelling.
Black Panther’s themes are both striking and layered; what it means to be patriotic, the effects of legacy, reconciliation, and struggle between responsibility and power are only some of the issues that the film touches upon. With its limited time, Black Panther takes advantage of the resources it has at its disposal and pits its characters against each other in conflicts that are simultaneously personal and philosophical. Every heated argument has a moral quandary lurking under the surface; every fight becomes a clash of ideas, a discourse.
Black Panther’s main characters each embody their respective stances and beliefs, making them several shades more nuanced than what most people may have expected from them. After all, who walks into a superhero movie expecting to be confronted by themes of colonialism and slavery?
But of course, the themes are quite deliberate. As confirmed by its director, its main cast of actors, and almost anyone who’s watched the movie, Black Panther is about Africa. It is unapologetically African from the specific accents the characters speak with to the design of Wakanda, and it isn’t one to shy away from the issues that real African-American people face. While Wakanda exists as an isolated and utopian version of Africa, one of the central themes of the film is reconciling the relationship between Wakanda and the other Africans who were met with a very different fate. At the center of this conflict stands the film’s protagonist, T’Challa, and his antagonist, N’Jadaka, also known as Killmonger.
Killmonger serves as a representation and embodiment of the righteous anger felt by oppressed black people around the world. What’s particularly interesting about him as a character is that his personal emotional storyline parallels the large scale war that he wants to incite. What makes Killmonger work well as an antagonist is that his motivations and goals are equal to that of the protagonist’s in the sense that they carry the same ideological weight and have the same stakes. We are long past the days when all that supervillains wanted was to “take over the world” and it was up to superheroes to stop them and maintain the status quo.
In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler once wrote that “every villain is the hero of his or her own story,” and Killmonger certainly fulfills that criteria. In his own narrative, he is the revolutionary who strives for change, to right the wrongs of the past. To him, violence is a means to an end, and it’s justified when considering the history of violence in colonialization and slavery. A good antagonist believes that their perspective of the world is correct, and it is usually up to the protagonist to prove them wrong.
Standing opposite Killmonger is T’Challa, who begins the film as Wakanda’s new king after the death of his father, T’Chaka. Despite being the protagonist and hero of the film’s main conflict, T’Challa isn’t without his faults. His dedication to Wakanda’s status quo and his choice to follow in his father’s footsteps are challenged by Nakia and later by Killmonger, but he doesn’t change his mindset until a critical turning point within the film’s story.
According to T’Challa’s actor, Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa and Killmonger are “two sides of the same coin,” and this analysis could not be more true. At their cores, the two men both want to better the world. But whereas Killmonger seeks to achieve that through violence, T’Challa strikes a balance between Killmonger’s and T’Chaka’s philosophies by initiating peaceful support for the marginalized by the end of the film. What makes their conflict so compelling is all the ways that they are similar in addition to the crucial points where they differ.
Black Panther is not just a “superhero movie.” It’s a movie about the effects of colonialism. It’s a movie about afrofuturism. It’s a movie about the responsibilities that people in power bear, and the beginnings of a short-lived revolution. There are no heroes and villains, only people with differing ideals coming into conflict with one another. Every punch thrown has the weight of ideas supporting it, and each of those ideas has merit in its own right. There’s been an outpouring of analysis of every facet of Black Panther, and that’s just a testament to the strength of its writing along with everything else that goes into making a movie.
Of course, Black Panther isn’t short on cool fight scenes and well-choreographed car chases either, so it’s a delightful ride even if you don’t want to grapple with complicated themes. Its well-crafted balance of action, humor, and philosophical ideas make it one of the more incredible movies to have come out in recent times, and I would highly recommend seeing it in theaters while you still can.