Last year I wrote a post about the story structure and character arc of Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and thought I go ahead and try the same for Black Panther. Since the post about Wonder Woman turned out quite long, I chose to split the analysis of Black Panther into two parts. First the story structure and later this week the analysis of the corresponding character arc.
This post covers my take on the major story structure elements. Please note: all of this is solely my opinion. I neither know what the scriptwriters had in mind nor do I claim to have the ultimate truth on how to interpret this story. This is an exercise in story structure analysis – nothing more and nothing less.
For all who have not yet seen the movie, please be aware of major spoilers in the following text. I obviously have to go into detail when analyzing the story’s structure. I’ll be using the basic Three-Act-Structure to do so. Like most successful stories, Black Panther follows it’s typical outline.
Additionally, and because that’s been one of my chief research topics on the craft, I want to look into the character arc for T’Challa, Black Panther and King of Wakanda. If you are not familiar with the Three-Act-Structure I recommend K.M. Weiland’s blog. It’s a treasure!
Story Structure – Overview:
Hook: old legend/history story about Wakanda
Inciting Event: Young T’Chaka kills his brother N’Jobu, saving Zuri
Key Event: after T’Chaka’s death T’Challa becomes interim King/Black Panther
First Plot Point: T’Challa gains the throne via ritual combat
First Pinch: the capture of Ulysses Klaue fails
Midpoint: Killmonger arrives with dead Klaue and lays claim to the throne
Second Pinch: T’Challa dies (seemingly)
Third Plot Point: T’Challa is resurrected and resumes the fight for his kingdom
Climax: T’Challa and Killmonger fight on the tracks of the Vibranium trains
Climatic Moment: Killmonger chooses death over imprisonment
Resolution: King T’Challa ends the isolation of Wakanda
Story Structure – Detailed Analysis:
The movie starts with an animated legend-story Hook that is a classic “setup via mythology.” The scene serves several purposes: 1) We get an introduction of the treasure hidden in Wakanda (Vibranium), the origin of the Black Panther (Bast/Bastet and heart-shaped herb) and the political/society setup of the four Wakandan tribes. 2) it showcases the longstanding isolation all former Wakandan kings have enforced on the country. This, in fact, informs about the main conflict of the movie, too: the habit of guarding their secret despite chaos, slavery, and war raging just beyond their borders.
With this information set up, the story resumes directly with the Inciting Moment. We witness an incident in Oakland, CA, in the late 20th century between the late King T’Chaka and his brother Prince N’Jobu. We learn about an attack on Wakanda, a lethal robbery of vibranium and the prime suspect, the criminal Ulysses Klaue. The further revelations lead to N’Jobu losing his life by T’Chaka’s hand. But his life, as we will only learn later, will not be the only thing lost that day. The Inciting Moment deepens the main conflict and adds another layer: part of the royal family is no longer willing to hide Wakanda’s power behind the shield of the carefully crafted illusion of a poor third-world-country but instead use it to help overcome the suffering in black communities all over the world.
Following right after that follows the Key Event. We are back to the present day where we get a “newsreel” summary of the events that took place in the “Avengers: Civil War” movie, to bring all those who haven’t seen it (are there any?) up to speed about the death of T’Chaka in Vienna. T’Challa, T’Chaka’s designated successor, is preparing for the sacred ritual that will make him King of Wakanda. I identify this as the Key Event because T’Chaka’s death is the moment when T’Challa gets personally involved with the main conflict: he is the interim ruler and therefore responsible for protecting Wakanda’s future until a new king is chosen.
Even though T’Chaka’s death seems good enough a “doorway of no return”, it is not the First Plot Point. Just now, T’Challa, acting as an interim king, is not yet officially chosen by his people. At this point he could still walk away, decide the burden of kingship is too much to bear and let others step up – his sister Shuri for example. Only when he proceeds with the ritual and defeats the surprise-contender M’Baku from the Jabari Tribe in ritual combat, does he chose the path of kingship and truly takes up responsibility for Wakanda’s future.
Anointed and made Black Panther again by means of the heart-shaped herb, T’Challa’s first challenge as King comes by way of the discovery of the long-time fugitive and enemy of the state number one – Ulysses Klaue. The mission to extract the man from Busan, South Korea, fails and marks the First Pinch Point. Klaue, who’s unscrupulous methods have been showcased in earlier scenes, wrecks havoc in the underground casino and escapes at first, gets then taken after a wild car-chase through Busan’s streets with the help of CIA agent Everett Ross, but is ultimately broken free from CIA custody by his gangster-crew, severely wounding Ross in the process.
Coming back to Wakanda empty-handed is a bitter setback for T’Challa. He not only falls short of his pledge to W’Kabi to bring back or kill the criminal Klaue, but he’s brought back a stranger/colonizer/white man on the brink of death, who is a CIA agent to boot, choosing to help the man who saved Nakia in favour of going after Klaue right away. Naturally, W’Kabi is upset. The will prove to be important soon after, when the Midpoint comes along in form of Eric Killmonger, disposing of Klaue and his team and delivering Klaue’s body to W’Kabi.
The Midpoint is an excellent plot twist and picks up on a “loose end” of the early setup-scene in Oakland. The audience learns that Eric Stevens aka Killmonger is not only of Wakandan heritage but of royal blood and T’Challa’s cousin. Shaped by his father N’Jobu’s views and later radicalized by his own experiences, first as a young boy left behind and later as a back ops soldier for the US special forces, Killmonger is after the throne and determined to use Wakanda’s technological advancements to strike back against the ongoing white suppression all over the world. This raises the overall tension somewhat. Not only do we know he’s got the means to overthrow T’Challa, he is in a way entitled to claim the throne by ritual combat. Furthermore, his presumed plan to end Wakanda’s reclusion and openly fight white suppression is antithetical to what Wakanda has been standing for centuries.
T’Challa, having learned about the events leading up to the abandonment of Eric Stevens as a young boy, agrees to a ritual combat for the crown. The Second Pinch Point arrives when this fight takes a turn for the worst possible outcome. T’Challa struggles to fight the experienced Killmonger, Zuri tries to intervene and is killed, which in turn upsets T’Challa in such a way that he can’t win the fight against Killmonger. He is overpowered and thrown into the river.
With T’Challa presumably dead and Killmonger anointed as king, Nakia rushes to bring the rest of the royal family and Agent Ross to safety and elicit help from whatever sources possible. Okoye declines to turn against the throne, her sense of duty does not allow it. Short of allies and just in time before Killmonger orders the whole stock to be burnt, Nakia manages to steal one heart-shaped herb, hoping to coax M’Baku of the Jabari Tribe into taking it, fighting to free Wakanda from the rule of a war-crazy outsider. The story arrives at the Third Plot Point, when Nakia, T’Challa’s mother, his sister, and Agent Ross arrive at the M’Baku’s seat and offer the herb to him, he leads them to a not-yet-but-almost-dead T’Challa who is then revived and restored to full health and the power of the Black Panther with the help of the heart-shaped herb. The prominent death that’s usually featured with the Third Plot Point is inverted here. The presumed death took place at the 2nd Pinch Point and now we witness a resurrection instead.
T’Challa’s revival wraps up the 2nd half of the 2nd act neatly by pitching the two main characters against each other in open fight. Their views regarding the main conflict are diametrically opposed. With both of them clad in Black Panther suits and enhanced by the heart-shaped herb, this fight is quite balanced. Nakia, Shuri, and Agent Ross join in the fight on T’Challa’s side, as does Okoye as soon as she realizes the ritual combat is not finished.
We near the Climax, when the Jabari Tribe joins the melee while T’Challa and Killmonger duel on the train tracks in the vibranium mine. There’s a side-climatic moment when W’Kabi yields to Okoye, ending the fighting between Wakanda’s citizens. But T’Challa and Killmonger are still hacking away at each other in the train tracks. The sonic disruptors mess with both their suits, exposing vulnerable spots. Exploiting Killmongers arrogance and certainty to win, T’Challa manages to stab him.
Critically wounded, Killmonger reveals a shred of humanness as he remembers his father and all the broken promises and lost opportunities. We get a glimpse of a deeply troubled and lonely person. T’Challa, recognizing at last part of Eric’s state of mind as a direct consequence of T’Chaka’s actions, shows compassion and leads Eric, the deadly weapon still embedded in his chest, up to the mouth of the Black Panther cave/mine to witness the fabled and longed for sunset in Wakanda. This leads directly to the climatic moment. Eric/Killmonger isn’t dead yet. When T’Challa offers to heal Eric, he declines, choosing death over life in prison, forced to witness the ongoing suppression of his people. He pulls out the lance, sealing his fate and leaving T’Challa the rightful king and sole Black Panther once more.
The Resolution of the story wraps up several story strands. We see M’Baku join the tribal council, uniting all Wakandan tribes for the first time. T’Challa, changed by the events, reconsiders Wakanda’s stance on secrecy, rejects the isolationism of all the past kings, and moves to set up the first outreach-center in Oakland. In the first post-credit scene, the movie comes full circle, wrapping up the sincerity of T’Challa’s plans by showing him back in Vienna, announcing Wakanda’s new stance in front of the United Nations council.
Black Panther is a well structured and expertly crafted movie. The story hits the major structural points just right. Any variations made, add to the overall tension and enjoyment.
Do you agree? Please comment!
And here’s the link to Part II – Character Arc again.